In March 2019, in the outer northern Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows, a crowd of residents gathered outside the Hume City Council meeting, chanting “poison air isn’t fair!”
The snap protest was called by the Victorian Socialists (VS) in response to a factory fire at Bradbury Industrial Service’s chemical handling facility. The fire burned for days, blanketing parts of Campbellfield in toxic smoke. A speaker addressed the crowd, asking: “How many times do the people of the north and the west in the industrial suburbs of Melbourne have to get blasted with toxic waste?”
Almost one year later, residents of the same area won an important victory, blocking a proposed waste incinerator. At a meeting called to celebrate, one local activist commented “when the socialists got involved, the council really started to take notice.”
These scenes of collective action are a far cry from what is usually viewed as the “small-p politics” of local government, characterized by the petty rivalries, corruption, and managerial babble. Yet they demonstrate the class divides that run deep in Melbourne.
Take Stony Creek, a waterway in Melbourne’s working-class west. It’s still poisoned after a fire in an illegal chemical store in Tottenham. As Jorge Jorquera, Victorian Socialists candidate for Yarraville explained, “If this was happening in Toorak it would be a different story.”
Class Struggle Council Elections
The success of socialists such as Seattle’s Kshama Sawant and the democratic socialists on the Chicago City Council shows that efforts in local politics can both serve the needs of working-class constituencies and offer a platform for national interventions.
This was the spirit with which VS launched its municipal elections campaign in July 2020 at an online meeting of 250 supporters. Founded in 2018 as an electoral alliance, VS won close to twenty thousand votes in the 2018 and 2019 state and federal elections. Though the pandemic has made organizing much more difficult, the party has grown steadily. It now claims 520 financial members; with a further 1,200 registered as volunteers.
As a result, VS is standing an ambitious slate of nineteen candidates across five municipalities in Melbourne. Among them are a number of high-profile activists, such as Roz Ward, best known for her role in founding Safe Schools, a sexual and gender diversity program, or Ali Hogg, a key leader of the successful marriage equality campaign.
Despite this promising starting point, the introduction of single-member wards in Darebin, as well as restrictions imposed by Melbourne’s stage-four lockdown will make it an uphill battle, tipping the scales further toward well-heeled major parties and developer-backed dummy candidates. Yet if even a fraction of VS’s council candidates are successful, it will be one of the most significant electoral breakthroughs for socialists in Australia in decades.
Policing the Pandemic
In Victoria, as elsewhere, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted working-class and migrant communities. This was graphically illustrated when Australian Labor Party (ALP) premier Daniel Andrews imposed a “hard lockdown” on many high-rise public housing estates in Melbourne’s north and west on July 4.
Daniel Nair Dadich, deputy mayor candidate for Melbourne City Council and Flemington local, livestreamed on the night the hard lockdown unfolded: “They’ve sent in the cops to deal with a health crisis … one police officer for every six residents. They’ve blocked the entrances to the flats and they’re harassing the residents.”
As he spoke, hundreds of police flooded the estates, home to approximately three thousand people, largely migrants and refugees working in precarious jobs. Deliveries of food and medical supplies promised to residents were botched, forcing them to rely entirely on volunteer organizations who were actively hindered by police. Victorian Socialists, alongside community organizations, raised funds and campaigned for the police to be immediately withdrawn.
These estates have endured more than their share of racism in recent years. Mexican-Australian Nahui Jimenez, VS candidate for Moreland council, recalls that the Flemington estate was the site of a mobilization against now-discredited far-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos. Memorably, when residents of the flats caught wind of the far-right mobilization, they came down to join the anti-racist protest, helping disrupt Yiannopoulos’s event.
More recently, the Victorian Socialists backed a thriving local Black Lives Matter movement against police racism and Aboriginal deaths in custody. Defying bans on demonstrating, the “Black Lives Matter movement is a reminder that mass solidarity has the power to win,” argued Liz Walsh, VS vice president. “We’re committed to a politics of solidarity that can relate to these movements when they emerge, amplifying the voices of those subject to racism.”
This was the aim of the livestreamed public forum, coordinated by Jimenez at the height of the hard lockdown, where public housing residents gave firsthand accounts of failures of cleaning and infection control. Given the long history of police harassment of residents, residents were appalled at the use of police to contain a health crisis. In response, Jimenez and Dadich are proposing to establish elected public housing residents committees to strengthen residents’ voices
Insecure Work Is a Disease
A special emphasis, of course, has been placed by local socialist candidates on working conditions, particularly the insecure work that has spread in Victoria in recent years. The chemical factory that burned in Broadmeadows was staffed by a predominately Tamil migrant workforce, who were routinely exposed to dangerous chemicals and afraid of speaking out for fear of employer retaliation.
Similarly, Dadich points out that the source of the public housing outbreak was lax infection control at the “quarantine hotels,” where overseas travelers are isolated for fourteen days:
Andrews (the Victorian premier) gave money to dodgy security contractors to deal with quarantine in hotels — the workers didn’t get proper training, didn’t get protective equipment, and they’ve gone on to spread the virus. Meanwhile people here in the flats were locked in, uncertain of what’s going to happen to their jobs or livelihoods. Don’t get it twisted — only poor and migrant communities would be treated with such contempt.
Indeed, COVID-19 has focused attention on the prevalence and danger of insecure work — the virus spreads readily in industries where precarious work prevails. Liz Walsh, running for office in the western suburbs, organized VS solidarity for meat industry staff in Brooklyn who refused to return to work until their virus safety concerns were dealt with. Walsh argues that local government can bolster these practical solidarity efforts: she is calling for the creation of a council committee to provide food, supplies, and free childcare for striking workers.
On the other side of the Maribyrnong River, Kath Larkin, a frontline public transport worker and union delegate with the Australian Rail Tram and Bus Industry Union, is running for “Lord Mayor.” She is arguing that the Melbourne City Council should directly represent city workers — and that “Lord” should be stripped from the mayor’s title.
“Workers run our city: stacking shelves in the supermarket, cleaning offices, and transporting health care workers to their jobs” says Larkin, “yet we get no say in how our city is run. City workers don’t get a vote, unless you live in the city. Soaring rents and property prices make that next to impossible for us.” To remedy this, Kath is campaigning to end the bizarre, plutocratic voting system that gives business and nonresident landlords two votes — instead arguing that city workers should be given voting rights, regardless of where they reside.
Councils are themselves major employers who have, in lockstep with neoliberalism, long privatized services while casualizing and outsourcing their workforces. Just this year, despite a budget surplus, Maribyrnong Council sacked a hundred and fifty workers from libraries, pools, and community centers as a cost-saving response to the pandemic. The Australian Services Union, representing council employees, is calling on local government candidates to pledge support for secure jobs and pandemic leave for council workers. All Victorian Socialists candidates have signed on to this pledge.
The consequences of privatization have been most disastrous in aged care — COVID-19 has taken a shocking toll on run-down, underfunded aged care services, leading to thousands of infections and hundreds of deaths.
Jorquera is scathing about Maribyrnong Council’s recent decision to permanently privatize its in-home aged care service and relinquish its oversight of the sector. VS is also resisting a similar move underway in the inner north municipality of Darebin.
Local socialist campaigns on aged care have already encouraged several whistleblowers to come forward with stories of inadequate training and personal protective equipment (PPE). Jorquera argues that as a first step, the council must investigate every aged care service in the municipality, and systematically expose cost cutting and underpayment. This should be followed by moves to reverse privatization. It’s an ambitious program, but a very feasible one, especially compared to the human cost of the current arrangement.
Our City, Our Housing, Our Communities
It is likely that rent deferrals, income insecurity, and mortgage stress will result in a wave of evictions and foreclosures in Melbourne’s expensive inner north and west. Banks are set to end payment deferrals just as the federal government winds back unemployment payments and wage subsidies.
As Jorquera and other VS candidates argue, councils can support impacted residents by offering full rate relief to households suffering financial hardship. Without measures such as these, working-class people will be forced to seek cheaper rent and housing prices in outer suburbs.
Combatting gentrification also means defending low-cost and culturally diverse services, and infrastructure. Fresh food markets are an important case in point, providing affordable food and vibrant culture. Darebin candidate George Kanjere criticizes council’s support for plans by private developer Salta to move the Preston Market in order to make way for multistory apartment buildings. So long as this important community space is privately owned, it will be at risk: this is why Kanjere proposes that the land be compulsorily acquired by the state government and the market preserved by extending heritage protection.
The Party Continues
The Victorian Socialists is still a very young party, but the party’s growing activist base means it can field a large ground campaign. The 2018 and 2019 electoral campaigns, both with up to 750 volunteers handing out materials on election day, as well as door knocking efforts that matched local Greens and ALP campaigns. Of course, this advantage has been neutralized by Victoria’s lockdown.
Socialists have pivoted toward more online organizing instead. Two large party meetings, including a June all-member conference, were held totally online, electing a new leadership and introducing a number of structural changes, such as campaign committees, an increased dues rate, and an improved approach to communications.
These efforts have borne fruit — so far VS has drawn in A$20,000 in donations and organized forums and campaign meetings attracting hundreds of attendees. Volunteers have distributed 410,000 leaflets in the last month. Two hundred thousand more will be distributed in coming weeks. A phone-banking campaign has so far made over eleven thousand calls, and it is estimated that volunteers will have contacted at least twenty-five thousand before the election is over. Of those who have answered their phones, 15 percent have indicated support for VS.
Despite these promising achievements, in-person organizing and one-on-one discussions are the lifeblood of socialist organizing. Without these tools, it remains to be seen whether VS members’ resolve can translate into victory.
However, as Liz Walsh notes,
We see elections as a way to connect a socialist message with working people. If we win, it’s going to be because we were upfront about our politics, and because people voted for socialist fighters. And if we don’t win, we’ve forged new connections and put local councils on notice.
John Roberts put the country before politics – CNN
The return of austerity politics – Washington Post
Note that I label this the return of austerity politics, not economics. Although garments will be rended and dire warnings will be made, this isn’t about the economics of debt. At one level, it’s about blocking Democratic priorities. At a deeper level, it’s about kneecapping a Biden presidency before it has a chance to take off. (Disclosure: I informally advise the Biden campaign.)
This outcome must be avoided and not just because the evolving economics of fiscal debt — one of the most interesting, evolving and inherently progressive areas of economics — says so. The main reason the return of austerity politics must be resisted is its human cost.
The equation couldn’t be simpler: Austerity equals human suffering. And such suffering will not be equally distributed. It will fall on those most vulnerable to the coronavirus and the economic damage it has unleashed.
The new economics of public debt underscores the urgency of this equation. The old argument that public borrowing competes with private borrowing, leading to higher interest rates and slower growth, has lacked empirical support for decades. Right now, we have a historically huge budget deficit of 15 percent of GDP (over $3 trillion) and debt about the same size as the economy. Yet the yield on the 10-year Treasury bill is below 1 percent (its average since the 1960s is 6 percent). More to the point, because these are unusual economic times, interest rates on government debt have been uncorrelated to the magnitude of that debt for decades now, as I discussed in recent testimony on the topic.
In fact, this has been the case in most advanced economies, regardless of debt levels, with Japan as the most notable example (its public debt has long been multiples of its economy). One reason is that these economies have operated below capacity, with both low inflation and excess savings relative to investment putting downward pressure on rates. That dynamic has drawn central banks, like our Federal Reserve, into the mix, trying to close output gaps by aggressively holding down the benchmark rates they control.
Inequality also plays a role. When growth flows disproportionately to those who are already wealthy, they tend to save, not spend, marginal dollars relative to middle and lower-income households. This, too, has boosted savings and lowered interest rates, while restricting the spending and the living standards of lower-income families.
But whatever the reason, the fact of persistently low rates offers new opportunities for near-term relief to those who need it and longer-term public investment to meet the existential challenges we face right now, from climate change to racial injustice.
One strong piece of evidence for this contention of ample fiscal space is that the most recent Congressional Budget Office forecast of what it will cost the government to service its debt has gone down, not up, since its previous forecast. And that earlier forecast didn’t include that $3 trillion of new debt incurred to offset the pandemic. How can we have more debt yet pay less to service it? Lower rates, of course.
This doesn’t mean that deficits never matter. They do, not least because when we carry such high debt levels, we’re a lot more vulnerable to an unforeseen spike in interest rates. So piling on wasteful debt is as economically wrongheaded now as it has ever been, which is why the highly regressive, deficit-financed Trump tax cuts were such a mistake. This also implies that the suddenly hawkish Republicans will be guilty of two fiscal crimes: piling on bad debt while refusing to countenance good debt.
But isn’t bad and good debt in the eye of beholder? No, because good debt does three things that bad debt doesn’t: It promotes growth, relieves hardship and advances racial equity. Investing in affordable housing for racial victims of housing segregation: good debt. Cuts in capital gains taxes: bad debt. Enhanced benefits for the unemployed and nutritional support for the millions not able to meet this basic need: good. Tax breaks for profitable corporations: bad.
Still, even with low rates and the ensuing low debt service, it is essential to raise the necessary revenue to pay for permanent measures, such as lasting investments in clean energy, standing up an affordable child-care sector and providing universal pre-K and free college for those of limited means — all of which are Biden proposals. Especially as these programs are both growth- and equity-inducing, paying for them through deficit financing is better than not doing them at all, but to stop there would severely undercut their political sustainability.
Should the election outcome break our way, how can progressives achieve these goals in the face of the forthcoming fiscal flip?
First, we must ignore the phony caterwauling of the deficit chicken hawks. One rule to be aggressively enforced is that anyone who voted for the Trump tax cuts has zero credibility on deficits and should be summarily ignored, if not ridiculed.
Second, we must help politicians with austere muscle memory understand these new dynamics. Here again, that’s not just an economic argument; it’s a political one. If conservatives ignore austerity when they’re in power but Democrats embrace it when they take control, then conservatives will consistently meet the demands of their constituents in the donor class while Democrats consistently fail to meet the needs of their constituents.
That is a not just a recipe for facilitating reckless fiscal policy and wasteful debt. It’s also a recipe for losing progressive support and political power — something no Democrat should want.
The Real Divide in America Is Between Political Junkies and Everyone Else – The New York Times
The common view of American politics today is of a clamorous divide between Democrats and Republicans, an unyielding, inevitable clash of harsh partisan polarization.
But that focus obscures another, enormous gulf — the gap between those who follow politics closely and those who don’t. Call it the “attention divide.”
What we found is that most Americans — upward of 80 percent to 85 percent — follow politics casually or not at all. Just 15 percent to 20 percent follow it closely (the people we call “deeply involved”): the group of people who monitor everything from covfefe to the politics of “Cuties.”
At the start of the year (i.e., pre-pandemic), we asked people to name the two most important issues facing the country. As expected, we found some clear partisan divides: For example, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to cite illegal immigration as an important issue.
But on a number of other issues, we found that Americans fall much less neatly into partisan camps. For example, Democrats and Republicans who don’t follow politics closely believe that low hourly wages are one of the most important problems facing the country. But for hard partisans, the issue barely registers.
Partisan Republicans were most likely to say drug abuse was the most important problem facing the country. But less-attentive Republicans ranked it second to last, and they were also concerned about the deficit and divisions between Democrats and Republicans.
Among Democrats, the political junkies think the influence of wealthy donors and interest groups is an urgent problems. But less-attentive Democrats are 25 percentage points more likely to name moral decline as an important problem facing the country — a problem partisan Democrats never even mention.
These gaps extend beyond issues to feelings about the other party. Hard partisans are twice as likely as people who pay less attention to politics to say that they would be unhappy if their child married someone of the opposing party.
Hard partisans are also more likely to speak out about these political likes and dislikes. Almost 45 percent of people who are deeply involved say they frequently share their views on social media — in some cases, daily. It’s only 11 percent for those without a politics habit. To put this in perspective, a Pew study finds that 10 percent of Twitter users are responsible for 97 percent of all tweets about politics.
This gap between the politically indifferent and hard, loud partisans exacerbates the perception of a hopeless division in American politics because it is the partisans who define what it means to engage in politics. When a Democrat imagines a Republican, she is not imagining a co-worker who mostly posts cat pictures and happens to vote differently; she is more likely imagining a co-worker she had to mute on Facebook because the Trump posts became too hard to bear.
We see this effect in a study we did with three other political scientists, James Druckman, Samara Klar and Matthew Levendusky. We asked a group of over 3,000 Americans to describe either themselves or members of the other party. Only 27 percent of these people said that they discuss politics frequently; a majority consider themselves moderates. But nearly 70 percent of these people believe that a typical member of the other party talks about politics incessantly and is definitely not moderate.
For partisans, politics is a morality play, a struggle of good versus evil. But most Americans just see two angry groups of people bickering over issues that may not always seem pressing or important.
How can politics better match the opinions of a majority of Americans? The fact is, it’s not an easy problem to solve. We can try to give the hardened partisans less voice in the news. Featuring people who exemplify partisan conflict and extremist ideas elevates their presence in politics (though of course by definition, it is the partisans who are most closely watching the news who are also most likely to give their opinions). This is particularly true of social media: What a vocal minority shares on social media is not the opinion of the public. Yet such political tweets, as the political communication scholar Shannon McGregor finds, are increasingly making their way into news coverage as stand-ins for public opinion.
There might be an advantage for politicians who focus less on the demands of partisans and more on tangible issues. Yes, hard partisans are more likely to reward ideological victories, but they are also a minority of the electorate.
Each day, partisan Democrats wonder whether that day’s “outrage” will finally change how people feel about President Trump. Partisan Republicans wonder the same thing about Joe Biden. But most “regular” voters are not paying that much attention to the daily onslaught. It turns them off.
And the major scandals that do break through? Well, to many of them, that is “just politics.”
Yanna Krupnikov (@ykrupnikov) and John Barry Ryan (@ryanbq), associate professors of political science at Stony Brook University, are the authors of a forthcoming book about polarization and disengagement in American politics.
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