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SA's "Corbyn moment" as Labor's Hard Left get active

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A collection of hard Left unions, grassroots activists and community groups have formalised a new factional bloc they hope will wield a bigger “progressive” influence on Labor Party policy, InDaily can reveal.

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Active Left will formally launch tomorrow at the Port Adelaide headquarters of the Maritime Union of Australia, with insiders hoping the event will also resolve key items to put forward at the next meeting of the ALP’s National Policy Forum.

The group, which calls itself an “active campaigning voice within the SA Labor Party” is formed around a nucleus of Industrial Left unions and others not affiliated with the larger PLUS (Progressive Left Union and Sub-Branches) faction which, with the Right’s Labor Unity faction, controls the party’s decision-making.

“It’s time for South Australia to have its Corbyn or Sanders moment,” said the group’s spokesman Graham Smith, federal secretary of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union.

Smith said the group aims “to tackle inequality, unfair workplace laws, and broader community issues in order to win a South Australia where every person counts”.

The group – effectively a new sub-faction within the SA ALP – also includes the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Communications Electrical Plumbing Union, the Health Services Union, the National Union of Workers and the Rail, Tram and Bus Union. Most comprise what is broadly known as the Industrial Left, an offshoot of the now-defunct Duncan Left. The CEPU has been more recently aligned with the Right; it’s understood that while its individual officials are now joining Active Left, official membership of the group has to be endorsed formally through a membership ballot.

We don’t want it to be a faction, we want it to be a bit more activist-based

Smith said in a statement that Active Left had adopted the mantra preached by fledgling Australian Council of Trade Unions national secretary Sally McManus, “that neoliberalism has run its course, that the system is broken, and that it’s Australian workers who have paid the price”.

“We’re here to make sure workers and communities have the power to write new rules to bring back fairness to Australia,” he said.

“We simply can’t stand by while everyday Australians suffer under the highest level of inequality in 70 years.

“Active Left are embracing this opportunity to reclaim a role in the public debate, ensuring that workers and vulnerable people have a strong voice. We will be actively campaigning and growing a movement that will no longer put up with declining real wages, insecure work, massive tax evasion, stifling inequality, shonky labour hire practices, workplace exploitation and corporate excess.”

But the movement also has its roots in recent factional spats with the state ALP, culminating in the nomination of Maritime Union state secretary Jamie Newlyn and former CFMEU national president Trevor Smith for a casual Upper House vacancy, to protest a factional stitch-up that saw Australian Workers Union official Justin Hanson rubber-stamped for the gig.

At the time, Graham Smith threatened to sever formal ties between his union – which represents around 2500 members across SA and WA – and the ALP, telling InDaily: “It’s something we’re certainly going to have to talk about given the circumstances… we’ll be having discussions internally, and meeting with some of the other unions to see if this is really the end of the line with this battle.”

The Industrial Left were also incensed by the move to roll Frances Bedford in her seat of Florey, with the PLUS faction acquiescing to the Right’s move to install factional heavyweight and Health Minister Jack Snelling. Bedford has since quit the party and is still considering running as an independent in the seat.

But Newlyn told InDaily Active Left wanted to distance itself from Labor’s factional brawling.

“We’re trying to remove the terminology – we don’t want it to be a faction, we want it to be a bit more activist-based,” he said.

Newlyn remains the group’s most likely nominee for a parliamentary berth, but insists “it’s not about that”.

“That’s why I didn’t want to be the spokesperson – I didn’t want it to be seen as that,” he said, arguing the new bloc was more about “influencing decisions [around] policy and legislation”.

“It’s about people doing activities to change policy direction, or to implement existing policies and convention resolutions and those sort of things that haven’t occurred,” he said.

“It will be about finding campaign areas of mutual interest… most factions are just about numbers, we want to be a bit more about action and activity and campaigning.

“It’s not all about the numbers, it’s about us campaigning for the issues we think are important to working people.”

Nonetheless, he concedes the events around the public factional brawl were decisive in forming the movement, “the fact we were all quite involved in the whole factional business but not participating”.

“If we’re going to participate, we want to participate in a way that adds value to our unions’ core values,” he said.

“It’s a new model… we’re trying to reinvigorate and grow a progressive voice, whether it’s Left or Right.”

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