Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan fronted the media on April 6 with the news that the state’s economy is in a turmoil not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The recently elected Labor government has warned that its first budget will be “tough and uncompromising”, though tough and uncompromising to whom is yet to be seen.
Western Australia has witnessed a dizzying economic bonanza over recent decades, driven primarily by the mining boom and energy sector. Profits have soared, and Western Australians were routinely reminded just how lucky we all were, despite the fact that for most of us, the only real indicators that life was good was the ever-increasing cost of living.
Housing prices in particular have reached a point that unless something substantial changes, many people, particularly young people, will never own their own home.
WA unemployment rates are the highest in the country, in some places reaching 25% of young people.
About 150 Aboriginal communities across the state have been threatened with forced closure, with the government claiming there is just no funding available to maintain even basic social services.
The state Liberal Party under recently deposed premier Colin Barnett has done its job well: converting as much public wealth into profit as possible. Today’s estimates show that the “mining boom” state is now saddled with a budget deficit set to climb to $42.3 billion by 2020. Much of the wealth that was created has simply been creamed off by mining and banking interests, most of which also use legal loopholes to pay zero tax in this country.
Now all eyes are on the McGowan government. Labor was the key beneficiary of the wave of popular discontent against the previous Barnett Liberal government. It has promised to maintain its position on particularly contentious issues such as the Perth Freight Link, and the proposed privatisation of Western Power and the Fremantle Port.
But with the government announcement of the state’s growing economic woes, it seems that the focus will be on cuts to the public sector, wage freezes and increasing electricity prices, rather than go after the big corporations that have parasitically usurped so much of what should be the community’s wealth.
The Liberal Party was the decisive loser in the March state election, however this does not imply widespread confidence in Labor as a political alternative. The early signs are that rather than mount a serious and committed campaign to claim back the stolen wealth, the McGowan government will instead try to patch things up by further cuts and attacks on workers and community services.
Post-election then, it remains the immediate task of grassroots campaigns to continue their organising efforts and promote the awareness that a change of government need not indicate a change of political course, and that a committed working class alternative to the major parties is needed.
Industrially, this effort is significantly hindered by the approach taken by much of the union movement to remain affiliated with Labor in the hope of influencing it from within. In the coming months, if Labor does move to implement austerity measures that hurt working people, the unions’ strategy will come more and more under the spotlight.