The Left is Right: Community, community work and the creation of opposition

Paper given at “Windows on the World” conference of the Community Development Society, World Congress Centre Melbourne, 21-24 July 1996

Much of what is called “Community Work” in the 1990s is aimed at getting the populous to conform to the desires of the powerful: landlords over tenants, government departments over welfare agencies and welfare agencies over the people they are set up to help. The standard fare is for a Housing Commission to arrange “community consultations” when they want to redevelop a suburb – code for urban infill – the locals are talked at and hopefully into submission by “experts”, if the locals try to speak to their own agenda they are ignored.

This paper will look at the processes which might be useful in developing a climate of resistance and rejection. The paper will stress the importance of decent analysis and the need for action flowing on from the analysis. Beginning with a description of policy issues which rely heavily on a poetic interpretation I will try to show that resistance and rejection are positive rather than negative processes in progressive community work. To borrow a slogan from the feminist movement “What part of the word ‘No!’ don’t you understand.” The paper will concentrate on Australia in the 1990s with particular emphasis on the issues of Aboriginal sovereignty, East Timorese liberation and unemployment. The paper will conclude by looking at strategies and tactics which might be utilised to promote opposition, resistance and rejection.

The Australian context

In my country soldiers tell judges what to do
but if 1 were to be born a thousand times
it is there that 1 would be born.
And if 1 were to die a thousand times
it is here that 1 would die.
Pablo Neruda.

In Australia the national armed forces leave the culling of the Indigenous population and those experiencing mental health difficulties to the state police forces. Victorian police have become the leading exponents of the art.

I should like to be able to love my country and still love Justice.

Australian society is structured by racism, classism, sexism, ageism, urbanism and by the way it treats people with disabilities (Tomlinson 1996). This country was founded on invasion, murder, rape, theft and genocide – sanctified by the legal fiction of terra nullius.

Terra Nullius
made fools of all of us,
legal fiction and our greed
became our overwhelming creed.
We stole their land
and watched them bleed.
Their rights to land
we would not concede
insisting on proper title
and English deed.

Powerful forces in this country are alienating Aboriginal land and stealing Aboriginal children. There is a race war going on in this country as we speak. White liberals sipping their chardonnay and shiraz socialists contentedly point to the High Court Mabo Decision (1992) and the Native Title Act as putting to an end the theft of Indigenous land. This decision and this Act are just the legal mechanisms utilised by the squattocracy and transnational conglomerations to legitimise past theft of Indigenous land and sanctify the ongoing theft of Aboriginal resources. Anyone who doubts this only has to look at the way the Queensland Government, aided by the Queensland Labor Opposition, and the Federal Government combine to back the Century Zinc Mining Company against the Waanyi people – the traditional owners of this land. Mining companies claim that those who oppose their mining of Aboriginal land do so because of some misplaced sense of guilt as a result of something which happened a long time ago when the reality is that dispossession of vast tracts of Indigenous land is occurring now.

The guilt industry
Don’t talk to me of guilt or want.
Don’t tell me where I’m in default.
Your country now is mine by right
of English law and oversight.
Blackburn did terra nullius decree
for mines and pastoral industry.

Don’t come here with modern law
or telling what Eddy Mabo saw,
or what Australia’s High Court found.
The past is ours, it’s safe and sound.
Don’t talk of Aboriginal sovereignty
of genocide or tyranny.
We have the power to enforce our will
it’s a pity that guilt lingers still.

Currently Aboriginal people are 26 times more likely to be in police custody than are non-Aboriginal people and “are over-represented by a factor of 15 in Australian prisons.” (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission 1994 p. 10, Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation 1993 Key Issue 6). The Deaths in Custody Royal Commission investigated 100 Indigenous deaths in custody which occurred in the decade preceding its report (Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1991). , Its main recommendations were aimed at decreasing the number of Aboriginal people in custody yet in 1996 the number of Aboriginal people in custody is greater than it was when the Royal Commission reported. In 1996 Aboriginal people continue to die in custody in increasing numbers (Green Left 24/1/96 p. l.)

Deaths in Custody
Swinging in a watch house cell
escaping from a living hell ?
Stolen from his mother
taken from his father.
“You call it suicide.
We call it murder.”
Grandfather shot
grandmother poisoned.
Land stolen by squatters.
Sister raped by coppers.
“You call it suicide.
We call it murder.”
Didn’t do well at school
often made to look the fool.
Couldn’t find a job
no one heard him sob.
“You call it suicide.
We call it murder.”
We saw the coppers bash him,
we saw the coppers thrash him:
threatening to hang him
may as well have sang him.
“You call it suicide.
We call it murder.”

Aboriginal kids continue to be disappeared from their community by two main methods: welfare removal for ‘neglect’ or through the aptly named criminal justice system (Imlah 1993, White 1990, Adler 1992 pp 21-28, Federation of Community Legal Centres- Victoria, 1991). These methods have remained remarkably similar for over a century. This removing of Indigenous children is recognised as genocide under the United Nations Convention on Genocide of 1948, which Australia has signed and ratified (United Nations 1948).

Aboriginal ill health is increasing in many parts of Australia. For instance Indigenous women are dying at an earlier age on Cape York than they were in 1979 (Fischer 1993). The most telling feature about Indigenous health is that the number one priority of the First Aboriginal Health Strategy which reported in 1989 was the supply of clean water to all Aboriginal communities (National Aboriginal Health Strategy Working Party 1989). An aim which in 1996 has not been achieved for at least 100 Aboriginal communities in rural and remote Australia (Late Line 27/2196, Kilham 1995).

For Olive Brown
Land rights, decent health
and equal sharing of our wealth.
Too much to ask Australia?
Or is it.
It’s 1993
the U.N. Year
of the Indigene.
Rape, killing, theft,
chopping down what’s left.
In our town
an Aboriginal Embassy
talk of reconciliation
but no thought of sovereignty.
Too many friends have gone
But the struggle will go on,
For land rights, decent health
and equal sharing of our wealth.
There is no way to make amends
or say goodbye to absent friends;
Roy Marika in Gove,
Fred Hollows in Sydney,
or Olive here.

East Timor

During the last World War between 40,000 and 60,000 Timorese died helping Australian soldiers prevent the Japanese mounting a land attack on Darwin. How did we repay them? When Indonesia invaded East Timor on the 7th December 1975 we acquiesced, we have colluded with Indonesia in the theft of Timorese oil whilst over 200,000 East Timorese (about one third of the population) have died (Dunn 1983, Aarons & Domm 1992, Tomlinson & Wesley-Smith 1994).

Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free!
No need to heed the genocide across the Timor Sea.
Their shores abound with oil and gas Australia wants to share;
Let Indonesia kill at will, Advance Australia fair.
With brutal friends and greedy ends
Advance Australia fair!
Ian Hodges/Green Left.

Obrigado, thank you, grazie East Timor will be free
the people of this troubled world will end their tyranny.

Don’t look away
don’t hide your eyes
or turn your faces to the wall
200,000 Timorese have died.
They all answered freedom’s call.
We steal their oil
we compromise
and listen to Indonesian lies
while Timor dies.
The generals of Jakarta
authorise the murder
Australian politicians
sanitise the slaughter.
We do it in the name of export trade
investment and of foreign aid
supplying guns and hand grenade
lethal weapons, Australian made.
Then strut the stage the whole world wide
pretending that right’s on our side
and human rights our greatest pride,
rape and murder we try to hide.
Indonesian troops in Dili
barracks in Baucau slaughtering willy nilly
Los Palos to Liquica.
While on the hill a rebel still
a gun held in his hand
asks each of us the question:

When will we understand
you cannot hold a people down
freedom is not a passing whim,
that it is not ours to command
it’s theirs – their battle hymn.

At the time of writing this paper four East Timorese, waiting within the grounds of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, had been refused political asylum in Australia because neither the Labor nor Coalition Governments of this country were prepared to honour their international obligations for fear of offending the Indonesian Junta.

The Class War

There is a class struggle being waged in earnest in this country (Rees, Rodley & Stilwell 1993, Rees & Rodley 1995, Vintila, Phillimore & Newman 1992, Omerod 1994) More Australians now die at work than on the roads. This is a direct result of the wilful neglect by employers and the lack of resources provided by “responsible” governments to monitor lethal dangers in the work place.

Despite the obvious economic feasibility of ensuring work for all, mainstream Australia is prepared to chuck the jobless and the bodies of the suicided workless on to the economic rationalists’ cattle cars rattling to our own Auschwitz (Langmore & Quiggin 1994, Littlemore 1996).

If you don’t want to be a part of this uncaring excess, then work with your local
Unemployed Workers Union and try to turn Australia into a country which insists on work for all who want it and a country which provides a guaranteed minimum income for all who are excluded from the mode of production (Van Parijs 1992, VCOSS & Good Shepherd 1995, Goodin 1992, Watts 1995, Tomlinson 1995).

Australia 1996
Good morning Australia
tell me it’s not true
you’ve sold out to the capitalists
turned from red to blue.

The Timorese can languish
while we steal their oil
and Australian men and women
aren’t wanted for their toil.
The unemployed will have to wait,
they’re locked outside the factory gate
the rich though needn’t hesitate
there’s always food upon their plate.

While BHP in PNG
rips the heart out of Ok Tedi,
pours pollution down the Fly
and trees along its banks all die.

Tailings slowly make their way
destroying lives both night and day
ignoring what land holders say
and politicians would deny.

CRA in Bougainville
sowed contempt – mined ill will
all the while there’s killing still,
men and women they’re killing still.
Another Australian company
is about to mine Lihir
we’re deaf to cries of ecocide
profit is the news we’ll hear.

With Alitas we’ve signed a pact
a security treaty, that’s a fact
to make sure we feel secure?
Or is it just the need to obscure
that at Freeport we collaborate
and West Papuans exterminate.
For justice they’ll have to wait
dispossessed of all but hate.

We choose to ignore Aboriginal health
while miners steal their land by stealth,
pastoralists continue to occupy
and all the while native title deny.
We stole their country yet criminalise
their young, with legal tricks and lies
and in custody yet another young man dies
it’s little wonder they despise –

And are Australians gaining
from the misery we’re creating?
Is the society we are making
inclusive and earth shaking ?
One where there is work for all
if ill fate should befall?
Are we helping all in need
with minimum incomes guaranteed
or are we just guaranteeing greed?


Community workers must:

  • Do the analysis.
  • Act on the analysis.

Your first job is to help your community to start to question what your society is doing. You then need to build on this questioning in order to create a feeling of unease. By presenting further information you help your community move on to expressing its concern. Through continued work you will create a process which develops opposition and resistance then rejection.

If the analysis results in anything like the story revealed in East Timor, or is similar to the ongoing repression of Indigenous Australians or anything like the treatment meted out to our fellow Australians who are excluded from the labour market then the action required, at its most peaceful, is militant. The struggle for social justice is not some part time activity, carried out for people to whom we are unconnected The struggle for a Free East Timor, respect for Indigenous Australians and the fight for full employment are not disconnected distributional issues, they are not something we can hope to address through some sort of pluralist trade off, something we can do for those groups which are somehow dissociated from ourselves. For as

Galper told us back in 1975, “the struggle for economic’ justice for others is inseparable from the struggle of all people, including the radical, to be treated as people and not as commodities. The solution for others is the solution for all. The radical vision eliminates the possibility of a personal refuge for some, or of piecemeal solutions, and places the radical’s personal solutions in the context of basic change for all.” (Galper, 1975 p. 80)

We need to place the solutions within a wider analysis because to do otherwise leads to divisiveness, isolation and defeat. The 1996 election saw a fish and chip shop owner in the seat of Oxley gain a 25% swing largely on the basis of her ill-informed views about Aborigines getting too much social welfare when compared with poor whites. In this seat there is massive unemployment and by playing the anti-Aboriginal card Pauline Hanson harnessed unemployed people’s alienation into a vote for her as the ‘disendorsed’ Liberal candidate.

The seductiveness of social justice as a social democratic or liberal paradigm with its four pillars of equality of rights, participation, access, and equity (Keating & Howe 1992, Salvaris 1988) needs to be put alongside the socialist conception of social justice which includes as well as the aforementioned pillars – solidarity. Without a solidarity with all people in this nation, and preferably the world, we just play into the pluralist game of trading off one part of the population against all other parts in a zero sum welfare redistribution game rather than moving the nation and the world towards a more equal, equitable, accessible, and participating humanity whose solidarity cements the inclusion of all in a just and progressive manner.


If you have any journalistic skills and can’t get progressive stories into mainstream media – write for Green Left or other progressive publications. In some countries activists throw their bodies under tanks, I’m just asking that you throw your body in front of a computer. If you write songs or poetry do that and try to get them into print or read them to people.

  • If you are a good public speaker – address meetings. If you are a cartoonist – draw.
  • If you are an artist – paint. Remember Picasso and Guernica.
  • If you can make documentaries or films which can assist progressive movements – produce films.
  • If you can sing – sing.
  • If you can march – march.

Hopefully you’ll be able to do lots of these things simultaneously but if you have few of these skills you might be reduced to giving papers at national and international conferences.

John Howard wants to return us to the 1950s with a picket fence around every house in the suburbs – I urge you to put a picket around every factory which exploits its workers, every welfare agency which lacks respect for its clientele, and totally blockade those companies which attempt to exploit indigenous people or engage in ecologically harmful practices in this country or overseas.

If you have research skills – start researching the corporate excesses in this country and expose them, then corporate leaders might follow Laurie Connel’s lead and die in mysterious circumstances.

  • If you have speculative funds and want to invest in Australia’s future start by donating it to local, national or international progressive groups.
  • If you have access to sufficient funds set up a Welfare Crimes Tribunal to prosecute those who carry out atrocities against low income earners – do so.

Read as much of the progressive community work literature as you have time to, build up a personal library of “how to do it books” like Community Action Book (Flood & Lawrence 1987) and keep up with useful recent publications like Susan Kenny’s Developing Communities for the Future: (Kenny 1994). Publications such as Jim lfe’s Community Development, even with its inadequate analysis of the role of the welfare state, help to develop and maintain a critical community work perspective (Ife 1995).

Spend your time working with progressive groups and organisations to confront racism, classism, sexism, urbanism, ageism and to change the way we marginalise people with disabilities.

Community Work

There are only two reasons why people organise – to try and make something happen or to stop something happening. Of course, most community groups are simultaneously campaigning for some things to happen and to stop other things occurring. There needs to be a compatibility between the issues on which a group is working if consistency is to be maintained and a clear identity developed. A group might be fighting to prevent a freeway being driven through their suburb and working to develop recreational facilities in their area contemporaneously – or they might be attempting to stop industry polluting a river and attempting to encourage alternative ecologically sensitive industries to set up in their town. There is a consistency between these issues.

A choice most community workers have to confront is the question “are they working in the interests of the powerful or the powerless in their community”. If, as I hope, they choose to work with and in the interests of the powerless then this will define, in large part, their relationship with powerful people and groups in their area. To what extent do community workers relate to and compromise with powerful people and organisations in their neighbourhoods? It is unreasonable to assume that all people in their town with wealth, status and power are the forces of darkness yet most will constitute the forces they are fighting. If you are working with poor peoples’ organisations then the extent to which you compromise with rich people undermines the trust that poor people should place in you. But it must be remembered that even Kari Marx had to rely on Frederick Engels’ family wealth to sustain himself and his family.

The old slogan “Think globally and act locally” is seductively attractive to community workers who want to maintain a clear progressive ideological focus; yet the maintenance of ideological purity is the very thing which divides many a community group. In What is to Be Done? Lenin railed against those he accused of being overly concerned about the economic conditions of the working class instead of concentrating on their political education (Lenin circa 1930 p. 165).

Without a clear ideology community work often degenerates into mindless activity easily deflected. Organising to get low income earners better treatment at the local welfare office might be a good thing in itself but without a clear commitment to developing an inclusive equitable society how does a group decide what is “better” treatment.

The temptation is to stop once the clear abuses of clients end – but this is not an act of liberation it is an act of containment. The other side of this coin is that it is that low income earners who have to find an accommodation with local welfare officials. It is they who live day by day vulnerable to the excesses of officials. It is they who receive the crumbs which drop off the welfare table, therefore it is they who must decide what battles to fight, with whom and for how long.

In 1996 it would seem that Labor was on the nose, working class and middle Australia did not share Keating’s vision of incorporation into Asia, as Brian Toohey said, after the March 2 election, the last time Australia was opened up to the world on such a scale was in 1788 and no one would argue that this benefited all the people who were here then (Toohey 1996). In the 1996 election racism was the issue which put the icing on the cake for the opposition. Keating was associated with the Mabo decision and had set up the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. The informed public had witnessed Bob Katter screeching about “femo-Nazis and slanty eyed ideologues” and his playing on the belief that Aborigines received massive benefits from the welfare system. This point was reinforced by the new member for Oxley (Meryment 1996, Johnstone 1996, 7.30 Report 7/3/96, Background Briefing 17/3/96). Graham Campbell retained his seat of Kaigoorlie after being disendorsed by the Labor Party for racism directed primarily towards Asian immigrants. Robert Tickner the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs lost his seat with a swing 4% higher than the New South Wales average.

Let’s say you are working with a community group trying to ensure that Aboriginal children do not continue to be disappeared from their families and from their community. Unless you and your community understand the depth of racism, particularly racism directed at the Indigenous people of this country, you will be placed behind the eight ball when you try to prevent any child being taken “by the hard cops (police) or soft cops (welfare)”. Certainly a simple understanding of hegemonic forces in this country like racism, without an equally critical appreciation of the particular circumstances of this child and this family won’t equip you to fight in the Children’s Court in any particular case. It is a case of having to understand both the global and the local aspects of the situation. Settling for an appreciation of just one level of understanding will undermine any community effort in which you are involved.


In order to build an opposition capable of confronting powerful forces in any society determined to push through with their agenda, you must start with an analysis expressed in words and concepts which can be understood by ordinary people (Glaser, B. & Strauss, A. 1967). The concepts you employ need to make sense in your community not just illuminate the class consciousness of left over Marxist eggheads and other wackerdemics. Though you are attempting to build opposition it must concentrate on positives: if you want to stop a factory polluting a river then concentrate on the benefits of clean water, improved health, the potential to reinvigorate wildlife diversity, and create more accessible recreational facilities. This should of course go hand in hand with forecasts of the destructive effects of allowing the factory to continue to pollute.

If you are trying to prevent a governmentadopting even more targeted forms of
income maintenance, introducing more stringent activity testing to qualify for unemployment benefits, or adopting other presuming policies in relation to income maintenance then you need to convince people of the need to introduce universal income guarantees in order to free people’s creativity and increase their liberty (Goodin 1992, VCOSS & Good Shepherd 1995, Watts 1995).

The analysis has to be thorough, it must confront negatives with positives, it must be clear and the tactics and strategies chosen need to be exciting and innovative. The entire campaign must be militant, inclusive, fun, supporting and supportive. And finally, you must be prepared to throw all your energy into it and keep at it.


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