Home Latest News Humphrey McQueen on democracy

Humphrey McQueen on democracy

Humphrey McQueen

Humphrey McQueen

The speech was given at the Wheelers’ Centre (the Capitol Theatre, Melbourne) on Wednesday, 12 June 2013 as part of the launch of the Museum of Democracy (the old Eureka centre in Ballarat).

I’m doubly grateful for your invitation. First, it gives me the chance to spend time with friends.

Secondly, I can seek your help to track down what I’d long thought to be a quotation from George Orwell.  As an undergraduate, I read all I could of Orwell and carried away what I thought was a summary of his attitude towards democracy.

Twenty years ago, I went back to his essays to footnote his exact words. No luck. Even Mr Google has not ridden to the rescue.

So you are my last hope. If an audience as diverse and as distinguished as this one can’t identify the source, I shall stop looking.

I suspect that my memory has fashioned a paraphrase. Anyway, here’s what I recollect Orwell saying:

‘The fascist alleges that democracy is a bourgeois fraud. A socialist knows that bourgeois democracy is a fraud.’

The source of those aphorisms is less important than the substantive claim the second one makes about the system under which we live. Why do socialists think that bourgeois democracy is a fraud?

Our answer is that political democracy will remain hollow until there is economic and industrial democracy. Equally important, all three depend on participatory democracy.

Industrial democracy

Such democracy as exists at work depends on unions. In 1888, the man who drafted the Commonwealth constitution and became the first Chief Justice, Sam Griffith, thought it:

‘notorious that there is not any equal freedom of contract’.

Why not? Because of the imbalance between those who controlled more and more wealth and those with nothing to sell but a capacity to add value for capital.

Today, Griffith’s admirers want us to believe that unions deprive an individual cleaner, whose second language is English, of her right to negotiate conditions with Freehills on behalf of a multinational corporations.

Nowhere is worker control more vital that over health and safety. That is why the Grocon dispute over union OHS reps on building sites is a matter of life and death.

Laws are taking away the ability of workers to stop a workplace over asbestos. These moves lean on a jurisprudence in which killing is not murder if done for profit.

Economic democracy

Between 2007 and 2010, the US investment house BlackRock bought eleven percent of the shares in Australia’s 128 largest companies measured by revenue. Was such a prospect an issue at the 2007 election?

Was the fact that the raid had happened raised before the 2010 polls? Will BlackRock and its ilk even rate a mention in the three years of campaigning since then?

Industrial and economic democracy are not as central to debate as they have been. That sad fact came home five years ago during a visit to Broken Hill.

I consulted the Lonely Planet guide only to find that its authors could not get their heads around the idea of social democracy. Since 1904, Broken Hill has had a Social Democratic Club.

The guidebook turned this radical organisation into the Social and Democratic Club. Well, the Club is all of those things, but it retains its socialist roots.

Indeed, social democracy is not underground at Broken Hill.  The city has a newspaper that is not owned by Mass Murdoch. The Barrier Daily Truth is still run by the Industrial Council.

Murdoch gave up his Australian citizenship to own television networks in the USA. Even without being able to vote here he’s had more political clout than any elected member of parliament.

When I pointed this out in my weekly column for the Australian I was reduced to the ranks and discharged.

Freedom of the press was won in the 1820s when hundreds of workers went to prison for selling unregistered publications. Convict editors in Sydney and Hobart did the same for us in the 1820s.

Bradley Manning carries on the tradition. As does the CIA officer who’s just reminded us that Big Brother is watching.

Please don’t get too excited about this. Pine Gap has been sucking up your phone messages for forty years.

The Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House, Canberra, ignores the industrial and the economic. Its displays are all about what the Bulletin was wont to call the national gasworks.

The National Portrait Gallery opened without a single image of a trade unionist. The Right was censoring the National Museum even before it opened in 2001.

To redress this class bias we need a red armband view of Australian history. We need monuments to the three popular votes that blocked assaults on political, industrial and economic rights.

They are the defeat of the two conscription plebiscites in 1916 and 1917, and the rejection of the 1951 referendum to ban the Communist Party.

Millions are being poured into celebrating the invasion of Turkey. The popular victories that preserved even bourgeois democracy are ignored, indeed, suppressed.

It’s better to campaign and lose than to make an executive decision. For example, many local governments voted to go nuclear free.

The Eurobodalla shire decided to hold a plebiscite. The nuclear-free side won.

But even if the vote had gone the other way, involving the entire electorate would have more effect than yet another motion in chambers. Organising is an education for the organisers as much as for those to whom an appeal is made.

I began with a putative quotation from George Orwell. I shall end with a quotation which I can footnote.

Its author was Samuel Champ, Hobart organiser in 1916 for the Builders’ Labourers Federation:

“Our liberties – Samuel declared – were not won by mining magnates or stock-exchange jobbers but by genuine men and women of the working-class movement who had died on the gallows, rotted in dungeons and were buried in nameless graves. These are the people to whom we owe the liberties we enjoy today.”

When those words are chiseled into the portals of a museum of democracy we can be more confident that the democracy it represents is no longer a fraud.

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