||Year End 2004|
Interview: The King of Comedy
Unions: Ten Simple Rules
Politics: Rampant Indivdualism
International: Global Struggle
Economics: Cashing in the Year
History: Grass Roots
Review: Cultural Realities
The Locker Room
Beyond The Law
The Price Of Tea In China
Cry For Me, Argentina
Ho Bloody Ho
Right Is Wrong
Business As Usual
All In The Family
Swing Left Wishful Thinking
Cashing in the Year
In our personal lives each of us has pluses and minuses, achievements and disappointments. But, from a broader political economic perspective, there can be little doubt that this last year has been a particularly problematic one.
First and foremost, it is clear that the world has become a dramatically more dangerous place. The appalling situation in Iraq, created by George Bush's military adventurism with the support of the Blair and Howard governments, shows little prospect of resolution. Along with the continued conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people, it has accentuated the antipathy towards the US Administration throughout the middle east and in other nations like Indonesia. The self-righteousness of the US Administration and the deep dislike of it in other countries seem to escalate together.
So the re-election of George Bush on November 2nd has made the US people in general, not just the President, more widely disliked around the world - after all, they chose to re-elect the leader who led the military adventurism. On a more minor scale, the same may be said of Howard and attitudes in other nations - particularly Islamic nations - to the people who re-elected him. Should we really be so surprised about the bombing at the Australian embassy in Djakarta, or of the train in Madrid earlier in the year? The proliferation of these terrorist acts is symptomatic of the fundamental fallacy underpinning the so-called 'war on terrorism'. We have moved into a truly terrible phase of global uncertainty, threat and counter-threat.
Meanwhile, it seems that other fears featured strongly in the Australian federal election. Some might call it complacency. The re-election of the Howard government on October 9th showed the majority of the Australian people to be reluctant to embrace change, despite all the evidence about lies about the war, refugees, and so on. The election result has been generally interpreted by media commentators as reflecting the positive state of the economy and the fear that a Labor government would not be so strongly committed to keeping interest rates low. But, in reality, the economic situation is nothing to be complacent about. The lead article in the December 2004 issue of the Journal of Australian Political Economy shows clearly the shaky foundations of the so-called 'miracle economy' about which the government boasts. The economic boom in Australia has been based on a massive growth of private debt. And the nation's current account deficit has been blowing out to unprecedented levels. This is not a sustainable economic situation in the longer term.
Because much of the private debt is in the form of housing mortgages the fear of an interest rate rise is soundly based, of course. Any major rise would cause a surge in the payments by housebuyers to financial institutions, leading to defaults and repossessions in some cases, a fall in other disposable incomes and thus a reduction in sales of consumer goods. That recession scenario is a real prospect in the year ahead. Property markets have already taken a sharply negative turn, leaving some housebuyers with negative equity. And, political rhetoric aside, a Liberal government has no greater capacity than a Labor government to keep interest rates down. It is the Reserve Bank that ultimately calls the shots, and it does so in the light of general macroeconomic conditions. The general macroeconomic conditions currently look more uncertain than has been the case for the last few years.
In the aftermath of the Federal election result Labor has, not surprisingly, been undertaking a critical reconsideration of what went wrong. Mark Latham has survived as leader despite some attempts at destabilisation. Meanwhile, progressive elements in the party's policy program look like being scaled back. If this process continues many workers may indeed by wondering what the ALP stands for that significantly differentiates it from the Liberals. Of course, there are principles that differentiate social democratic from liberal policy positions, especially in relation to employment, wages and economic inequality. We might ask whether the ALP should be building more clearly on these principles. Meanwhile, for many workers the Greens look a more attractive alternative. A very well attended meeting in Sydney in early December on the theme of Jobs and the Environment (organised by the Greens in conjunction with the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and others) illustrated how that Green-Union axis can provide a way forward in dealing with the crucial issues currently facing us as workers and citizens.
The Greens themselves polled an unprecedented number of votes at the Federal election, although they too had some disappointments, losing their one lower house seat in the Illawarra region and failing to get more Senate seats in NSW, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. But the mood in the Green Party is markedly up-beat, as it develops progressive economic policies alongside its well-established policy focus on environmental and social justice issues.
The situation relating to the US Free Trade Agreement deserves special mention in this context. This deal will probably go down in history as one of the most significant political economic events of 2004. It dramatically changes the nation's future options with regard to trading relationships and a host of related policies, including quarantine arrangements and intellectual property rights, as well as media ownership and affordable pharmaceuticals. As the book How to Kill a Country (by J. Matthews, L. Therborn and L. Weiss, published by Allen & Unwin, 2004) argues, this USFTA is a diabolical sell-out. It is to Labor's shame that the party's leadership did not take a more consistently principled position in opposing it, as did the Greens.
There will be other major struggles involving the labour movement in the year ahead. Dealing with the consequences of yet more casualisation in the workforce must necessarily be a priority. So too will combating the Howard government's further push to undermine centralised wage fixation and unfair dismissal provisions. Getting more humane treatment for refugees will also be an ongoing concern. Defending public education against further erosion of its financial base and public support must necessarily be a priority too. There has been some significant progress in the last year. The long struggle by the ACTU against Hardie's for adequate compensation of workers whose health was impaired by handling asbestos comes immediately to mind. But the union movement - now covering only a quarter of employed workers - faces many more challenges in the period ahead. The Howard government has control over the Senate, and can be expected to use this to extend the power of capital over labour.
Strategies for Workers to use their own collective capital more effectively is one of the more intriguing possibilities in this context. Workers' saving in superannuation funds now amount to about $600 billion. The government's propaganda about an ageing population is designed to focus attention on the issue of the adequacy of these funds to meet society's pension needs. But equally important is the use to which the savings are put. Could they be more effectively mobilised through a national investment fund which steers them into job creating, ethical and ecologically sustainable forms of investment, while also generating good returns for pension incomes? The bosses won't do this off their own bat, nor evidently will most of the current super fund administrators. But the health and sustainability of the economy as a whole may depend on it happening more systematically. So here is a big issue for the labour movement to wrestle with, not just over the year ahead, but over the next decade.
Clearly, there is no shortage of challenges to confront. So lets enjoy our Christmas and New Year 'Rand R' before returning to the fray. Personally, I'm celebrating thirty years of Political Economy courses at the University of Sydney, originally established by dissident staff and students challenging the conservative economic orthodoxy. And the Journal of Australian Political Economy (website: http://www.jape.org) is still going strong as an outlet for critical and progressive alternatives. Even in a tough year there are always things to celebrate, and those things can provide foundations for future successes.
Frank Stilwell is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sydney
|Search All Issues | Latest Issue | Previous Issues | Print Latest Issue|
© 1999-2002 Workers Online