'Back on Track': a way forward?

April 21, 2007

It is 20 years since the release of Australia Reconstructed, a policy report that came out of an Australian unionists' tour of Western Europe in 1986. It is also 25 years since Australia On the Rack was published by the metalworkers' union (now the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union - AMWU). Back on Track - A Way Forward for Australia is the latest such policy offering.

Released in March, Back on Track is the result of a collaboration between the AMWU, the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Australian Education Union, and the Community and Public Sector Union. The document's introduction explains that it presents positions on a "number of key policy areas" that "set the foundation for a nation building agenda which can drive Australia on a high skills-high wages road with more secure employment, strong, universally available public health and education services and greater social equity".

Back on Track can be applauded for its criticism of so-called lefts within the Australian Labor Party, who "instead of articulating an alternative economic vision for Australia ... have fallen over themselves to talk the language of privatisation, deregulation, competition policy, public private partnerships, and free trade". It correctly states that if the ALP left "offers only token resistance to the neoliberal ideologues of the Liberal Party, their corporate allies and their fellow travellers within the ALP" they are "doomed to irrelevance and failure".

But what does Back on Track offer to challenge the neo-liberal policies of the ALP today? In sum, it tinkers around the edges and offers little by way of a path out of deregulation, privatisation and the prevailing neo-liberal and neo-conservative economic and social policy.

In the 1980s, metalworkers' union assistant national secretary Laurie Carmichael was an architect of the Prices and Incomes Accord, a social contract that restrained wages, undermined industrial gains and delivered unprecedented profits to the ruling class over its 13-year life under the Bob Hawke and Paul Keating Labor governments.

Carmichael stressed the pursuit of "social wage" improvements as an alternative to money wage increases and in the 1982 Australia on the Rack, the metalworkers' union tried to popularise the idea of a social contract based on defence of the social wage, industry policy (to reform and advance manufacturing industry in particular) and tripartite industry planning.

By the time Accord Mark IV was signed by unions in 1988, the idea was generalised that any future wage increases had to be justified by improvements to the "structural efficiency" of particular industries. This further fragmented unions' wage campaigning because different industries had very different capacities for proving structural efficiency gains. It also alienated rank-and-file unionists from union officials, who were involved in protracted "top-level" negotiations to improve employers' profitability. When the shopfloor was consulted about anything, more often than not it was to identify more working conditions that could be traded off.

The ideological preparation for this process took place through the ACTU's 1987 adoption of Australia Reconstructed. This report lauded the "consensual processes" in industrial relations in Austria, Sweden and Norway, and the ACTU declared that it shared with employers the goal of making Australian capitalism more internationally competitive, necessitating new relationships in the workplace.

The architects of the accord already had this goal, but Australia Reconstructed heralded a systematic campaign to unite the trade union movement around this economic nationalist project. That project still influences trade union politics today, and is reflected in Back on Track.

The new report correctly notes the decline in public housing stock since 1996, but offers as a solution a limited program of superannuation investment into affordable housing, avoiding the question of funding from increased corporate and other wealth taxes. It targets negative gearing and capital gains regimes to ensure investment in affordable housing, but fails to suggest measures such as rent capping in the private market, for example.

The document also assumes the continuation of a private (for-profit) mortgage market for new home-buyers, and there is no mention of initiatives to deal with homelessness.

The section on aged care again assumes the continuation of a mix of privately run and public aged-care provision. While the document responds to recent cases of abuse of the elderly and offers policies on facility spot checks, and improving staff-patient ratios and employees' working conditions, it suggests no fundamental changes in the way aged care is delivered.

The section on child care avoids defining providers as public or private, once again assuming the continuation of private centres and under-resourced public services. There is no mention of the blowout in unmet need, including for work-based child care, or of the inequities built into the current system of childcare rebates.

On education, Back on Track points out the need for "free, public and secular education", but does not address higher education at all, including the entrance of increasing numbers of for-profit institutions into the system and the federal government's gradual divestment in higher education. The silence on public funding for private schools is notable.

In the area of industry development, Back on Track makes no mention of the possibility of nationalisation of key manufacturing industries, and avoids addressing corporate tax rates.

On infrastructure, while the document is at pains to point out the dangers of public-private partnerships in the introduction, it nevertheless rules them out only unless certain conditions are met.

The document contains a good section on public broadcasting, although it focusses entirely on the ABC, not mentioning other public or community broadcasting initiatives. On the issue of temporary skilled migration, the document targets employers' misuse and abuse of 457 visas and calls for 457 workers to be given equal rights to Australian workers, but falls short of advocating full citizenship rights.

In the area of trade, the document argues that Australia should "engage with the global economy", and calls for the introduction of a Tobin tax on financial transactions to solve the Third World debt crisis. There is no critique of Australia's appalling level of overseas aid, or its imperialist foreign policy.

Other areas not addressed are the environment (including uranium mining), welfare rights (including the government's welfare-to-work policy) and public health (including dental care).

[Susan Price is a member of Socialist Alliance.]

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