Monday, December 3, 2012

Gillard style already in place when the ratbag lefties met in 1984 | The Australian

Gillard style already in place when the ratbag lefties met in 1984 | The Australian

121204 n Socialist Tear
Source: The Australian
IT was another time. Bob Hawke was in The Lodge, the cold war was still raging and INXS, Midnight Oil and the Hoodoo Gurus were rocking the Australian charts. Yet for Julia Gillard, an emerging figure in the newly formed Socialist Forum, there were strong echoes of today's political debate. 

"As a socialist and feminist who joined the ALP at the age of 16 I resent having to be subject to these untrue allegations," she told fellow party members.

"The role of the forum has been grossly misrepresented."

Nearly 20 years after it ceased to exist in any meaningful way, the Socialist Forum is still being misrepresented. Blame for this rests with both with Gillard, who credits herself a mere bit part in its history, and political opponents who depict her leading role as proof of her secret, radical agenda.
Bob Pease, now professor of social work at Deakin University, remembers attending the first gathering in 1984 when more than 200 people turned up to a Melbourne meeting hall.

Some were former members of the Communist Party of Australia. Others were from the left factions of the ALP. Many, like Pease, were left-leaning academics, lawyers and other professionals who didn't belong to a party.

"Some would have seen it as a CPA front. It was actually quite an innocent organisation," he recalled. "There may well have been other agendas that were being run but from my perspective it was a network of progressive academics and activists who were keen to find ways of evoking intellectual discourse and public discussion about left-leaning ideas"

Dave Davies was a member of the recently dissolved CPA. Along with former CPA members Mark Taft, the son of leading communist figure Bernie Taft, and industrial activist Max Ogden, he saw the forum as a place where ideas could be discussed "outside the bounds of party and factions".

Now 80, Davies recalled much discussion about the Soviet and East European regimes that would soon collapse but little sympathy for them. "There wasn't any idea of imposing Soviet-style politics on anybody," he explained. "Mainly they were questioning the capitalist system and if we were going to have an alternative socialist system, what would be the features of that system."

Helen Bannister was in the education faculty of Melbourne University when the forum held its first meeting. She wasn't a member of the ALP. She saw the forum as a chance to share and debate education policy and research. Back then, socialism was not the dirty word it is now.

"It could have been called the policy forum," she said. "Having a socialist objective within a capitalist society didn't mean you were a communist. It meant you were interested in equality and redistribution of wealth."

Vern Hughes was also at the first meeting. He later served on the management committee and was the forum's secretary for its final years until the election of the Kennett government in 1992.He said the idea of the forum was clear, but also contained the seeds of its demise. "There was no real place on the Left where there could be open, non-factional discussion about important issues and strategic questions." Over the years, a tension developed within the forum between those interested in working within Labor governments and those who weren't.

Hughes said the role Gillard played was instructive.

"She positioned herself in the centre of a spectrum of views," he said. "She tried to hold the various views together. She tried to get people to work together. It was always about holding an organisation together, preserving an organisation, rather than having a particular social or political agenda. I would think there is complete continuity in the way she operated in the forum to the way she operated in the Labor Party and now the way she operates in cabinet and government."

So what became of these ratbag lefties? Among former members, Jenny Macklin is a federal minister, and Taft is a County Court judge. Bruce Hartnett is Victoria's State Services Authority Commissioner and Michael O'Connor is national secretary of the CFMEU. Ben Kiernan is a professor of history at Yale and Grant Hehir is secretary of the Victorian Treasury.

Thanks to broadcaster-turned blogger Mike Smith, one of Gillard's critics throughout the AWU affair, an account of the workings of the monthly management committee meetings is online.

The minutes show that Gillard was appointed in August 1984 to work 25 hours a week as an organiser for the forum. She immediately began the twin tasks of incorporating the forum as an association -- familiarising herself with an area of law she would later call on to advice Bruce Wilson in the incorporation of the AWU Workplace Reform Association -- and drafting its constitution.

In a letter to "comrades" in the Socialist Left faction of the Victorian ALP, Gillard defended the forum against claims by former state secretary Bill Hartley that the organisation was "deeply reactionary" and should be proscribed by the party. "The forum does not in any way seek to act as a caucus on issues within the ALP," she wrote.

Yet Gillard knew she would never convince everyone. Reporting on the first year of the forum, the committee wrote: "The very breadth of the Socialist Forum's membership and the free ranging discussion are also seen as threatening. Forum members are often asked, 'How can you be in the same organisation as that bastard?"'
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