||Issue No. 258||08 April 2005|
Be My Guest
Interview: [email protected]
Unions: State of the Union
Industrial: Fashion Accessories
Legal: Leg Before Picket
Politics: Business Welfare Brats
Health: Cannabis Controversy
Economics: Debt, Deficit, Downturn
History: Politics In The Pubs
Review: Three Bob's Worth
Poetry: Do The Slowly Chokie
The Locker Room
Be My Guest
There he is embracing the SBY - putting all that residual nastiness over East Timor to bed, salved no doubt by his generous contribution to Indonesia after the tsunami.
Here he is chatting amiably with the new Malaysian PM - nowhere near as recalcitrant as his predecessor, even if he stopped short of inviting him to his upcoming party.
As Paul Keating observed ruefully, the man who rode a populist wave by turning his back on Asia now appears to be discovering that we are part of the region.
And if the shift on neighbourly relations is startling, what of Howard's change of heart on asylum seekers, some of whom are even being let out from behind the razor wire - a position that Howard dismissed as being 'soft of terrorism' before his infamous Tampa poll victory?
What's going on? Has the man who turned xenophobia into a political art form discovered his caring side? Is he merely following the Bush doctrine Mk II of being nicer to those he has offended?
I think there's something deeper at play, something altogether more Australian - the noble art of covering one's own arse.
Because despite the economic indicators that are being pumped up by personal debt and unsustainable home prices, our economy is showing some signs of underlying weakness that is nobbling our long term growth prospects
The key is a shortfall in our labour supply - the result of a government that has given up on planning the economy or training the workforce in the mistaken belief that the market will get it right.
It hasn't because big business has been more interested in short term profits than long-term growth and now it needs a short-term fix.
The answer? Without a hint of irony, Howard is proposing the introduction of guest workers - a labour force who will be temporary residents with none of the rights of Australian citizens.
This guest worker base will inevitably be made up of workers from neighbouring nations, where even substandard wages and conditions would be considered attractive, nations like Indonesia and Malaysia, the same one's John Howard told us we shouldn't be a part of just a few years ago.
Others may be workers seeking employment in a freer society. Maybe they'll be the cousins of the poor unfortunates who were shipped off to Nauru rather than be given refuge within our borders.
Now the man who decides who comes into the county will decide a few more can - to get him out of the pickle he finds himself in.
The challenge for the labour movement will be to respond to guest workers in a manner which focuses on the real issue - the creation of a second class of worker that is neither good for the guest worker nor for the host.
Thanks to the Howard Government industrial 'reforms' these guest workers will be free to sign individual work contracts that will inevitably drive down wages and conditions for all workers.
The workers themselves will face an uncertain future, unable to establish any real ties in their new home and knowing they can be shipped back home at the government or their employer's whims.
As such, they are the Howard Government's ideal worker: disposable, invisible and highly unlikely to do anything as dangerous as joining a trade union.
More concerning still is the knowledge that where these arrangements have been implemented in other developed countries, they have led to a whole range of social problems, from racial ghettoes to resentment about the undercutting of wages by the guest workers.
These are the inevitable consequences of a policy based on the idea that living and working in a community is not sufficient to warrant citizenship - the ultimate in turning one worker against another.
At the end of the day, John Howard's treatment of asylum seekers and guest workers is entirely consistent - they are all pawns of political convenience - and no amount of photo-ops with foreign dignitaries will prove otherwise.
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