Australasian Spartacist No. 212

Autumn 2011


Queensland Floods

Capitalist Greed and Neglect

During January large areas of Queensland, almost a third of Victoria, as well as parts of northern New South Wales and South Australia were awash with devastating floods produced by one of the strongest La Niña events ever recorded. Hardest hit was Queensland where at least thirty-five died and thousands were left homeless. While large areas of Brisbane were inundated, those living in the Lockyer Valley in southeast Queensland experienced the terror of what has been described as an “inland tsunami” as an unstoppable torrent of water crashed through everything in its path.

While natural disasters inevitably inflict havoc, the extent of the death and devastation in Queensland was a product of capitalist greed and neglect. The Bureau of Meteorology gave repeated advance warnings to the Queensland government that the east coast would suffer torrential downpours this summer, yet nothing was done. Now controversy rages over the state Labor government’s administration of Wivenhoe Dam near Brisbane, which was built in the aftermath of the 1974 Brisbane floods. Despite the repeated flood warnings, water levels at Wivenhoe were allowed to reach dangerous heights. On 11 January the situation had become so precarious the dam administrators were forced to release more than the volume of water in Sydney Harbour into the already swollen Brisbane River, thus contributing to the flooding of the city.

According to reports in Murdoch’s Australian newspaper, in 2006 the state government skimped on a necessary safety upgrade of Wivenhoe Dam in order to save tens of millions of dollars. This penny-pinching in effect reduced the flood-mitigation capacity of the dam by up to 20 percent. This is hardly surprising. In search of the quick buck, and refusing to build adequate infrastructure, one Queensland government after the next has had no policy for limiting development on flood prone locations or for constructing levees to protect towns most under threat. Alongside this, the Queensland government has embarked on massive union-busting privatisations of infrastructure, from rail to wharves, in order to help enrich their capitalist “mates.”

Julia Gillard’s federal Labor government aims to pay for flood reconstruction by slashing spending and imposing a new tax that will target large sections of the working class. Meanwhile the parasitic insurance companies have scrambled to deny payouts, absurdly claiming that what happened in Brisbane was not a “flood” but a “rising river.” With the usual capitalist government double-speak about “transparency,” the premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh, announced a royal commission-style “inquiry” into the handling of the floods. Such state inquiries are not only designed to amnesty the capitalist rulers and their governments but in this case has also served to deflect the anger and despair of flood victims into safe channels. Throughout the crisis the bourgeois media bombarded the population with “national unity” rhetoric thick with eulogies to a mythical “Aussie spirit” while calling on everyone to “stick together.”

In conjunction with this nationalist outpouring, the government seized the opportunity to call in the army, placing Major-General Mick Slater, former head of Australian imperialism’s 2006 neo-colonial occupation of East Timor, in charge of the “flood recovery task force.” The capitalist rulers use such natural calamities to accustom the population to the intervention of the military into civil society, while their media hacks work overtime to paint the repressive capitalist state as a supposed humanitarian force for good. Nothing could be further from the truth. Leninists understand that the bourgeois state—at its core the military, police, prisons and courts—is a violent repressive apparatus that exists to defend the property and profits of the filthy rich capitalists against the struggles of the working class and oppressed.

Following the floods the mendacious capitalist rulers and their media sensationalised the harrowing ordeals of some, while in general disappearing the desperate reality that most working people and the oppressed particularly confront in the wake of such disasters. Following the flooding of coal mines in Queensland, the bourgeoisie bellowed about the potential negative impact on the national economy and future coal contracts (read their profits) but there has been nary a word about the impact of the floods on mine workers. Meanwhile the Labor government backed those bosses who refused to pay workers stood down as a result of the floods.

Highlighting the bourgeoisie’s contempt and indifference toward the plight of Aboriginal people, there has been barely any mention of the conditions in impoverished Aboriginal communities, which have doubtless been left to fend for themselves amidst fetid mud-encrusted wreckage. Reflecting conscious capitalist neglect, the Palm Island Aboriginal community, the largest and one of the most poverty-stricken indigenous communities in Australia, was pointedly not evacuated prior to the devastating cyclone Yasi that struck shortly after the floods. The chronic homelessness, mortality rates and unemployment experienced by Aboriginal people in this racist capitalist society will only be exacerbated as a result of these natural disasters.

The misery inflicted by the floods or other natural disasters is magnified ten-fold by the decrepit, irrational, capitalist system which, in the search for the greatest profit margins, treats human life with criminal disregard. It is the proletariat, poor and oppressed who always suffer the most as a result of capitalist neglect and greed. It will take a socialist revolution and the establishment of a planned collectivised economy under workers rule for the natural resources and the technological and productive forces of society to be marshalled on behalf of human needs not profit.

Counterposed to this perspective is the puerile reformism of the fake-left opponents of revolutionary Marxism. In their 11 January statement calling for “Money for flood relief, not for war,” Socialist Alliance (SA) demand the Gillard government “call our troops back from the war in Afghanistan to assist with tackling the flood crisis and its aftermath” (our emphasis). For their part, the misnamed Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), proving yet again that their split with SA’s antecedent (the Democratic Socialist Perspective) had no programmatic basis, write, “A simple first step could be to redeploy the troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan to flood affected areas to do socially useful work.” What will these toadies of the bourgeoisie come up with next? Help “the people” by building a bigger military!? As for Socialist Alternative (SAlt) they provide a slightly different but no less reformist schema, baldly headlining that the “Gov’t should rethink priorities to deal with flood region.” Typical of reformists the world over SAlt meekly advise the capitalist rulers to change their policies: “The Afghanistan war cost $1.2 billion last financial year–scrap it. Gross operating profits of business totalled $248 billion over the last year–tax it” (Socialist Alternative, 14 January).

In sharp contrast to the reformists’ self-appointed role as advisers to the bourgeoisie, we revolutionary Marxists look to the working class as the agency for social change. The Queensland Council of Unions reported that there was an outpouring of “thousands of hours of volunteer labour and significant financial assistance” from unions in the immediate aftermath of the floods. This was a good thing. But while the union bureaucrats are happy to sing the praises of workers volunteering their labour and money they do nothing to organise a class-struggle fight for a massive rebuilding program of public works and infrastructure to create full employment, with union jobs at union wage scales and conditions.

That the union misleaders refuse to engage in such a struggle is rooted in their support to the capitalist profit system, expressed politically in their Laborite nationalism and reliance on the capitalist state, which they repeatedly campaign to be administered by a Labor government. To unleash the social power of the multiracial working class means a fight to break with the politics of Laborism. Concretely this will require a political struggle to replace the hidebound union bureaucrats with a leadership committed to mobilising proletarian power, independent of the capitalist state and in the interests of all the exploited and oppressed. Ultimately it will take the construction of a revolutionary workers party, on the model of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks who led the great 1917 Russian Revolution, to lead the working class in the overthrow of this anarchic, irrational, profit-driven system, which endangers the safety and welfare of the population.