One year of Kennett, and the pain increases


By Di Quin

MELBOURNE — Just under one year after the Coalition came into government in Victoria, the state remains in severe economic crisis, and a new austerity budget last week hit Victorians still reeling from the attacks brought in by Premier Jeff Kennett last year.

Victorians were made to pay over 10% more for gas and electricity, a $100 levy was placed on home owners, other state taxes were raised and the Kennett government severely slashed social spending.

Over the past months there have been many examples of the devastation caused by the reduction of services. Almost 19,000 households had their electricity disconnected in the 12 months to April because of financial hardship. At the same time, government-sponsored relief payments dropped.

More than 600 families sought financial assistance from the Salvation Army's St Kilda Crisis Centre in the first five months of this year, and there are plans to cut $1 million in programs that give low income earners discounts on gas and electricity. Many welfare centres have closed, and most that survive have had funding cuts of at least 10%.

Protests across the state have voiced the outrage of thousands of parents disgusted by the $11.5 million funding cut to kindergartens — the latest march of more than 1000 was on August 28. This cut prevents many parents from accessing the already understaffed, overcrowded but much needed kindergartens.

A similar situation applies to the ambulance service, already strained to the limit by lack of funding. Before the budget, a further $10 million was "trimmed" off the paltry $55 million the service receives.

The chief executive of the ambulance service resigned in January, predicting fatal results if the ambulance budget was not boosted. His warning proved correct when a 27-year old man died of a preventable death because it took 20 minutes for an ambulance to reach him.

In April, the treasurer announced a $381 million cut to the health budget. This caused the closure of many smaller community and country hospitals. A further 8000 jobs will be cut from health in the next two years, services will be reduced, and health professionals will be expected to change work practices to accommodate the reduced funding.

The ongoing crisis in public transport will worsen with plans to cut another 6500 jobs. Despite union concerns over safety, the government plans to introduce driver-only trams even though automatic ticketing machines are not due to be installed until mid-1994. More than 3400 public transport jobs have been cut in the last seven months.

The Kennett government's attempt to weaken the union movement through the introduction of the Employee Relations Act has not proved as successful as the government hoped. The Act scrapped compulsory arbitration, and from March 1 all state awards were abolished. The alternative was a system of collective and individual employment contracts, underpinned by the barest minimum conditions.

Minister for industry and employment Phil Gude said on August 11 that 35,000-50,000 individual employment contracts have been signed under the new laws. Part of that figure is accounted for by workers formerly under state awards who are deemed to be on individual contracts unless they negotiate collective agreements. It is estimated that at least 200,000 workers have escaped into federal awards or are in the process of doing so.

Although the act makes it illegal for workers to enforce union shops, both employer groups and unions agree that few union shops have been broken so far.

Public sector workers are feeling the impact of the new industrial system. After a change in leadership last month, the State Public Service Federation dropped its refusal to negotiate employment contracts with the state government.

Equal opportunity commissioner Moira Rayner reported on August 9 that complaints by public sector workers against the Kennett government's employment practices had doubled over the past year. The main complaints have been from employees on workers' compensation, whose rights and entitlements have been slashed. Women workers have also reported greater discrimination from employers.