Coalitions for change: Building bridges in Howard’s Australia

Jenny McAllister

Sarah Maddison and Sean Scalmer Activist Wisdom: Practical Knowledge and Creative Tension in Social Movements, Sydney, University of NSW Press, 2005 (304 pp). ISBN (paperback) RRP $39.95.

Continuing high levels of support for Prime Minister John Howard and his government have confounded the Labor opposition, and are cause for triumphalism on the conservative side of politics. However claims of conservative victory may be premature, as the impact of Howard’s term on Australian political culture is yet to play out. Despite electoral support for the government, there is evidence that Australian social values are resisting the pull to the right (Meagher & Wilson 2006). Most noticeably for those who inhabit the world of political protest and social movement activism, the Howard years have produced intense collaborative political organising, with increasing reach into the Australian ‘middle’.

In late 2002, the lean years of identity politics seemed to recede into the past as unions, greens, faith-based groups, ethnic community leaders, and various political parties pooled their resources to mobilise a genuine mass movement against Australia’s involvement in the war on Iraq. The 300,000 strong crowd in February 2003 echoed the size of the Bridge Walk for Reconciliation a few years earlier. These numbers exceeded those at the Palm Sunday marches in the 1980s, and were the largest political mobilisation since the Vietnam moratorium.

Unfortunately, while symbolically powerful, these campaigns have yet to make their electoral mark. Media speculation in the lead up to the last Federal election about middle-class ‘doctors wives’ who were angry with Howard’s political expediency on human rights and family issues failed to materialise as political support at the ballot box. However since 2003 the Government has adopted a less aggressive approach to social policy, revising positions on refugees, child-care, and family payments. It’s a reminder that a contest is still occurring between the conservatives and a progressive movement that is fighting back.

The global justice movement provides exciting new opportunities for progressives.

The most significant factor in mobilising large numbers has been renewed willingness within Left groups to build coalitions for social change. The Walk Against the War Coalition successfully brought together the Labor Council, the Palm Sunday Committee, the National Union of Students, along with up to ninety other groups, held together by 16 co-ordinators who worked to make the coalition cohesive and the campaign effective. Despite cultural and political differences between the constituent groups, this anti-war coalition developed a broad charter and focussed on outcomes rather than resolving (intractable) ideological disputes.

In part, this renewed co-operation is a consequence of the experience of Howard’s ‘Capital-C Conservatism’. Students, women’s groups, ethnic communities and workers are directly experiencing the consequences of an aggressive conservative agenda—and it is no great leap to identify common cause. For some groups to the left of the ALP, the argument that there is no difference between a Labor and Liberal Government has become unsustainable. For ALP activists, party loyalty no longer restrains their political convictions (at least in the Federal sphere)—there is a growing focus within the party on issues-based campaigning and anti-Government campaigns.

However, other, larger forces are also reducing sectarianism. Naomi Klein has observed that identity politics strangled the effectiveness of a generation of activists through the 1980s and 1990s, but that the global justice movement provides exciting new opportunities for progressives (Klein 2000, p. xix). In practice, not just in Sydney but globally, an emerging shared language around globalisation has created new ways for dispersed activists to understand the relationship between their respective preoccupations.

At the same time, the union movement, in the face of declining membership and power, has attempted to reshape itself and recapture its ‘movement’ origins (Crosby 2005; Cooper & Patmore 2002). The movement aspires to replace transactional unionism with transformative unionism, passive membership with mobilisation, and to spread out from established areas of membership into new ‘greenfield’ sites. This emerging ‘organising agenda’ is slowly reshaping the way many Australian unions engage with their members and the broader political community. One element is the Organising Works Program, now over a decade old, which has trained a generation of (largely) young organisers in a shared language and analytical framework. This generation’s political energy is not focused exclusively on the labour movement. Indeed, the interest in an organising agenda is no longer confined to unions. Students, refugee advocates, peace and environment activists, and even electoral parties, including the ALP and the Greens, are increasingly drawing on this tradition.

The single most effective criticism of Left activism is that it is unrepresentative.

The skills and energy of this generation of activists were critical in building the infrastructure and strategy for the 300,000 strong rallies in 2000 and 2004. However, despite Left activists’ undeniable reach into Australia’s political middle through the refugee, reconciliation, and peace movements, they are still routinely derided as unrepresentative elites. And the Howard Government was once again comfortably re-elected in 2004, having committed the country to an unpopular war and despite a strong perception that Howard himself had lied during the ‘children overboard’ affair. With right wing commentators crowing, left wing commentators are scratching their heads, some wondering out loud if activism no longer matters.

In this environment, Maddison and Scalmer’s Activist Wisdom is a timely contribution to the debate about the significance and motivations of the activist community. Their lively book is built on interviews with nineteen activists, many of whom will be familiar to people active in left wing politics. The authors’ affection for their material means these engaging characters (and their interviewees largely are ‘characters’) leap out from the page, with self-knowledge and a generous humour that will provoke (occasionally embarrassing) flashes of self-recognition in many readers. Their writing is at its best when bringing together the voices of activists past with those of the present, and their playful treatment of the academic literature in this area is an entertaining tour through some complex material that’s great for the lay reader.

Maddison and Scalmer aim to revitalise scholarly study of social movements—which they rightly observe has diverged from practical considerations—by drawing in the experiences of contemporary activists. The book is largely unconcerned with the political aspirations that provoke activism. Instead, it focuses on the ideological questions underpinning the practice of organising for activist movements. Maddison and Scalmer assert that ‘creative tension’ around these questions determines the shape of activist organisations, as well as the lives of activists. The book is structured around a series of representative tensions that illustrate the nature of Australian social movement activism.

Organisation or democracy? Unity or difference? Local or global? The idea of political tensions leading to crisis and resolution has an impeccable intellectual pedigree on the Left, and the authors have chosen conflicts that will be familiar to most people involved in politics. Inevitably, some ‘tensions’ seem more useful than others. Helpfully for activist readers, Maddison and Scalmer are at their best when discussing the tensions that plague political coalitions.

The single most effective criticism of Left activism is that it is unrepresentative. It’s commonplace to say that Howard’s conservatives have won the hearts and minds of groups that the Left claims to speak for—migrants, women, the working class and, more recently, Indigenous communities facing sexual violence. If only for pragmatic reasons, any effective coalition needs to demonstrate that it is representative, capable of accommodating diversity. With the conservatives on the march to win new ground, arguably the ‘mainstream’ Left needs its diverse participants more than they need the Left! We may feel we’ve outgrown the identity politics of the 1980s and 1990s, but the call to inclusiveness issued by those movements has not receded.

Most coalitions face significant cultural differences among their members.

Maddison and Scalmer’s chapter ‘Redistribution and recognition’ deals directly with the challenge of building a coalition that can accommodate both ‘old’ and ‘new’ social movement goals (pp. 178–200). They ask how activists tackle the material injustices of capitalism known to socialists of old, without losing sight of the impacts of gender, race, sexuality, and culture. They start with Nancy Fraser’s (2000) claim that activism that focuses exclusively on achieving cultural recognition for marginalised groups can paradoxically limit the long term prospects for advancing these interests. Activists must attend to material injustice, or risk ceding the big decisions on matters both cultural and economic to global capital. Maddison and Scalmer note that for many activists, the practical response is to develop a more nuanced understanding of redistribution—where ‘What is redistributed is not restricted to economic or material concerns’ (p. 181). This discussion lays the ground for a helpful, if brief, discussion of the global anti-capital movement, and its efforts to accommodate diverse individuals while developing a shared framework to interpret diverse struggles.

Ideological synthesis may be the intellectual challenge for would-be coalition-builders, but social synthesis may be even harder. It’s hard enough working out which pub to drink at, let alone what political perspective to adopt. Most coalitions face significant cultural differences among their members that can be stimulating or infuriating depending on your perspective, or your time constraints! There are those who would decide by consensus and those who prefer the majority. There are those who like a laugh and those who are terribly serious. There are intellectuals and anti-intellectuals, and every political organisation develops its own blend of social conventions to manage the challenges inherent in working with other volunteers for social change.

Maddison and Scalmer use the concept of the ‘counter-public’ to present a fascinating account of the social worlds inhabited by activists, and their role in producing and reproducing ideology and organisation (pp. 201–23). They highlight the difficulties of bringing these rarefied worlds together in coalition: the practices of any particular ‘counter public’ become deeply entrenched in activist identity. Even normally cool heads can find new ways of doing things very threatening, because new ways threaten the very foundation of solidarity and group identity.

The most surprising shortcoming of the book is its failure to engage seriously with the organising model and its advocates—particularly given the influence of this model on contemporary Australian and international activism (Gall 2003; Fantasia & Ross 2004; Cooper & Ellem 2006). As I noted above, during the last decade, the trade union movement has reshaped itself under the rubric of organising—an approach with its roots in the community organising strategies pioneered by Saul Alinsky to mobilise Chicago’s immigrant working class (Horwitt 1989). Organising prioritises empowered citizenship through collective action as both a means for material improvement, and an end in itself.

The imperative to form effective coalitions is as great now as it has ever been.

There are opportunities here for Maddison and Scalmer. The organising model would be enhanced by their sophisticated discussion of redistribution and recognition. And it lacks a comparable concept to match their discussion of the ‘counter public and mainstream’. On the other hand, advocates of the organising agenda clearly articulate a relationship between democracy and organisation that Maddison and Scalmer need to address. Organising starts from a radical democratic position that holds organisation to be the key to realising the promise of democracy in a capitalist world (Industrial Areas Foundation 2006). Maddison and Scalmer’s dichotomy between democracy and organisation might be accepted by some in the Left, but certainly not by all.

The organising approach can also help us distinguish what is and what isn’t a ‘social movement’. Is the Lane Cove Tunnel Action Group a ‘social movement’? A rule of thumb is that social movements require an altruistic transformative project, not merely a tinkering at the edges to achieve immediate gains. The organising approach seeks to link immediate experience and a transformative project, and identifies any action that takes on the power structure as a step towards creating empowered citizens.

Political activists and armchair commentators alike will enjoy this book. The authors’ distinctive writing style, blending historical primary sources, interview, and an irreverent treatment of heavy academic literature, make for a stimulating and entertaining read. And there are many insights, offered both by the writers and their interviewees, that will help political activists make sense of past experiences and commentators understand more about the world they watch.

Maddison and Scalmer’s eclectic sources and perspectives offer new insights to the challenges in bringing people together to generate transformative political change. While social activism can be dispiriting when times are hard, their final chapter reminds us that politics ebbs and flows, and rewards come when they are least expected. In that vein, it’s important to remember that Labor is at its most responsive to social movements just before, and just after assuming power. What happens in first years of Labor government is very much dependent on what activists do in the final years of conservative government. The imperative to form effective coalitions is as great now as it has ever been.


Cooper, R. & Patmore G. 2002, ‘Trade union organising and labour history’, Labour History: vol. 83, pp. 3–19.

Cooper, R & Ellem, B. 2006, ‘Union power: structure and strategy’, in Rethinking Work: Time, Space and Discourse, eds. M. Hearn & G. Michelson, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 123–43.

Crosby, M. 2005, Power at Work: Rebuilding the Australian Union Movement, The Federation Press, Sydney.

Fantasia, R. & Voss, K. 2004, Hard Work—Remaking the American Labor Movement, University of California Press, Berkley and Los Angeles.

Fraser, N. 2000, ‘Rethinking recognition’, New Left Review, no. 3, pp. 107–120.

Gall, G. 2003, Union Organizing: Campaigning for Trade Union Recognition, Routledge, London.

Horwitt, S. 1989, Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Industrial Areas Foundation, Who are we? [Online], Available: [2006, May 12].

Klein, N. 2000, No Logo, Flamingo, Great Britain.

Meagher, G. & Wilson, S. 2006, ‘After Howard’s decade, is Australia more conservative?’, Australian Review of Public Affairs, 23 Feb [Online], Available [2006, May 29].

Jenny McAllister is the Co-convenor of the Labor Environment Activist Network. She was active in the Walk Against the War Coalition, and is a former federal candidate for Labor. She has an honours degree from The University of Sydney.