Letter from Australia

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John Howard got his long awaited comeuppance in the November elections. Now the Australian left needs to unite to reverse his disastrous policies, argues Judy McVey

My friends are singing "Ding dong! The witch is dead!" Last November Tory prime minister John Howard lost not only the election, but his own seat as well.

While the left are still smiling, Howard's Liberal Party (the Tories) are attacking each other over whether to junk their own hated policies on industrial relations and climate change scepticism. Out of office at both federal and state level, their highest serving politician is the mayor of Brisbane.

It was a landslide victory for the Australian Labour Party (ALP), with huge swings in some areas of 10 to 18 percent - the revenge of the working class against one of the most anti-union and racist governments in Australia's history.

In previous elections Howard whipped up racist fear. In 1998 he targeted Aborigines, accusing them of trying to steal 98 percent of the continent through Native Title claims. In 2001 it was refugees, who he falsely accused of throwing their children overboard in an attempt to enter the country.

This time nothing he tried cut. He tried sending troops into Aboriginal communities to "save" abused children. He tried a terrorism scare, deporting an Indian doctor who was falsely accused of involvement in car bombings in Britain in July.

Kevin Rudd, the new prime minister, has moved quickly to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. He has also promised to deal with the crisis in housing and health, launch an "education revolution" and scrap the WorkChoices legislation - Howard's hated industrial relations laws.

The key ingredient in Labour's victory was the union campaign against WorkChoices, which held a series of mass delegates' meetings and a 600,000 strong national strike in 2005.

However, Labour's promises fall short of what is needed to restore union rights - the right to strike, the right for union officials to visit their members at work, plus abolition of secret employment contracts and the government-appointed "secret police" on building sites who have been terrorising unionists.

The government will probably say "sorry" for the Stolen Generation - Aboriginal children stolen from families in the days of white settlement. But Labour supported military intervention into Aboriginal communities.

Rudd promises to withdraw about 500 troops from Iraq, but that represents less than half the Australian total. On the other hand, troop commitments in Afghanistan will probably be increased as Australia remains firmly within the alliance with the US.

While condemning the growing cost of living, Rudd labels himself an "economic conservative" - promising to maintain budget surpluses and cut government spending, taking a "razor gang" to the civil service. Rudd is taking every opportunity to hose down expectations. Yet the election results challenged the widespread myth that Australians became more right wing under Howard. Opinion surveys show that Australians have become more hostile to neoliberalism and more likely to support unions.

John Howard won office in 1996 as a section of poor working class Labour voters decided they'd had enough of the ALP government's attacks on living standards.

The Howard years were punctuated by mass strikes against anti-union policies, and huge rallies against war and racism and for refugee rights.

A three-day 10,000-strong anti-capitalist protest closed down the 2000 World Economic Forum meeting in Melbourne. One million people protested in 2003 against the invasion of Iraq. Last year mobilisations of tens of thousands forced Howard to get David Hicks out of Guantanamo Bay.

The election also saw the consolidation of a new left wing electoral force. The Greens are now the third largest electoral party, increasing their vote to about one million (8 to 9 percent).

The Greens' best result was in the seat of Melbourne, where they won the support of the Electrical Trades Union and the Firefighters' Union.

The vote against Howard expressed an huge desire for change and a shift to the left. But it is clear that Labour will dash the hopes of its supporters.

The challenge is to unite unions, Greens, Labour supporters and the left in a new mass movement to demand an end to the agenda of neoliberalism and war.

Judy McVey is a member of the International Socialist Organisation.