In the November Victorian state election, the Victorian Socialists have set their sights on propelling one, if not two, of their candidates into the upper house. If successful, they’d be the first non-Labor socialists elected to an Australian parliament in more than 70 years.
There are plenty of models of what not to do if elected to parliament. “Overpaid and out of touch” is how politicians are perceived. So how would socialists be different, and how would only one or two socialist voices be heard, let alone make a difference?
First, socialists lead by example. Our candidates have pledged to live on the wage of a skilled worker and donate the rest of their salary to community campaigns—because political representatives should live like the people they represent. That was axiomatic for Victorian Socialists as soon as we decided to run candidates.
Second, our lead candidates—Liz Walsh for the Western Metro and Jerome Small for the Northern Metro—have been rabble-rousers their whole adult lives. They’ve stood in the rain for hours on community picket lines and blockades, they’ve been dragged away by police and pepper sprayed, they’ve marched every time Israel has committed atrocities in Palestine, they’ve done the behind the scenes work in countless campaigns as well as speaking at rallies and forums. They would put that experience and tenacity to work to draw people into campaigning on all the key issues that arise.
Having socialist MPs could introduce a wider layer of workers and young people to what socialists think on a range of questions. It would mean that people who thought socialism was high theory from 150 years ago get to see how it relates to everything from the climate crisis to housing today.
A socialist standpoint injected into contemporary debates would also help shift politics to the left. For example, we advocate reversing privatisation of the energy sector, which would enable governments both to set caps on rising electricity and gas costs and more rapidly end reliance on coal and gas and redirect resources toward renewable energy sources.
Look at how a few far-right nut jobs like Craig Kelly and Clive Palmer (with a few million dollars to pay for advertisements) elevated fringe ideas about COVID-19 vaccinations into the media for months. The media will always be more willing to promote more reactionary ideas when they do not challenge “common sense” ideas about society than discuss left-wing ideas that seek to challenge them. Nonetheless, the profile of parliamentarians would make socialist ideas harder to ignore.
The excuse Labor MPs and many Greens representatives use for dropping left-wing positions is that they will be attacked for holding them, or that it’s more important to find a “middle ground”—which generally means capitulating to the right or business interests.
Our potential MPs, on the other hand, are not strangers to being attacked by the mainstream media. They have spoken out against Israel’s occupation of Palestine countless times, defended raising the slogan “defund the police” and took a stand against the war in Afghanistan in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.
Socialists don’t mind being denounced by newspaper columnists. In fact, if Andrew Bolt and Neil Mitchell weren’t inveighing against our elected MPs, we’d wonder what they were doing wrong. Rather than shirking controversy, socialists know that when a minority of people stand up for their beliefs, the debate that ensues can shift people’s attitudes.
We hope that the profile of the MPs could also mean people searching out Marxism or people who want to take action about a particular issue knowing that if they get in touch with the VS MP, they’ll be able to connect with a network of socialists fighting for change. In this way, there would be a great opportunity for the socialist left to grow. The voice of one or two socialist MPs will be amplified by hundreds, if not thousands, of activists campaigning about the issues they take up.
One of the most important things that a socialist MP would do is build solidarity with workers and oppressed groups organising to defend their rights. When pickets go up outside a workplace, they’d be among the first down there to lend support and find out how they can help get others to support them. When the media ignore or misconstrue a protest, they’d use their platform to highlight the cause.
And with the Andrews government enacting harsher penalties against climate protesters, we need MPs who can rally people to their defence when charged under these draconian laws.
One thing our MPs wouldn’t do is play by the rules. They would not go along with conventions about keeping parliamentary briefings or negotiations secret. We want to expose the workings of power at every opportunity.
There would be so many more ways a socialist MP could shake up politics—we just have to win to have the chance to do it.
Colleen Bolger is the Victorian Socialists candidate for the seat of Melbourne.