||Year End 2005|
Interview: Back to the Future
Unions: A Real Page Turner
Industrial: The Pin-Striped Union
International: Around The World In 365 Days
Legends: Terrific, Tommy
Your Rights At Work: Worth Fighting For
Politics: The Year That Was
Economics: Master and Servant Revisited
Culture: 2005: The Year of Living Repetitively
Bad Boss: The Bottom Ten
Religion: Hymns from a Different Song Sheet
The Locker Room
Waves of Destruction
Free to Rat
Tax Cuts and Cockroaches
Proportion, Not Distortion
The Year That Was
Every year at about this time I settle down to write an article for Workers Online about the year in retrospect, looking from a political economist's perspective. My usual inspiration is Antonio Gramsci's famous call for 'pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will'. Gramsci's adage indicates the need to face up squarely to the real problems that confront us, rather than adopting a complacent 'she'll be right, mate' stance. Concurrently, it indicates the need to explore possibilities for progressive political responses. It need hardly be said that Gramsci's dual challenge is both particularly troublesome and particularly necessary this year.
Most awesome, from a working class perspective, are the implications of the new industrial relations laws passed through the Federal Parliament in November. Passed through? Let's be blunt and say rammed through. The WorkChoices legislation runs to 1252 pages, including explanatory notes. The Senate was given only a few days to review it. The Government released 337 legislative amendments just 35 minutes before it guillotined debate in the Parliament. This was a mockery of due legislative process.
More importantly in the longer term, this IR legislation drives a major change in the relative powers of employers and employees. For the last one hundred years the arbitration system has recognised the inherent imbalance in the relationship between capital and labour - capital hires labour, not vice versa. Now most of that protection is gone.
Ross Gittins, the economics editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, has written that 'this is more about class war than economics'. Indeed it is. It reflects John Howard's long standing antipathy to trade unions, and his use of the sudden (and unexpected) majority that the Coalition government now enjoys in the Senate, to pursue his personal agenda. Backing Howard is the Business Council of Australia (BCA) which has for decades been advocating what is in effect, the Americanisation of Australian industrial relations. The prospect of developing similar job insecurity as in the USA and a similar growth in the number of 'working poor' people is worrying indeed.
The Government has spent in excess of $55 million of taxpayers money in promoting its new IR 'reforms' (I'm old enough, incidentally, to remember when the word 'reform' meant change for the better!). But most Australians are evidently not convinced. Opinion polls consistently show that the IR changes are unpopular, adding to people's fears about the future and the stresses of balancing work with family and other commitments.
Even quite conservative Church leaders like Cardinal Pell have come out opposing the IR changes on these grounds. And the IR experts are more or less united in opposition. 151 of the leading specialists in industrial relations analysis in Australia put in a major submission to the Senate, picking the legislation apart and pointing out that it cannot reasonably deliver on the Government's promises. Equally devastating is the latest edition of the Journal of Australian Political Economy (JAPE) which I've just finished editing - a special issue on the IR changes - which contains 22 articles by different authors carefully analysing and challenging every aspect of the policy.
Incidentally, this new issue of JAPE also includes an article that looks at what has been happening to the 'pay' of chief executive officers in the big corporations that are members of the BCA. Fifteen years ago the CEOs remuneration was, on average, 18 times higher than the average annual earnings of Australian workers. Now they are 63 times higher. These CEOs are the advocates of wage restraint! Evidently, their support for the governments IR changes is a case of 'do what we say, not what we do'.
Prominent Liberal parliamentarian Malcolm Turnbull's well-published advocacy of a cut in the top income tax bracket would presumably be very welcome to these high-fliers. Watch this space.
Meanwhile, new austerity measures have been imposed on an array of welfare recipients. Dressed up as pathways for promoting 'welfare to work', the government is getting particularly tough with single mums and people with employment incapacities, striking them off benefits if they fail to meet quite stringent requirements. Provision of adequate and cheap child care, and support for people with disabilities which, logically, should be part of any policy package for promoting access to paid work doesn't seem to be part of the package. The Government's emphasis is on punitive measures. This sits particularly uneasily with the IR changes to the extent that the latter policies make the available jobs less attractive.
As Simon Crean's speech writer, Dennis Glover, writes in the latest issue of the magazine Overland; 'There's something distasteful about highly paid economists and wealthy businesspeople arguing that the only way to give hope to the struggling single mother who cleaned their five-star hotel room that morning is to cut her wages and introduce 'price signals' into her local health and education services. Bullies always pick on the weakest person they know'.
To complete the 'trifecta', along with the IR and welfare changes, the Federal Government has also rammed through legislation restricting civil liberties. This has been done in the name of guarding ourselves against terrorists. The new crime of 'sedition' is one that I may be committing in writing this article! Well, so be it: we cannot afford as a society to be driven by fear to curtail our civil liberties. These are the very freedoms that we are told we have to defend against those likely to commit acts of terrorism or sedition. Of course, terrorism is not amenable to any 'quick fix' solution. They only safeguard ultimately against social disorder is to build a strong culture - nationally and internationally - of social justice and personal respect. A crude punitive approach doesn't work in this sphere either.
The violence that spilled on to the beaches and streets of Sydney recently is also deeply worrying. It may be interpreted as evidence of deep schisms that run just below the veneer of tolerance in this supposedly multicultural society. As our political leaders have emphasised, 'hooliganism' and drunkenness have undoubtedly been factors in the violent clashes, alongside the racist sentiments expressed by many of the youthful participants (and promoted by neo-fascist groups such as Australia First). But it is not difficult to infer a connection between the 'politics of fear' that John Howard has engendered and the breakdown of social order that occurs when 'mainstream' and marginalised or stigmatised groups confront each other. This is not just an Australian phenomenon, of course. The clashes between immigrants and locals in Paris and numerous other French towns a couple of months ago were a more extreme instance. And the rise of the 'neo-Cons' in the USA, with George Bush as their puppet figurehead, has resulted in 'the politics of fear' becoming the new political orthodoxy world wide.
Another effect of the fall-out from the 'politics of fear' is that the more important global environmental issues that confront us all have not been getting the attention they warrant. Yet it is increasingly clear that global warming is a significant problem, oil is running out and in Sydney and some other Australian cities water supply is a critical issue. Sustainability is good rhetoric but no one in power seems serious about what is involved in practice. The proposed water desalination plant for Sydney is a case in point. As former NSW Premier said, this is a scheme for 'bottled electricity', given the enormous energy requirements for the desalination process. And our political leaders can't seem to get a coherent transport strategy either: the use of public-private partnerships for building and running transport infrastructure like tollways has generated some particularly bizarre consequences in Sydney this year, for example.
What of the general economic prospects for the nation in the year ahead?. The housing boom is clearly over, and 'good riddance' if that heralds some reversal in the trend towards increasing difficulty of access to affordable housing for renters and first home-buyers. The latest official figures also show a continued deterioration in the nation's international trade balance and a tendency towards general economic stagnation - with the latest GNP estimate showing a mere 0.2% rise over the last three months. The long boom of the last fourteen years seems like grinding to a halt. This to say the least, is not an auspicious time for Australian society to cope with the government's industrial relations and welfare changes. Economic and social inequalities are bound to widen in these circumstances.
So there is no shortage of challenges for progressive Australians to respond to. Here comes the 'optimism of the will' - not just as an attitude or state of mind, but as a commitment to involvement and action responding to those challenges. Getting involved through your union, through a political party (such as the ALP or the Greens), or through non-governmental organisations (NGOs) committed to progressive causes - the avenues for trying to 'make a difference' are many and varied. There's a very real chance of a change of government at the next general election. By the same token, there's a very real need to ensure that there is an Opposition with personnel and policies worth electing. And, on a broader scale, there is a need for continued pressure on governments and corporations to act in more socially responsible and ecologically sustainable ways. We can set our own examples. So lets enjoy some festive cheer and Christmas and New Year and get ready for an energetically activist and progressive 2006.
Frank Stilwell is professor of political economy at the University of Sydney. For more analysis of WorkChoices get the latest edition of the Journal of Australian Political Economy from PO Box 76, Wentworth Building, University of Sydney or email [email protected]
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