Australia: Socialist Alliance May Day statement -- 'More pain for workers, pensioners, poor'

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Protesters outside Tony Abbott's $396/head dinner with the Sydney Institute on April 28.

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

By Susan Price and Peter Boyle, Socialist Alliance co-convenors

May 1, 2014 -- Socialist Alliance -- A casino was a fitting venue to host Australia's Prime Minister Tony Abbott's keynote address to the 25th birthday dinner of conservative think tank, the Sydney Institute, on April 28. Abbott's speech, coming two weeks ahead of the annual 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're left with much more than the shirt 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 went on, “This budget is about shifting our focus from entitlement to enterprise; from welfare to work; from hand-out to hand-up...” Behind the rhetoric, is the reality that workers, pensioners and the poor can expect deep cuts in this term of government and more to come in the next.

We are told that we all have to share the pain to solve the budget crisis, but according to the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank, the government's revenue crisis arose out of the tax cuts given mainly to the rich by the former Liberal Party government of PM John Howard. 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, other welfare support as well as deregulation, privatisation and further corporatisation of the public sector, including schools.

While Abbott told the Sydney Institute that "the age pension won’t be less tomorrow than it is today and that people turning 65 tomorrow are certainly not going to have to wait five years to retire", he also added that “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 by the Australian Labor Party as well as the Liberal Party-National Party Coalition to make workers pay. In Australia, the wages' share of the national wealth has already decreased to levels not seen for the last 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, and over 2 million Australian workers are casual employees.

Unemployment in Australia is now at levels 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 forced to live on Newstart [unemployment] allowance up almost 30 per cent 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 Prices and Incomes Accord years – when a tripartite agreement was struck between business, trade 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 which 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 employee's 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 for a undermining of the (already weak) Fair Work Act.

Add to that 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 be expected to find work.

The Australia Institute 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 stating: "I don’t expect the government to be more popular the day after the budget".

He's absolutely right about that. But the challenge now is to mobilise that anti-government sentiment in the streets.

On May Day we remember the sacrifice of those women and men who came before us to fight and win the rights and entitlements we enjoy today. May Day marches will be happening this weekend around Australia. These are important mobilisations not just for historical reasons but because we need to fight for our rights today and so that humanity and the planet have a future.

After May Day, May 18 is the March in May, occurring in all major cities, except Melbourne. This will be followed by national mobilisations in all capital cities on August 31. Socialist Alliance will be doing all it can to build those nationwide protests 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.

Long live May Day! Long live the struggles of working people and the oppressed!