It’s five years since Labor took office and, once their young foot soldier, I now feel utterly abandoned by my leaders in the Labor party and union movement.
When Labor swept into victory on that fateful night in November 2007, I was celebrating at a share-house on a suburban Sydney street called, oddly enough, Australia St. The doors were thrown open, beer bottles lined the kitchen bench and the television, propped up on a table in the living room, glowed. As the outcome became apparent, then-Prime Minister John Howard appeared on the television screen to make his resignation speech. A flatmate turned down the volume on the television and played a piece of music: the Star Wars theme song. As we danced around the living room, we felt like – as part of the Rebel Alliance – we had shot down the Death Star of conservatism.
After half a lifetime under Howard’s conservative rule in Australia, I was optimistic about my country’s new future. I was young, hopeful, deeply engaged and ready to play my small role in the next chapter of my nation’s bright, shiny future.
Since that day and over the past five years, I have served the progressive Left movement in a number of ways: I have worked for unions, where each day I asked workers to join their union and I have volunteered for Labor during both state and federal elections, calling voters and handing out leaflets in key seats. I have been, in other words, a foot soldier for Labor and the union movement.
Recently, I quit my day job in the union movement and my seasonal volunteer work for the Labor Party. I quit because I felt abandoned by Labor leaders and embarrassed by my union ones. The numbers show I’m not the only one walking away: Australians, particularly young Australians, are becoming increasingly disengaged in the democratic process in our country. Between the 2007 and 2010 federal elections, Labor lost seventeen percent of its vote amongst Australians aged between 24 and 35 years. Membership of political parties continues to drop while unions struggle, each day, to hold what membership density they have.
I quit because there’s a gaping divide between the amazing, dedicated, hard working union organisers on the ground and the union leaders making a mockery of our movement in the media (think Craig Thomson, think Paul Howes). There’s an awful gap between the devoted electoral officers and volunteer campaigners working on a progressive future for Australia and the Labor leaders I saw on TV each night back-peddling on that vision. I sometimes wondered, are we on the same team? Are you speaking for me?
This is where my leaders have failed me: selling out on our progressive agenda to appease the swing voters in suburban seats (I’ve spoken with them out the front of shopping centres and they’re not impressed anyway) and union leaders lacking imagination and with a sick obsession to hold onto what little power they wield (promotions based upon the buddy system rarely deliver good outcomes to members).
As a young person, I am perhaps more in need of movement leaders than older campaigners. Activist veterans tell me I’ve signed up to a movement, but I really do need a leader to motivate me, someone I can peg my hopes on, that I can back all the way. In return, I am willing to dedicate long, hard hours to serve that leader – just lately I haven’t found any.
I had underestimated just how important foot soldiers like myself are. Only after the recent election in the United States, where it was Obama’s army of (mostly young) volunteers that turned out the vote, did I realise that I am a force to be reckoned with and, mark my words, the Left will need me come the new year. I urge my supposed leaders, as we approach another bitter election, to step up to the mark or step aside as there are others ready to take your place.
Danae Bosler is a campaigner and writer based in Melbourne.