||Year End 2003|
Interview: Robbo’s Rules
Unions: Fightback 2003
Bad Boss: Madame Lash Whips Tony
Politics: United Front
Economics: Looking Back - Looking Forward
International: Net Benefits
History: The New Guard
Poetry: What is the PM singing this Christmas?
Review: Culture That Was
The Locker Room
Backs to the Wall
Looking The Otherway At Christmas
Looking Back - Looking Forward
The year just gone has seen issues of social justice and morality at a particularly low ebb. However, the possibility of changes in the political leadership both here and in the USA during the coming year provide some grounds for optimism and activism.
This year has been dominated, politically, by the war on Iraq and its aftermath. The belated capture of the tyrant Saddam Hussein provides no justification for all the lies and deceits emanating from Canberra, London and Washington. The reasons for going to war were palpably fabricated. The weapons of mass deception on 'our' side have far outnumbered the weapons of mass destruction held by Iraq. Not to mention the weapons of mass distraction...
Meanwhile, at home in Australia, the treatment of the refugees continues to be a running sore on the body politic. The Howard government's use of the Temporary Protection Visa category to deny permanent status to legitimate refugees has brought international opprobrium and created unnecessary uncertainty. The recent flirtation with the idea of giving Australian resident status to the people of Nauru, presumably in gratitude for helping Howard with his 'Pacific solution', really reveals the hypocrisy. Twelve thousand Nauru people would be allowed to enter Australia in order to keep out 284 refugees. This presumably is an option that will slowly slide back under the Pacific in 2004.
The national economic situation has been a mixed bag. Treasurer Costello has been crowing about good economic numbers, at least as far as the labour market is concerned.
Of course, if you believe that having one hour's work in the preceding week means that you are not officially unemployed the figures do look better! But many workers have been experiencing significant job insecurity. The determination by QANTAS to slash its permanent staff is a case in point, as is the ongoing pressure on staff reductions in banking and the dispute on Sydney ferries which produced the politically-popular tactic of giving ferry customers a fare-free day on the Saturday before Christmas.
Other economic indicators have been far from rosy. The international trade balance is anything but balanced. Indeed, record current account deficits seem to be so common that they are hardly news. Debt has been ballooning. Some economists regard this is the major factor keeping the economy buoyant. Therein lies a major irony because governments, both Federal and State, are strongly committed to reducing government debt to zero at the very time that they rely implicitly on fostering higher levels of private debt. So people buy bigger houses and fill them with credit-financed consumer durables, but society lacks the public infrastructure that would enhance our collective quality of life. J.K. Galbraith's famous distinction between 'private wealth and public squalor' has a strong local resonance.
The housing boom is the most striking expression of these social and economic priorities. Particularly in Sydney, housing affordability has been pushed beyond the range of most working class people. The ratio of the average housing price to workers' annual average earnings is now 12:1. Seventeen years ago it was only 4:1. What this means is that the current generation of younger people has nothing like the chance of buying a house as did the previous generation. Mark you, many have been going massively into debt trying to do so, and now face major financial stress as interest rates rise. The Productivity Commission's report on the problems facing prospective first home owners was released just before Christmas, but it declined to tackle the politically tough issues about getting rid of the tax incentives that have fuelled the speculative investment in houses. The boom now seems to have suddenly run out of steam but preventing a recurrence of this craziness constitutes a major challenge facing our political leadership in the years ahead.
The housing boom is a manifestation of a yet more major challenge - to rein in the forces generating increased inequality in Australian society. It is the interaction of housing markets, labour markets and capital markets that is at the root of this tendency. Of course, capitalism has always had this underlying inegalitarian feature - capital makes capital and poverty breeds poverty. But the housing boom has added extra dimensions to the gross redistribution's of wealth, alongside the bizarre levels of remuneration paid to chief executive officers and other senior management in large corporations.
Contesting the process whreby the globalisation of corporate capital acccentuates these trends is a major challenge for the foreseeable future. Early in 2004 the immediate concern in this respect is the US-Australiaa 'free trade' deal that is currently being negotiated. If this process is completed it would be see a major price hike for pharmaceuticals which Australian consumers currently get relatively cheaply under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and a massive erosion of Australian content in films, entertainment and media.
So what are the prospects of progressive political responses in 2004? The change of leadership within the ALP towards the end of this year certainly seems to have buoyed the spirits of many people within the labour movement. Mark Latham's opinion poll ratings far exceed any previously attained by Simon Crean. The Howard government is starting to look beatable. So now is a good time for ALP members to get active in demanding progressive policies from the leadership. Trade unions have a particularly important role in this respect. The new leader does not have a trade union background like his predecessor did.
Beyond the ALP other important avenues for forging a more progressive future exist. For many of us the struggles in our own workplaces have immediate priority. And there are many other organisations and movements challenging the dominance of global corporate capital and its local henchmen.
The Greens have emerged as a particularly significant force in Australian politics. 2003 was quite a watershed in this respect. The Greens' established credibility in regard to environmental issues has now been buttressed by their credibility on social justice issues. The outspoken position taken by Senators Bob Brown and Kerry Nettle over the war on Iraq and the subsequent visit by George Bush in 2003 was inspiring to many. The Greens have also taken a markedly different stand from the major parties on the refugee issue. And they are starting to develop stronger stronger credibility on economic issues too. Indeed, is becoming increasingly evident that economic issues cannot sensibly be separated from issues of sustainability, security and social justice.
So we have learned some important lessons from 2003, notwithstanding its trials and tribulations. Let us hope we can use them productively and progressively in 2004 and beyond...
FRANK STILWELL is Professor of Political Economy at University of Sydney
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