By Bronwen Beechey
MELBOURNE — With recent opinion polls indicating a swing of at least 10% against Labor, the defeat of the Kirner government at the state elections in October seems a foregone conclusion. It seems key ministers have accepted the inevitability of their demise. Agriculture minister Ian Baker recently said he had stopped making major decisions, earning a rebuke from Premier Kirner who, publicly at least, says Labor will be re-elected.
It's clear that big business support has swung from Labor to the Liberals. This is reflected in a lukewarm business response to Kirner's $20 million "youth job training" package, the suspension by Carlton-United Breweries of a proposed $22 million expansion project and a strident anti-Kirner editorial campaign by the Murdoch-owned Herald-Sun.
Rather than attempt to run on her government's record — a recipe for certain defeat — Kirner says Labor's campaign will focus on the Liberals' industrial relations and privatisation policies, the proposed $3-an-hour youth wage and the "Scotch College and advertising" background of opposition leader Jeff Kennett.
It is certain a Liberal government would make life much more difficult for most Victorians. The Liberals are refusing to release details of many policies until the election date is announced, but their general intentions are clear.
Under the Liberals, privatisation would cost a minimum of 10,000 public sector jobs. State Energy Commission power stations, the State Insurance Office, parts of the Transport Accident Commission, the government's share of the Portland aluminium smelter, the Government Printer, at least one prison and possibly part of the Gas and Fuel Corporation would be sold.
Most government administration, hospital cleaning and catering, welfare services, bus services and possibly tram and train routes would be contracted out to private enterprise.
The Liberals intend to bring in an Employee Relations Bill enabling employers to replace state awards with New Zealand-style employment contracts, with or without workers' agreement. These contracts would only have to include a minimum hourly rate of around $290 a week, existing minimum annual leave, sick leave and long-service benefits, dispute settling procedures and stand-down provisions. Existing conditions such as maternity leave, overtime, shift penalties and annual leave loading would have to be renegotiated.
Opposition industrial relations spokesperson Phil Gude recently said there was "no intention to force any reduction in wages or working conditions on anyone". The experience of unskilled workers in New Zealand, forced in some cases to work for $20 a day, proves otherwise.
In normal circumstances, support by working people for such a program would be as likely as chickens voting for Colonel Sanders. The fact that the Liberals seem set to win by a landslide can only be explained by the record of the Labor government. The ALP has had to work hard to alienate so thoroughly its traditional bases of support, including teachers, health, public sector, welfare and transport workers — not to mention the party rank and file.
Apart from its record of financial mismanagement, including millions of dollars of public money wasted on failed ventures such as the Bayside development, and in bailing out corporate cowboys such as the Pyramid Building Society, the Kirner government — despite its condemnation of the Liberals' proposed fire sale of public assets — has in fact carried out a campaign of privatisation by stealth.
According to the Victorian Public Service Federation, 2200 state government properties are up for sale at the moment, the most publicised examples being the Loy Yang B power station and the State Insurance Office. The list of Labor's privatisations, corporatisations and cutbacks also includes:
- The corporatisation of Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (now Melbourne Water Corporation.) Melbourne Water's tunnelling operation is to be closed down or sold off, putting hundreds of jobs at stake.
- The probable closure of the Morwell Briquette Factory unless the government and the SECV agree to a $50 million modernisation program. The factory employs around 700 workers in the already depressed Latrobe Valley.
- 700 jobs to go at Gas and Fuel, particularly in white collar areas.
- 6000 jobs to go in rail transport, under state and federal government arrangements.
- Contracting out of services is rampant throughout the public sector. Areas affected include the government car fleet, public hospitals and the TAB.
The Victorian Public Service Federation says 31,000 jobs have been lost in the past three years. The government now says job losses and service cuts are inevitable, ignoring previous promises to the union movement that it would protect public sector jobs. Prospects for the future look grim unless progressive forces can come up with an electoral alternative.