What we can't and can afford

June 23, 1999

By John Tomlinson

The federal minister for employment and industrial relations, Peter Reith, says we can't afford to pay young people the same wages as an adult for identical work. Their youth justifies lower wages, even though we, as a nation, claim to have outlawed discrimination on the basis of age.

This isn't the first time that, for some, who a worker is, and not what they do, determines their pay. I am old enough to have been around in the 1960s, when, to the horror of many, women were first paid the same wages as men for identical work.

Equal pay for women for equal work took 60 years to achieve from the time the arbitration system established, in the celebrated 1907 Harvester judgment, the basic wage as a level of pay thought capable of sustaining "a man, his wife and three children". Women were to be paid only a percentage of that wage, because they could not be supporting dependents (but single and married men were paid the same amount). Yet evidence gathered in the late 1920s showed that 28% of employed female workers were supporting other family members.

There were many who saw "equal pay for equal work" as the end of civilisation. Their "civilisation" also included such quaint practices as the power to seek court orders for the "restoration of conjugal rights" within the blessed state of holy matrimony.

Women have still not achieved equal pay with men, however. There is a significant difference between the average male and female wages for full-time work: pay for all female workers is only two-thirds of that of all male workers. This is because there is a high degree of occupational segregation in the work force, with "women's" work considered less valuable than "men's".

The tradition of discrimination against segments of the Australian work force goes back further. From invasion until after the second world war, indigenous Australians were seldom paid anything other than rations.

Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were "assigned" to particular employers. If they escaped, they were returned to their "employer" by the police. Pacific islanders, particularly "Kanakas", were "indentured" — that is, kidnapped and enslaved — until 1907.

Multiple and contradictory views, upheld simultaneously, justified this on the sugar plantations and pastoral properties of Australia's north and west: the pitiful pay of "coloured" labour endangered the living standards of whites by undercutting wages, but "coloured" labour was not as productive as white labour and so should be paid less; Aborigines were considered not as good as whites or even "Kanakas" and didn't need to be paid at all, but pastoralists knew their survival depended on their access to Aboriginal labour.

Many white pastoralists, who themselves, or whose forefathers, had taken the Aborigines' land, women, children, and labour on whatever terms they deemed appropriate, drove Aborigines from "their" properties when equal pay was extended, in principle, to indigenous Australians in 1967. A major component in the pastoralists' decision was their failure to invest in training of "their blacks" and a growing fear of indigenous Australians' increasing assertiveness in their demands for land rights, adequate living quarters and social justice.

Despite the unhappy style in industrial relations and the racism (such as non-payment of Asians until the 1940s and indigenous Australians until the 1960s) enshrined in the welfare system, the belief was widely held by the late 1940s that Australia had established what Professor Frank Castles described as a "workers welfare state" fair to all, where workers got a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, and where if you needed social security, through "no fault of your own", you got it.

Today the old story is back. If you propose or defend a measure because it is fair, you will be told, "We can't afford it". What we can afford is just the opposite.

The Arbitration Commission can't decide minimum wage levels, the wages in country areas or the wages of people who have been unemployed. We can't afford to increase the minimum wage by more than $8 per week — that will cost jobs. But we can afford substantial increases to already lucrative executive salaries.

We can't afford job security. At first only businesses with fewer than 15 employees would not be subject to unfair dismissal laws and those newly hired wouldn't benefit. The argument was that if small businesses could sack employees more easily, this would increase their willingness to employ people. But when the Senate voted down this proposal, the government mused that it might just ditch the laws altogether. Then any business could afford to hire — or not, just as they please.

In Australia there was, between the 1960s and 1992, a reasonably comprehensive welfare safety net provided for all permanent residents. This started to change when migrants had a six-month waiting period imposed following their arrival.

Now we can't afford to have unemployed people unless they work for the dole — just like the 1930s. We can't afford to have older Australians ageing unless they have saved for their retirement through superannuation. That's similar to the situation which existed prior to 1908, when the age pension began.

We can't afford to provide taxpayer-funded dental treatment to the very poorest Australians at a cost of $400 million. But we can afford to subsidise, by $1.8 billion, a two-tiered health system (including subsidised dental services), primarily advantaging better-off Australians.

We can't afford to decrease waiting time for surgery in public hospitals, however.

We can't, since 1998, allow frail aged Australians to enter nursing homes even for 87.5% of their pension — even though at least 65% of people needing nursing home care are pensioners getting the full rate of payment, meaning they have little other income.

As the Ford Inquiry has revealed in Queensland, we can't afford to provide properly funded children's services, but we can afford to build more prisons to hold those we failed when they were young.

We can't afford to say sorry to the stolen generations because that might necessitate paying compensation. But we can afford to incarcerate indigenous Australians at 18 times the rates of whites.

We can't afford to hold up the development of a uranium mine at Jabiluka on the Mirrar people's land even though UNESCO says we should, but we can afford to criminalise Yvonne Margarula, the senior traditional owner of Jabiluka, for walking on her own tribal land.

We can afford to ignore the fact that more Aborigines are dying in custody in 1998-99 than at the time when a royal commission brought down a 12-volume report into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

The recent business tax "reforms" proposals, including dropping the business tax rate from 36% to 30% and not taxing the first $1000 of shareholders' capital gains, were strongly supported by the treasurer. We can afford to drop the tax for business and to provide those rich enough to own shares with a windfall gain on capital taxes, but can't afford to drop food from the GST.

We can't afford heroin trials, but we can afford to continue to criminalise drug users. We can't afford decent treatment of drug users, but we can afford to fill our prisons with them.

Australians now need to take a serious look at what we, as a nation, are prepared to afford and what we will no longer tolerate.

I hope we will decide that we cannot afford to go along with the economic rationalist globalisation agenda being foisted upon us by transnational conglomerates. In its place we'll demand:

  • a tax regime in which fairness is the commanding feature;

  • minimum wage levels sufficient to sustain the employed;

  • paid work for all who want it; and

  • an income support system for those without paid work which is universal and paid at above poverty line levels.

If we do this, then Australia might not become John Howard's "great share owning democracy"; Australia might become a place in which we all share.

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