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The global Occupy movement has inspired huge numbers of Australians who have grown chronically disengaged with the political game-playing of the two big parties and an economic system that puts profit before people and the planet.
Not just a show of solidarity with the huge wave of democratic dissent against corporate greed and systemic crises in the US, Europe and the Arab world — the broad support shown in news polls for the Occupy camps in Sydney and Melbourne shows similar roots of dissent have been spreading here for some time.
In Melbourne, protesters returned to the streets on October 29, more than a week after police smashed up the Occupy Melbourne camp. About 1000 people marched to the Treasury Gardens and then Bowens Lane at RMIT.
Occupy Sydney is planning a rally at Town Hall at 12pm on November 5, followed by an occupation of a public place.
Scores of people are now questioning the vast gap between the majority of people and those who have the decision-making power in this society.
But this burgeoning sentiment has met with derision and ridicule, even from so-called progressive commentators.
Greg Jericho on ABC’s The Drum Opinion on October 19 made a bid to offer “a bit of perspective” to the “outlandish desires” of those taking part in Occupy protests in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and other cities. He said Australia has “got it good” and the Australian economy is the “envy of the world”.
The global financial crisis did not affect Australia to the same extent as the US and Europe, and unemployment isn’t as bad. US debt is much higher, and its CEOs are greedier. Commentators like Jericho argue Australians have little to be angry about.
But there is plenty to be angry about.
There are the tenaciously greedy bosses — like Qantas CEO Alan Joyce who got a 71% pay rise (to $5.1 million a year) right in the middle of his fight with Qantas and Jetstar workers over a modest 5% pay rise and safer and more secure jobs.
And of course Australia’s banking system is not above the global trend of raking in a hefty profit and passing none of it on.
The National Australia Bank made a record profit of $5.5 billion, up 23.6%, it said on October 26. However, the chance of mortgage holders and borrowers seeing any of this in a cut to NAB’s interest rates is unlikely.
Even supposedly accountable elected politicians have used their positions of power to get rich. Business Review Weekly said in May last year the average Labor MP is worth $1 million. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd was worth $56 million at the time.
Liberal backbenchers were worth $1.6 million on average. The wealthiest among them is former party leader Malcolm Turnbull, worth $186 million.
But even that’s not comparable to the obscene wealth of Australia’s biggest resource and mining bosses. Fortescue Metals Group CEO Andrew Forrest was worth about $6 billion in September last year.
Gina Rinehart, boss of iron ore company Hancock Prospecting, has an individual fortune of $4.75 billion.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics says Australian mining companies have made $255 billion in pre-tax profits since 2004-05.
With these huge resources they can push and influence the government, its policy and its priorities.
Forrest and Rinehart led the multimillion-dollar media campaign against Rudd’s Resources Super Profits Tax.
Green Left Weekly said in March that Julia Gillard’s counter offer cut the amount mining companies would pay in tax from an expected $99 billion to just $38.5 billion.
“That’s $60.5 billion that could have been spent on health care, education or the shift to renewable energy.”
In NSW, the mining industry was worth $17 billion in 2009-10. At a recent conference of minerals and resource magnates it was said about $6.8 billion in royalties would go to the state government over the next few years.
Several of these mining companies are deploying their huge resources against communities fighting to defend their health and livelihood from dangerous coal seam gas mining.
At the other end of the social divide, 11% of Australians — or 2 million people — live in poverty. About 100,000 are homeless on any given night and chronic underfunding means half of these people are turned away from shelters.
Economists boast about Australia’s “low” 5.2% unemployment rate. But the ABS says a further 7.2% are underemployed, without enough work to get by. Household debt, huge youth unemployment and rising costs of living, health care and education are slowly destroying millions of lives.
Yet when people say the acute shortages in healthcare, housing, welfare and social services need to be addressed, they are told there isn’t enough money to deal with it.
When it released its budget in May, the Labor government said it needed to cut back on “waste” and bring the budget into surplus. With this excuse, the government cut payments to some sole parent households by $56 a week, a huge amount for people struggling to cover rent, food and utility costs. Unemployed 21-year-olds lost $43 a week from their benefits.
Eligibility for disability pensions was tightened to limit the number of recipients. And much needed improvement to dental health assistance and Medicare were entirely absent.
In stark contrast to the treatment of the ignored majority, the mining companies, whose profits rose by 15.2% in the lead up to the budget, were rewarded with huge tax and royalty cuts.
Big mining companies in Australia now pay the lowest rate in tax and royalties compared with other industries. Mining investment has risen from $12 billion in 2003-04 to an estimated $56 billion in 2010-11.
And while environmental damage and carbon emissions caused by the rapacious expansion of fossil fuel mining and use destroys the atmosphere, the government doesn’t only refuse to invest in desperately needed clean energy technology. It cut $220 million from the Solar Flagships program designed to build renewable energy power plants.
What else would the government rather spend big on than addressing the climate crisis or the most marginalised and in need? Its $300 billion
four- twenty-year military budget gives a clue.
Wasting billions on occupying countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, which kill hundreds of thousands and destroy the livelihoods of the rest, is more important to the two big parties than preventing Australians from going hungry or homeless.
The reality is that in Australia, like elsewhere, governments cater to the needs of the super-rich and force the majority to pay the costs.
The legitimate concerns of working people about the rising cost of living and increased economic hardship are not taken seriously. We don’t have the access to the mass media and government that the huge wealth of the Twiggys, Murdochs and Packers brings. It is vital to keep building the mobilisations in the streets to outweigh the corporate media spin.
Occupy Australia, standing in solidarity with similar protests throughout the world, has created the opportunity for a movement to address Australia’s own injustices.