||Issue No. 263||13 May 2005|
A Fistful of Dollars
Interview: Fortress NSW
Unions: Fashions Afield
Industrial: Pay Dirt
Politics: Infrastructure Blues
History: Big Day Out
International: Making History
Economics: The Fear Factor
Review: The Robots Revolt
Poetry: The Corporation's Power
The Locker Room
A Fistful of Dollars
After the Treasurer's dream budget and Labor's muddle-headed response we have the depressing prospect of a prolonged battle over tax cuts as a low-rent substitute for genuine economic debate.
Yes, the economy is going well; yes there is a healthy surplus, and both Liberal and the former Labor governments can take some credit; and, yes, we will all take a tax cut if it is on offer.
But there's something missing in this budget; and it's something that has been missing from our political debate for some time - an economic plan.
A plan to deal with a health system fraying at the edges, that can not deal with the demands at present, let alone the rising pressures of an aging population.
A plan for more money for schools so that all young Australians have a chance in life and alleviate the skills crisis.
And a plan for the great national building projects that would give our economy the ability to break the tyranny of distance; a plan to support the manufacturing industries that would allow us to be more than an extractive economy.
There's no plan in this budget; just a fistful of dollars - targeted at middle and high income earners over the battlers; and the promise of industrial relations reforms that will make their wages and conditions all the more tenuous in the months to come.
To his credit, Kim Beazley made some of these points in his budget reply - but it all got drowned out when he was coaxed into Costello's tax cut corner.
A regular finding of our polling of working people is that money isn't everything - if they had the choice of better conditions, more interesting work, greater respect over a pay rise, they'd take the intangibles.
But - and here is the sting in the tail that Howard and Costello are tapping into - absent any faith that these things will be forthcoming, they'll take the dollars.
By destroying faith in the political system, the Howard Government has succeeded in making personal recompense the only test of government.
It has been the Howard approach for the past nine years - deliver personal dollars to targeted groups, rather than supporting broader initiatives that deliver more, though less tangibly, for all.
It is depressing, it is draining of the spirit and it represents a fundamental challenge to progressive parties, whose whole agenda relies on a public striving for better.
But we have to accept this is where we are at right now and the question is where can Labor take it from here?
Kim Beazley is right to expose the tax cuts as being skewed to the haves over the have-nots, but he is wrong to make it his battleground.
The debate around economics should not be about who can manage the economy - any half competent government can do that.
It should be about who the economy is delivering for - and this entails more than just reeling off the indicators, saying the word 'economy' three times a day and expecting that this will position you as the better manager.
In this frame it is Howard who gets wedged - because he is managing the economy for the top end of town - look at the growing gap between wage and profit share; look at the largesse the managers extract from the system; look at the looming attacks on rights of working people.
There is a story to be written by the ALP, but it requires the courage to move off the government's playing field - let the tax cuts through, but explain why they are a short-term fix and a squandering of the hard yards of economic reform.
And start doing it now; because when John Howard controls the Senate it will only be the skill of the Opposition's politics that will have any impact on the shape of policy over the next three years. If the past week is anything to go by, we should be very, very afraid.
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