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Inside Out: On Being Labor and Being Left

Dr Meredith Burgmann AM with Rosie Ryan

Rosie Ryan: What has been your experience of the intersections of being active in the party, and in broader movements for social change?

Dr Meredith Burgmann AM: I totally accept that the Labor Party is the best way to get important social and economic change, and to change the direction of the country and make the world a better place, that is why I am in the Labor Party.

Sometimes I think that we in the Labor Party get so caught up working within the Labor Party that we forget the broad left is out there. We also sometimes get so caught up in factional and fractional disputes and these can be very time consuming, so you don’t really have the bandwidth to go out and be involved in the rest of the world.

Albo always used to say, I’m in the Labor Party, because I’m in the Left. And the people we were fighting at the time, he used to say, they’re in the Left because they are in the Labor Party. And he saw that as a big distinction.

Often, we were criticised for not doing enough work within the party, when I’d be off being convenor of the National Pay Equity Coalition and involved in anti-racism movements. And I was often criticised for that, as we all were.

I find that very limited thinking because it’s not understanding that the role of Labor Party activists and left activists is to make the world a better place.

I think that attitude is absolutely still there…

It’s totally still there. It’s sort of like you can only be rewarded within the Labor Party for being a good apparatchik and that’s short sighted. I also think it’s really short sighted to vacate the space and leave the broad left out there, often with no Labor Party comrades involved in the struggle.

And it’s not because they’re not interested in Timor Leste or South Africa or the environment. It’s just they’re so involved with what’s happening within the Labor Party that they’re not involved, in say the refugee movement.

Yes and if you’re a Labor activist and you understand how things work within the party and within the parliament you are very useful to these campaigns. That has been my experience in feminist and abortion decriminalisation campaigning. You go into these spaces and realise you have a skill-set that not everyone shares….

Absolutely, we forget what our skills sets are, we forget not everyone understands that there’s always a duty MLC or Senator or, you know, the most important thing to do when you go to see a Minister is to be nice to their administrative staff, because they’re the ones that actually make the decisions.

You gain a lot by working with groups outside of the Labor party and the Labor Party gains a lot with them.

Many of my closest friends I made through work with the broader left. In fact, one of the first things I’ve organised when lockdown finishes is lunch with the lovely footballers that refused to play that Springbok game 50 years ago.

Do you see the model of groups such as LEAN or Rainbow Labor can be a good gateway into that broader movement work as party activists?

I think Rainbow Labor and LEAN and Labor for Refugees have done fantastic jobs, and they’re really important. They just have to get out there and work with the broader movement, or those people will think that there’s no one inside the Labor Party that cares about these issues. You’ve got to get out and show your wares and we’re just not that good at that.

I remember those early refugee marches there were no Labor Party banners, even though half the march was probably Labor Party people, because we never thought to label ourselves and that it did a lot of damage. A lot of people left the Labor Party or joined the Greens or said they’d never vote Labor again, because we weren’t seeing seen as being active enough on an issue when really there was a lot of, you know, paddling under the water.

You’ve been talking about how the Labor Party often doesn’t value someone’s membership because they’ve been out there advocating in different spaces. Do you think this also feeds into the issue of a lack of diversity in representation when we are finding candidates for positions?

I think we are often in danger of seeing work within the party as being the only way that you can be a good candidate for public office. And sometimes we end up having to find candidates from outside the party because we haven’t encouraged that sort of public participation in our own people.

I do think we should be pursuing community activity for no reason other than we should be doing it.

Our knowledge and experience can be really helpful in those groups, but as can showing up and showing the flag. And also, I’m not saying go out there and recruit but that is how you encourage really good people you find out there to be active in the Labor Party and make it a better party!

I find in activist, especially feminist spaces, there can be a bit of intergenerational handwringing about young people not being activists anymore, or taking wins secured by previous generations for granted. What do you make of that?

Oh I think the young of today are terrific. They might be choosing different issues, like so many of them are involved with climate change, well why wouldn’t you be?

I think one of the differences now is that university students can be less involved simply because they have different circumstances. They have continuous assessments where in my day you just had to do a couple of essays during the year so the rest of the time was your own. We didn’t have jobs, because we had scholarships that gave you a small stipend that you could more or less live on, very poorly, but we did live on it. And there was cheap housing around the universities you could live in whereas now cheap housing barely exists so students are mostly living at home and commuting.

I just think students circumstances are so different today, I’m full of wonder that any of them have time to be active. But you only had to go those climate demonstrations with thousands of people that were wonderful. Or the Black Lives Matter demonstration or the Women’s March 4Justice. I hardly recognised anyone, because they were all young people who were being involved.

Dr Meredith Burgmann AM is an activist and former President of the NSW Legislative Council. Rosie Ryan is the NSW Left Secretary.


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