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Oz Perspective: Alliance Torn Apart By Afghan War

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Alliance torn apart by Afghan war


AUCKLAND -- When the New Zealand parliament voted on October 3 to offer Special Air Services troops and other military assistance to the US-led war in Afghanistan and declared that it ``totally supports the approach being taken by the United States of America'', members and supporters of the Alliance were shocked to discover that all 10 of their parliamentarians voted for the resolution.

Given that the Alliance had opposed the Gulf War, opposed sanctions against Iraq and opposed the bombing of Kosova and Serbia, most Alliance members had assumed that their MPs would also oppose the war in Afghanistan.

The difference now is that the left-of-Labour Alliance is in coalition government with the Labour Party. When the Alliance previously opposed US militarism, it was in opposition.

The MPs' decision sparked fury among Alliance members, with some resigning from the party or threatening to resign if the decision wasn't overturned.

Among the party's rank-and-file, opposition to the war is strong. Many Alliance members and supporters have been involved in organising and attending anti-war demonstrations. One opinion poll revealed that opposition to the war was greatest (at 70%) among Alliance voters.

The conflict between pro-war MPs and anti-war members reared up at the party's annual conference, held in Auckland on November 10-11. The conferednce was members' first major opportunity to hold their MPs to account.

Members revolt

Debate was impassioned -- and, in a rare move for a political party, was open to the media.

The subject of debate was a compromise resolution, which condemned the terror attack on the World Trade Center and stated that the use of force in Afghanistan could exacerbate international conflict, but did not condemn the bombing of civilians in Afghanistan.

The 11-point resolution also called on Alliance caucus members ``to review their support for the deployment of SAS troops and any other government measures that are inconsistent with this resolution, and, if necessary, invoke the right to differentiate [from the Labour Party] on this issue''.

Only one amendment was accepted for debate, which called on the MPs to withdraw (instead of review) support for SAS troops.

In the ensuing debate, all of the key non-parliamentarian figures in the Alliance spoke in favour of the amendment to withdraw support, leaving only the MPs and a couple of others to argue against.

In arguing against the amendment, MPs made no attempt to justify the war, instead arguing that withdrawing support for the deployment of troops would give Labour Prime Minister Helen Clark the opportunity to sack Alliance cabinet ministers and call an early election.

With the party currently polling only 2-4%, an early election might mean that Alliance MPs wouldn't get re-elected, they argued.

Deputy leader Sandra Lee claimed that such a move would ``put your cabinet ministers in breach of the cabinet manual. You have an obligation to support your MPs.''

In his concluding remarks, party leader Jim Anderton dwelt on the threat to coalition government stability if delegates voted for the amendment.

The only Alliance MP opposed to the deployment of SAS troops, Laila Harre, didn't speak during the debate.

Many of the anti-war delegates were especially disappointed by cabinet minister Matt Robson's support for the deployment of SAS troops. Robson, minister for disarmament and aid and associate minister for foreign affairs, has been involved in previous anti-war movements and has been regarded as a left-winger.

In his address to the delegates, Robson justified the war against Afghanistan by claiming that it was ``within the framework of international law''. Pressed about his stance later, Robson claimed that the US was not indiscriminately bombing civilians and was only bombing the Taliban frontline.

Anti-war delegates, meanwhile, denounced the ``war against terror'' as a ``fraud''.

One delegate from Auckland said that he was ``tired of MPs telling us we don't know how difficult it is for the caucus'', while another delegate said ``the sad thing here is that our MPs are not representing the party''.

Another delegate said that Alliance MPs ``weren't courageous when [they] agreed to troops. [They] put political expediency ahead of principle. Some say that to oppose the war will threaten government stability, but if the price of government stability is the deaths of more innocent people then I say the price of government stability is too high.''

While early on it looked like the amendment would gain majority support, MPs' arguments seemed to have swayed members, including those who had spoken in favour of the amendment. The amendment was finally voted down by 85 to 61, with five abstentions.

The compromise motion, which called for a review of the caucus decision, was then supported unanimously.

But that didn't end the debate.

The very next day the New Zealand Herald asked Anderton when the review would begin. He replied ``We won't be moving any sooner than I intended in the first place''.

Later that day, he told the NZ Herald ``I see myself as the unchallenged leader of the Alliance. It [support for the war] will be reviewed as and when it is necessary to review it. They have given the authority to the leadership to keep this matter under review.''

Two Alliance MPs, Laila Harre and Phillida Bunkle, contradicted his statement, calling for the review to begin immediately, as did several Alliance national council members.

The comments inflamed Anderton, who has instructed the caucus that he will be the only Alliance MP allowed to comment about the war in Afghanistan.

Since the conference, Anderton seems to have declared war on anti-war Alliance members, including Laila Harre, Alliance president Matt McCarten and Alliance general secretary Gerard Hehir.


Anderton has forced all MPs to sign a paper reaffirming the decision to send SAS troops, has demanded the resignation of party president Matt McCarten, has attempted to lock-out left-wing staffers and has successfully pressured all but three MPs to stop contributing a 10% tithe from their parliamentary salary to the Alliance. The three Alliance MPs continuing to pay their tithe are Willie Jackson, Laila Harre and Liz Gordon.

Anderton's critics believe he wants to run the Alliance in the same way that the Labour Party and the National Party are run -- in those parties, the parliamentary leader has virtually unfettered right to rule, regardless of the views of members.

Since the Alliance joined the coalition government with the Labour Party in 1999, Anderton has given every impression of being closer to the Labour Party than to the Alliance membership.

In Anderton's address to the conference he emphasised ``We want to be known as a good party of government [rather] than a good party of opposition'' and added that the Alliance needs to offer itself as a reliable coalition partner of Labour.

Even prior to the anti-war debate, there was disquiet at what many members see as the Alliance's uncritical attitude to Labour in government.

Although the coalition agreement allows the Alliance to differentiate itself from Labour on occasion, this provision has only been used a couple of times.

Several MPs have been muzzled from speaking out on issues where it would be seen as undermining cabinet solidarity. For example, Anderton has prevented Alliance associate minister for labour Laila Harre from addressing striking workers.

The Alliance had its origins in a left-wing split from the Labour Party in the late 1980s. Disgusted by the 1980s Labour government's Thatcherite economic policies, Jim Anderton, Matt McCarten and others left to form the New Labour Party.

The New Labour Party then formed the Alliance with the Green Party, the Maori party Mana Motuhake and the Democrats (the former Social Credit Party). The Green Party left the Alliance in 1997, and the NLP dissolved into the Alliance 12 months ago.

Underlying the fight over the war is another unspoken fight about the future direction of the Alliance: will it be a centre-left pale imitation of the Labour Party, or will it become a genuine left party where parliamentarians are accountable to the membership?

The future of the Alliance will become clearer at the next meeting of the party's national council in early December.

- Originally published in the latest issue of Green Left Weekly (, Australia's radical newspaper, November 28, 2001.

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