After nearly 11 years in the federal parliament Labor Party senator Doug Cameron gave his valedictory speech in early April. Speaking of his life’s work, he said, “It all comes down to one thing – socialism”.
Many of those who have followed Cameron’s career would have been surprised to hear that he has been a committed socialist. It seems that even some of Doug’s own Labor colleagues were surprised to find out they had been sitting with a socialist!
Cameron came to Australia from Scotland in the early 1970s and worked as a fitter. He joined the metalworkers union and made his way through the union’s ranks, eventually becoming the national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU).
Cameron was a controversial figure in the AMWU, particularly in the late 1990s and early 2000s. During those years, he led pro-Labor Party forces in the union in a factional battle against the left.
The socialist-influenced rank and file group Workers First won control of the Victorian branch of the AMWU and embarked on a bold campaign to transform the union and raise wages. Led by Craig Johnston, Workers First pushed the ideas of militant class struggle unionism in contrast to Cameron’s tame cat approach.
Cameron saw Workers First as a threat to his leadership and did everything he could to weaken them. He ruthlessly collaborated with the media, the bosses, the state government, and even federal intelligence agencies to undermine the Victorian branch leaders. He had some success.
Cameron’s attacks on the left were rewarded by the Labor Party when he was bumped into parliament after the 2007 election. Once in office, Cameron loyally supported both the Rudd and Gillard governments, often described as the most right-wing Labor governments ever.
Now an enthusiastic supporter of Bill Shorten, Cameron has always been more at home with those on the right of the labour movement than he has with socialists. That he has been described as a ‘left’ within the Labor Party says more about how conservative Labor has become than it does about his own politics.
Over the years, Cameron has clearly articulated his worldview. He was a defender of the Accord, a form of collaboration between the unions and employers.
The Accord boosted capitalism making it more difficult for workers to struggle over the wealth created. It paved the way for the weakening of the union movement, and the extreme wealth inequality we see today.
While Cameron often gave employers advice about how to run their businesses, the union that he ran lost thousands of members on his watch. Is it any wonder the bosses rarely listened to him!
Cameron has long supported forms of protectionism and would be best described as an economic nationalist. Cameron’s economic policies are actually closer to Pauline Hanson’s than they are to genuine socialism.
At no stage, either as a union leader or as a senator, did Cameron put forward socialist policies like the need to bring key sectors of the economy into public ownership or planning to produce things for need rather than profits.
He spoke about supporting workers’ rights, but the governments he was part of introduced laws that facilitated low wage growth and an increase in job insecurity. The very rules we are now trying to change.
After spending a lifetime defending the status quo, many will ask what has led to Cameron’s newfound radicalism. While he was always a loyal operative of the Labor Party, he wasn’t a fool.
Cameron was always more far-sighted than your average Labor hack, having one eye to international political developments. He would have noticed the shift in support towards people like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders and the growing support for democratic socialist ideas.
While it’s utterly cynical that pro-capitalist politicians like Cameron want to attach themselves to socialism five minutes before retiring, it says a lot about the way politics is shifting to the left. In the future, we should expect that all sorts of people jump on the socialist bandwagon.
While we cannot say that we will miss him, we do hope that Cameron donates a big chunk of his parliamentary pension to our fighting fund, as is the socialist tradition.
By Anthony Main