Monday 10 March 2008

A common cause for grassroots visionaries

A common cause for grassroots visionaries by GRANT MORGAN Recently a number of requests have come my way to write down the history of RAM, as the Residents Action Movement is popularly known. Two factors are prompting such requests. The first is the successes of RAM as a broad left campaigning and electioneering movement in Greater Auckland. The second factor is RAM¹s recent decision to go nationwide. This article is a modest start to meeting these requests. My aim is to summarise main facts and conclusions in a sober way. Mass revolt & political mobilisation The dawn of a new millennium saw no resolution of an old problem. For longer than most of us cared to recall, any serious progressive voice in Greater Auckland had been sidelined as wealthy elites shaped the agendas of the regional council, the four city councils and the three district councils. Regardless of whether a council was run by National-backed Citizens & Ratepayers or Labour-backed City Vision or a more informal coalition, corporate Auckland came out ahead of the grassroots majority. Feeling excluded, the majority abstained from voting in ever larger numbers. Protests rumbled away over inequitable water charges, council housing sales, the Eastern Highway, local body commercialisation and the democratic deficit. In mid-2003 a tipping point was reached. Without warning, Auckland Regional Council (ARC) jacked up the rates of struggling homeowners and downsized the bills being sent to big business. Thousands of homeowners faced ARC rate rises above 400%, many thousands above 300%, and tens of thousands above 200%. Meanwhile corporate Auckland basked in a "rates holiday". They no longer had to pay a business differential which had been levied to compensate for companies benefiting from the lion¹s share of council services. The ARC was ruled by a coalition of corporate politicians who relied on low voter turnouts and "free market" propaganda to retain local body power. Only three of the 13 elected members consistently opposed the ARC¹s extremist rating policy. As rates bills reached the letterboxes of homeowners, grassroots rage spilled over into what became known as the Rates Revolt. At its peak, possibly 100,000 homeowners ­ one quarter of the region¹s ratepayers ­ were supporting a "rates strike". No recognised group called this revolt into being. It just exploded in the combustible atmosphere of general contempt for council politicians. In the chaos and challenges of the Rates Revolt, RAM gradually took shape around socialists and other activists who were pursuing a dual strategy: helping the "rates strikers" get organised while showing how a political alternative was also necessary to overturn the ARC¹s corporate agenda. The combined pressure of the Rates Revolt and the rise of RAM in election year scared enough of the corporate politicians to push the ARC into a partial retreat. By a one-vote margin, a watered-down business differential was restored in mid-2004 which gave some relief to hard-pressed homeowners. This demonstration of "people power" provided the backdrop to RAM¹s entry into the ARC election in October 2004. Although by this time the heat had gone out of the Rates Revolt, RAM¹s 600 innovative "message" billboards still struck a popular chord. Reports came in of workers on the job discussing our call to "RAM the ARC" for rates justice, public transport, open democracy and "people before money". RAM candidates stood for eight of the 13 ARC seats. In a spectacular upset, RAM¹s Robyn Hughes unseated ARC chair Gwen Bull in Manukau City. We came close in several other seats, giving RAM a total of 87,000 ARC votes. Not one mainstream political commentator had expected a ticket described as "far left" and "socialist" by the NZ Herald and other media to do so damn well. This remarkable result showed how a broad left movement, given the right conditions and following a believable strategy, can make gains against establishment political elites. Free buses & unfree racism: RAM¹s community campaigning After the 2004 election, RAM embarked on high-profile community campaigns to promote the public good and redefine what grassroots people could win. Here RAM drew on the services of our regional councillor Robyn Hughes to reinforce the credibility of our initiatives. Greater Auckland is choked by car chaos. This imposes big expenses on individual commuters and staggering burdens on the public purse, all the while pumping out more of the greenhouse gases which could cost global humanity our liveable habitat. RAM¹s cut-through solution was to launch a campaign for free and frequent buses running in their own dedicated traffic lanes, and fully funded by a major shift of government cash away from motorway mania. At present, the Labour-led government is seriously looking at wasting upwards of $8 billion on three motorway tunnels in Central Auckland which will merely grow more cars and congestion. This amount of money could instead buy several thousand electric buses and run them fare-free across Greater Auckland for quarter of a century while also expanding electric rail across Waitakere, Auckland and Manukau cities. RAM¹s call for free and frequent public transport was endorsed by over two hundred prominent citizens, while our petition was signed by many thousands of Aucklanders. Our campaign got varying degrees of support from groups as diverse as Cycle Action Auckland, Mangere Community Board, Tramways Union, Auckland Regional Council, Green Party and Poverty Action Coalition. Former Manukau mayor Sir Barry Curtis offered three of his city¹s suburbs for a large-scale free buses trial if the Auckland Regional Transport Authority would climb aboard. As we expected, however, most council politicians and bureaucrats did little to implement RAM¹s boldly realistic vision of a free public transport network. Yet our idea has begun to spread, with a variety of other groups and individuals now advocating free and frequent public transport. This has helped to brand RAM as a "think big" battler for the welfare of the public and our planet. RAM also took an important stand against Islamophobia, a particularly virulent strain of racism being spread by the falsely named "war on terror", that imperial crusade of the US state to impose its will on the world by force of arms. In early 2007 a sudden rise of organised Islamophobia began to threaten New Zealand Muslims, none of whom had ever been charged with any act of "terrorism", let alone convicted. Yet extreme right Christian fundamentalists were organising stridently anti-Muslim conferences entitled "Mosques and Miracles" in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The keynote speakers were professional Islamophobes from Australia, who spread lies about "all mosques" being "centres of war" and Muslims all round the world preparing to "kill", "rape" and "enslave" non-Muslims. With help from other groups, RAM brought radical left British MP George Galloway to Auckland to rally public support for our peaceful Muslim sisters and brothers. 1,500 Aucklanders packed our "Voices of Peace" meetings to hear Galloway, a world-famous peace and justice activist noted for his electrifying imagery, link Islamophobic racism with Washington¹s "war on terror" and Israel¹s occupation of Palestine. At the main meeting, hundreds had to be turned away because the hall was full. By any measure, our "Voices of Peace" initiative was a success. There was extensive and nationwide coverage by the mainstream media. Local Muslims gained a sense of confidence and belonging, instead of feeling isolated and victimised. And as the extreme right fundamentalists saw our campaign for social inclusiveness gaining majority sympathy, most quietly dropped the nastiest elements of their Muslim bashing. The spleen vented at RAM across the spectrum of extreme right publications and websites was a back-handed tribute to the effectiveness of our campaign. Growing out of this important victory, RAM has promoted a slogan and ethos that unites migrant and NZ-born communities alike: "We All Belong Here". RAM has also worked alongside many other groups to mobilise opposition to the US war in Iraq, the Israeli re-invasion of Lebanon and the police "terror" raids on Tuhoe and left-wingers. Holding the line: RAM in the 2007 election The October 2007 council elections across Greater Auckland saw a swing to the right. In the Auckland City Council and, to a lesser degree, the Auckland Regional Council, the balance of power has shifted towards right-wing players like Citizens & Ratepayers and Independents for Manukau. The worst hit taken by RAM was when Robyn Hughes lost her Manukau seat on the regional council. Yet Robyn¹s 2007 vote was close to what she gained in 2004, so the problem wasn¹t any big collapse in support. The main cause was conservative voters in affluent East Manukau uniting behind the Independents for Manukau ticket, whereas in 2004 they had split their votes between an array of competing right-wing candidates. In the rest of Manukau City, RAM, Labour, City Vision and environmental candidates were competing for the grassroots vote. Across the board, RAM held the line against the swing to the right. That¹s clearly seen in the regional council election where RAM increased its average vote per candidate, even if only slightly. In the 2004 ARC election, the average vote per RAM candidate was 10,871, which in 2007 rose marginally to 10,899. (A similar comparison cannot be done for Auckland City Council elections which were not contested by RAM in 2004.) In 2007, RAM¹s 19 candidates in the regional council and Auckland City Council elections gathered a total of over 100,000 votes. The top RAM candidate gained 75% of the winner¹s vote, and no RAM candidate fell below 25%, so our results ranged from credible to close. Yet there was not a single "big name" on the RAM ticket, nor could we match the advertising spend of big budget tickets. 100,000 votes in Auckland council elections is easily the best result for a broad left ticket since the glory days of Jim Anderton¹s Alliance in the early 1990s. Before that, you would probably have to go back to the 1930s to see anything similar. Going by RAM¹s remarkably stable votes over the last two council elections, it would seem that in Greater Auckland a sizeable constituency supports our political challenge to corporate control of the region. That constituency was rallied in 2007 by RAM¹s 800 large "message" billboards across Western, Central and Southern suburbs which promoted free public transport, social inclusiveness and cutting home rates by making the corporates pay. All our 800 billboards were carried on people¹s fences. That meant knocking on many hundreds of doors to ask house occupiers for permission. Getting their okay meant in most cases an endorsement of RAM¹s platform, further evidence that we were in tune with a strong popular mood. Knocking on that number of doors and erecting that number of billboards was a huge job. It was only made possible by an influx of new activists into RAM. The diversity of RAM¹s activist base was reflected in the makeup of our candidates: a good gender balance, Pakeha, Maori, Pasifika and Asian, workers, professionals, small business and students, Christian, Muslim and non-believer, socialists, community activists and former adherents of the Labour, Green and National parties. Coming out of the 2007 council elections, RAM is seen as a serious player in Greater Auckland in terms of our activist base, name recognition and political brand. RAM is going nationwide Now RAM has decided to go nationwide and stand for parliament as well as councils. Under the law, becoming eligible to contest the list vote in general elections requires a party to sign up 500 paid members. So RAM has begun asking sympathisers around the country to become financial members ($1 fee for three years, donations encouraged). Since this process has been underway for just a few weeks as I write these lines, it¹s too soon to be sure how good the response will be to RAM¹s membership drive. All I can say this early is that clusters of people from Labour, Green, socialist, Maori, union, social justice, migrant and student backgrounds have signed up or promised to do so. What RAM activists are sure about is the need to take practical steps towards constructing a nationwide broad left party as a grassroots alternative to the Labour-National duopoly. The quality of life of most New Zealanders has worsened over the last quarter century. We now live in a high-skill, low-wage economy where many working families can never afford their own home. As the prophets of corporate profits swagger across the national stage, their market-driven greed poisons the community values of a past era. The undermining of our social environment is paralleled by the ruination of our natural environment, as climate warming outstrips the market-driven non-solution of emissions trading. It was a Labour government that, in 1984, began the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in our country¹s history. This legal robbery continued unchecked after National was elected in 1990. While Helen Clark¹s current administration has softened some "more market" obscenities, the basic neo-liberal game plan remains intact. Regardless of whether the government is run by Labour or National, our country is increasingly a "democracy" of one dollar, one vote, rather than one person, one vote. We need to popularise an alternative vision if we are to build an alternative party to the ruling duopoly. "Every worker is a human being who deserves the right to dignity. For that right to be at the heart of our society, workers need economic justice and democratic control over our future." So says the opening section of the Workers Charter, which was crafted by well-known activist John Minto and myself and a few other leftists several years ago. RAM has officially embraced the humanistic, co-operative, ecological, egalitarian and democratic vision of the Workers Charter. It is a vision that can appeal to a wide spectrum of workers, students, homemakers, professionals and small business owners who are concerned at what is happening to our society and ecology. Many of these people will have voted for right-wing parties like National in the past, others will be disillusioned Labour supporters. RAM is aiming to unite them all in a people¹s movement for social justice and ecological sanity. The ten points of the Workers Charter, which have been endorsed by the Council of Trade Unions, promote: 1. The right to a job that pays a living wage and gives us time with our families and communities. 2. The right to pay equity for women, youth and casual workers. 3. The right to free public healthcare and education, and to liveable superannuation and welfare. 4. The right to decent housing without crippling mortgages and rents. 5. The right to public control of assets vital to community well-being. 6. The right to protect our environment from corporate greed. 7. The right to express our personal identity free from discrimination. 8. The right to strike in defence of our interests. 9. The right to organise for the transfer of wealth and power from the haves to the have-nots. 10. The right to unite with workers in other lands against corporate globalisation and war. While the Workers Charter gives RAM a reference point as we open a dialogue with others at the grassroots, it will not be treated as set in stone. RAM will keep an open mind to all possibilities of how we might combine with other groups sharing a similar vision. Creating a nationwide broad left party should be a common cause for all grassroots visionaries. The future can be ours if we unite for a new future! -----------------------------------------------------------------------------

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