Speech (text) delivered to Second Australian Political Economy Conference, Sydney, 1977
This speech was also published not long after its delivery by Laurie's union, The Amalgamated Metalworkers and Shipwrights Union.
Introduction – Don Sutherland
Anecdote says that this speech was delivered to an audience of a few hundred.
It is one of the most important documents in Australia’s labour movement history. This speech helps us to understand Carmichael’s approach to union leadership and strategy applied to the big picture. Its focus is on the big picture. The application of strategy to the workplace level is sketched out in his “Role of Shop Stewards Councils”. (Click here.) If nothing else, Carmichael’s grasp of the difference between program and strategy, and their dynamic relationship, is far stronger than is apparent in contemporary practice.
Also, it is of the greatest significance as an Australian approach to generating democratic change for democratic socialism.
He introduces two key concepts that recur in campaigns and associated articles and speeches in the years that follow. These are “open-ended transition” and “workers intervention”.
“Workers Intervention” is Carmichael’s adaptation and development of “workers control”. Remember, this speech is made towards the end of the heyday of the NSW Builders’ Labourers' green bans struggles that were also an industry-wide expression of workers’ control. In part, Carmichael was looking toward how workers’ power might challenge and re-direct manufacturing industry development.
Carmichael was mounting a critique of mainstream unionism that fought reasonably well on the wages front but lacked or was opposed to a union role in the decision-making about jobs creation.
The speech starts with a description of the crisis that faced workers and their unions at that time. Strategy starts with an analysis of the situation, and that includes the dominant alternatives expressed as “Friedmanite” and “traditional Keynesian” (which are quickly rejected).
From there Carmichael works through the 4 main options that lie in front of the union movement, either as established practice or as an emerging possibility. A “transitional program” approach is an emerging possibility at that time.
Therefore, he lays out what that is, and what it is not. The key phrase is “open-ended”. One of the big issues in this approach is “compromise” and therefore there is an elaboration of what a “principled” approach to compromise requires.
Notably, a transitional program is NOT “a formula for a ‘social contract’ for the purposes of refurbishing capitalism at the expense of the working class”.
There follows a point-by-point summary of the specific features of “Australian circumstances” that justify the “open-ended transitional program” that he is promoting. Worth reading, if only to assess each point against the march of history since 1977.
Carmichael then describes the primary and secondary forces available to propagate the strategy.
And, moving to the end of his speech, crucially, he outlines the “Four Cornerstones” for the content of the transitional program. The first of these is “Democratic Public Ownership”, followed by “Democratic Control”, “Social Objectives of Production”, and “A New World Economic Order”.
Each of these is treated relatively briefly. Each is discussed in greater detail in other speeches, articles, interviews and pamphlets that followed in the years after, and often adapted in detail as a result of the years between. Many of these will appear in this collection.
Carmichael’s closing remarks focus on what he calls “Self Action”. There is much in this that deserves the deepest study by workers, their unions, and their allies. For example, earlier he had referred to “a growing reaction of the people against environmental destruction”, and then shortly after, in advocating “full employment” as an essential part of a transitional program: “… production is for social use, that it is for environmental protection and renewal.” This is 1977.
What he says about “Self Action” is of serious significance for the proponents of a “just transition” out of the fossil fuel society to renewables: the profound difference between a “just transition” and a democratic just transition.
By Don Sutherland (June 2021)