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2344Re: Response to Bob Gould on WA ETU elections

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  • ozleft
    Sep 3, 2003
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      WA ETU elections: the results, a balance sheet of the debate about
      the elections, and a few suggestions about what Anthony Benbow and
      the DSP might do now

      By Bob Gould

      About 2050 of the 3800-odd ETU members who got ballot papers voted in
      the WA ETU elections. This is a turnout of about 55 per cent, which
      is spectacularly high in any blue-collar union election in the
      current industrial climate, even for an election that was fiercely

      For the vital state secretary's position, Bill Game won by six votes,
      1023 to 1017 for Les McLaughlan. For three positions on the federal
      council of the union, Mahood, who was on both tickets got 1792, Fiala
      who was on Game's ticket got 1095, McLaughlan (Game's opponent) got
      1067 and Game missed out with 1056.

      The result for the state council is less clear, and this body may be
      fairly evenly divided, as a number of people who were elected were
      supported by both teams. The Recharge team claims to have a majority
      on the state council, but that will have to be tested, as it's
      possible that the day-to-day legal power of the state secretary and
      the prestige of the state secretary's office may lead a number of the
      people elected unopposed to either support Game or not oppose him

      In day-to-day matters the elected state secretary is legally vested
      by the industrial system with the running of the union. There have
      been situations similar to this in a number of unions, where the mix
      on a state council is a bit different to the views of the state
      secretary, but over time the state secretary has tended to re-emerge
      as the dominant personality, and in this case most observers say Game
      is an energetic and skilful industrial operator. I'll come back to
      this later.

      In an earlier post, I made the following observation: "I can envisage
      a situation where the DSP may well be saying, privately, something
      like this: Look, Bill Game isn't a bad bloke. He has been an honest
      socialist militant, but he has lost the plot because of his
      ultraleftism. He's going to be beaten by the other bloke. We've got
      to cut our losses and go with the other bloke, because we may be able
      to influence events to the left, under the new regime, if we are seen
      to be supporters of Les McLaughlan's push for power, and that will
      also be good for relations with Kevin Reynolds and his
      industrial/political machine.

      The DSP, however, doesn't say anything like that publicly. It prefers
      to maintain the argument on the plane of rather high-flown
      abstractions, such as "that McLaughlan's leadership will be better
      for the ETU". Well, surprisingly, Anthony Benbow does say something
      like that in his reply to me.

      He makes this surprising tribute to Bill Game: "It is true, as Gould
      notes, that Game is a socialist and has been outspoken on issues of
      principle in the past such as opposing the wage-cutting prices and
      incomes accord of the federal Labor government under Hawke and
      Keating. This was a courageous position to take. Game has also
      maintained a principled opposition to the ALP as a party which does
      not represent the interests of workers. Game is not a member of the
      ALP and the CEPU is not affiliated to the ALP ... "In recent times,
      Game hasn't promoted as much activism among members as he might have
      done in the past. Game's key achievements are in the past rather than
      in the present."

      Benbow also says: "The choice is between continuing with a principled
      leadership that has come through tough fights in the past but has no
      effective plan to address several pressing issues the union currently
      faces; or, to elect a new leadership team that has a plan to meet
      these challenges and which has proven itself to be industrially
      militant and is left-wing."

      It could hardly be more clearly expressed by Benbow, the DSP's
      judgement was almost exactly the kind of judgement I imputed to them
      in my paragraph above. It clearly included an estimate on their part
      that the Game team would be resoundingly defeated. They're not
      terribly good judges in these matters.

      Elsewhere in his response to me, Benbow lays a political basis for
      his opposition to Game's team and his support for McLaughlan and
      Recharge by stressing that McLaughlan is a leftist with a past
      association with the New Left Party, although he hasn't had a high
      profile like Game.

      Benbow is also quite frank that he supported another unsuccessful
      challenge to Game back in 1995 by another bloke from the New Left
      Party, and he also gets in the jab that McLaughlan and his supporters
      aren't so full of socialist theory as Game when he asserts that Game
      would have got a lot of theory in the Socialist Labour League,
      thereby getting in the idea that Game was once in the SLL, something
      I'm not aware of.
      It's all very well of Benbow to say the bloke he supported in 1995
      opposed the Accord. If he was, he would have been one of the very few
      in the CPA-NLP industrial and political stable who were. I ask
      readers of this exchange all over the country: how many member of the
      CPA-NLP stable who were serious opponents of the Accord. Mostly they
      supported it, and were up to their ears in it.

      In making a judgement as to whether the challenge to Game was from
      the right or the left it's also extremely useful to do a balance
      sheet of the campaigns conducted by the two sides. I've just receive
      the modest little eight-page broadsheet official union newspaper of
      the ETU in WA, edited by a Game appointee under Game's supervision.

      It's only black and white and it's not very flash, but I was very
      taken with the May issue, which appears to have come out around the
      middle of May. This issue contains a very large article taken from
      and attributed to a Socialist Worker booklet titled "Stop Bush's War
      on Iraq: A Dossier of Lies". The same issue has a full-page article
      about Daryoush Hoshmandnejad, an asylum-seeker about to be deported
      to Iran, and the heading of that article is "Secret Iran-Australia
      Deal Will Send Union Activist to Die". Another headline on the same
      page, which is completely devoted to the rights of asylum seekers,
      reads: "Phil the Phibber Rats on Rights".

      Two pages out of eight in a modest little union journal are devoted
      to the two central issues in Australian politics from a defiantly
      left-wing point of view, which was mailed under the secretary's name
      to every financial member of a quite traditional craft union. I
      haven't seen anything as leftist as that in any union journal in
      recent times. This went out in the journal over the name of the
      secretary who was about to be challenged vigorously in a ballot.

      It says a great deal about Bill Game's notion of principle. The
      context in which the challenge took place has to be understood within
      the framework that the challengers no doubt believed that Game was
      vulnerable because of such acts.

      No wonder Benbow says: "McLaughlan has advocated progressive causes
      while being a union official, although he doesn't have a profile on
      the left outside the union." That's a coded way of saying McLaughlan
      hasn't stuck his neck out like Game, which isn't really surprising if
      his political training was, as Benbow says, in the New Left Party.

      The character of the propaganda from the two teams is strikingly
      different. The Recharge team's material isn't even really economist
      in tone, it's kind of sub-economist and consists mainly of general
      motherhood statements, plus a lot of personal attacks on Game,
      talking about "Game's failed leadership", which is of course a way of
      making a pitch for any more backward workers who may have been
      antagonised by Game's public and belligerent leftism, particularly
      his stand on the Iraq war, and racism towards asylum seekers.
      One needs to remember that this is an election in a craft union in
      WA, possibly the most conservative state in the country on matters
      such as asylum seekers.

      The Recharge material is better edited and much more expensive than
      the Game material: four-colour printing with lots of photos, and in
      my view is technically much more accomplished from an advertising
      point of view than Bill Game's material.

      The Bill Game material, on the other hand, is belligerently left-
      wing, argumentative about issues and policies in the union. Game and
      his associates are obviously kind of village Hampdens, so to speak,
      and they reply in enormous detail to every accusation made against
      them by Benbow's Recharge mates.

      Their material is dull but persistent and detailed on industrial
      matters. A central part of their propaganda is a pedestrian little
      yellow leaflet listing 90 workers in about 50 workplaces, many of
      them delegates, who support the Game team. My WA contacts, who now
      include some of the Game team, as I got in contact with them, assert
      that the other team was extremely well funded and relied heavily on
      the new technique of ringing every member. The script being used in
      the ringing of every member was rather primitive, and relied mainly
      on talking about "the failed Game team".

      It now appears that the challenge to Game was supported by the Centre
      Unity right-wing group in the Labor Party the unions and also by the
      moderate left grouping in the WA Labor Party and trade unions. They
      ganged up together against Game because of his belligerent attitude
      towards the WA Labor government.

      That kind of line-up is familiar to a number of left-wing unionists
      in NSW from the 1980s. There can be no serious question that the
      challenge to Bill Game and his team was essentially a challenge from
      the right, not the left, and it's unsound for Marxist socialists to
      be associated with such a challenge no matter what ultraleft mistakes
      Bill Game may have made in relation to the Labor Party.

      In the event, the main tactical assumption made by the DSP in
      engaging in this opportunism: that the Game team would be
      comprehensively defeated, turned out to be a very grave misjudgement.

      The expenditure of a lot of money and a glossy, rather backward
      campaign was not quite sufficient to dislodge Game's team. The Game
      forces obviously had the ear of the more militant, organised section
      of the membership, because a close study of the other side's campaign
      suggests that it is would very probably have got its votes from the
      more conservative section of the membership.

      The enormous size of the poll suggests that there was a sharp
      polarisation between militancy and conservatism in this election.

      What happens now?

      The worst possible outcome would be a continuation of a vicious war
      to the death between the two factions. It may even turn out that
      Anthony Benbow and couple of others may have the balance of power. I
      strongly recommend to them that they do what they should have done
      before the elections and try to play a conciliatory and moderating
      role between the two groups.

      Despite the pitch to perceived discontent with the radical Game
      leadership made by the Recharge challenge, most observers, including
      people in the Game camp, say most of the McLaughlan team are not
      extreme right wingers. Most of the challenge was motivated by wanting
      the jobs, which is a human consideration in union matters. Benbow and
      the DSP have the chance to play a positive role in drawing the two
      factions together, if they seriously try to do so.

      In this complex new situation, with two factions more or less evenly
      balanced, the ball is well and truly in Benbow's court. He can make
      up for past opportunism, if he wishes, by trying to play a
      conciliatory role between the two factions, and I hope he and the DSP
      decide to do that, rather than persisting in an exhausting and
      demobilising factional war with Game, which they would very probably
      lose anyway in the longer term.
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