Abbott's 'stronger', 'happier' Australia equals more pain for workers, pensioners and the poor

Friday, May 2, 2014
The Abbott government’s agenda is to seriously weaken or crush militant and effective unions.

A casino was a fitting venue to host Prime Minister Tony Abbott's keynote address to the 25th anniversary dinner of conservative think tank the Sydney Institute on April 28.

Abbott's speech, coming two weeks before the federal budget, was full of promises of “happiness”, “security” and “a better life”. But in reality, Australian workers, pensioners and the poor will be lucky if they are left with much more than the shirts on their backs once the government is done fleecing them.

Abbott's neoliberal argument continued the theme of his 2012 book A Stronger Australia. "We’re striving to achieve a stronger budget because that’s the way to a stronger economy”, and to “a stronger society” and a “happier people” he said.

“This budget is about shifting our focus from entitlement to enterprise; from welfare to work; from hand-out to hand-up."

We are told that we all have to share the pain to solve the budget crisis, but according to progressive research organisation The Australia Institute (TAI), the government's revenue crisis came from the tax cuts for the rich enacted by former John Howard government.

The announcement of a temporary “debt levy” is an attempt by the government to demonstrate that high income earners will carry some of the “budget burden”, at least for a short while. But the substantial budget measures will involve cuts to health, education, pensions, and other welfare support, as well as deregulation, privatisation and further corporatisation of the public sector, including schools.

Abbott told the Sydney Institute “the age pension won’t be less tomorrow than it is today and ... people turning 65 tomorrow are certainly not going to have to wait five years to retire”. But “there should be changes to indexation arrangements and eligibility thresholds in three years’ time”.

This followed Treasurer Joe Hockey's earlier public warning that “tighter means testing and clawing back indexing would be rolled out across just about every area of income support provided by the government”, including “pensions, family payments and other forms of income support or welfare”.

Our rights have already been gradually eroded thanks to four decades of the global neoliberal offensive, and the willingness of the ALP and the Coalition to make workers pay. In Australia, wages' share of the national wealth has already decreased to levels not seen for the past 50 years.

Australia today is a harsher, more unequal society. The richest 20% own 62% of the household wealth while the poorest 20% own only 1%. Only 60% of workers are in full or part-time ongoing employment — leaving 40% in insecure jobs. More than 2 million Australian workers are casual employees.

Unemployment in Australia is now at levels last seen during the 2008 global financial crisis.

Youth unemployment is more than double that and growing rapidly, with the number of 18 to 20-year-olds on Newstart allowance up almost 30% in two years. The number of employed workers wanting to work more hours remains at its highest level in the past decade.

This is partly a reflection of a weakened labour movement — a legacy of the 1980s Accord years when a tripartite agreement was struck between business, unions and government. The Accord promised prosperity to workers by strengthening Australian capitalism's global competitiveness, but actually delivered losses in real wages and a serious demobilisation of the union movement.

Bosses' organisations like the Australian Industry Group (AIG) and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) have made their case for how workers should suffer to fund Australian economic growth as the resources boom slows.

In its “10 point plan” the AIG calls for: the prohibition of industry-wide pattern agreements for workers; the winding back of the scheme that guarantees workers their redundancy entitlements; the right of employers to terminate enterprise agreements after they expire, leaving workers on award conditions; the right of employers to propose changes to an enterprise agreement while it is in force; the right of companies to restructure and outsource and avoid paying employees' entitlements or saving jobs; and reducing the number of permitted bargaining claims and general protections for workers.

The ACCI is pushing for an attack on penalty rates and undermining the (already weak) Fair Work Act.

Add to this Abbott's anti-union Royal Commission — a witch-hunt with widespread and potentially disastrous implications for the union movement, well beyond the unions it has targeted.

The Abbott government's agenda is to seriously weaken or crush militant and effective unions and to take control of union funds, particularly fighting funds raised for legitimate industrial and political struggles. What the Royal Commission won't do is reveal the scale of corruption by industry bosses, and the depth of the political and financial links between corporate interests and both major parties.

Corrupt and undemocratic unions undermine their effectiveness in protecting their members' interests, and allow the state the pretext to interfere in their affairs and to disarm them. But the way to root out corruption is not via a Royal Commission, but by building democratic unions, where the leadership is held to account and recallable. It also means union members having the right to decide on the key question of political affiliation.

Abbott's answer to the growing youth unemployment is to introduce "earn or learn" for school leavers, denying them access to welfare for the first six months after leaving school.

Under the guise of "empowering choice" and “increasing everyone's ability to participate in the economy”, pensioners, people with disabilities and women with young children will also be expected to find work.

TAI has suggested four targets for immediate revenue raising of $40 billion: ending the $4.5 billion in subsidies to the mining industry; ending the $9 billion in superannuation tax concessions to the top 5% of income earners; ending the $11 billion in investor subsidies; and reversing the $15.8 billion in income tax cuts to the top 10% of income earners.

None of these measures got an airing in Abbott's Sydney Institute speech — for obvious reasons.

Abbott concluded his speech by saying: "I don’t expect the government to be more popular the day after the budget." He's right about that. But the challenge now is to mobilise that anti-government sentiment in the streets.

A follow up rally to the March in March — now called March Australia — will take place on May 18 in Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. This will be followed by national mobilisations in all capital cities on August 31.

The Socialist Alliance will be doing all it can to build those nationwide protests to make them as big and as broad as possible.

Ultimately, however, we need to build a political alternative to the agenda of neoliberalism — one that stands for meeting human need, for protection of our environment and that is based on real democracy, not the sham we have today.

Such an alternative can be built when working people, farmers, city-based workers, the unemployed, united with pensioners, students, environmentalists and others organise to defend their rights and their communities.

[Susan Price and Peter Boyle are the national co-conveners of the Socialist Alliance.]

From GLW issue 1007