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Issue #1555      11 July 2012


“Protectionism” and exploitation

The current neo-liberal free market policies being pursued by both the Labor and Liberal parties need to be seen in historical context. The mantra that “protectionism” is bad for the economy is to both promote the idea that massive and growing profits are the solution and saviour of the economy, and that there is no alternative.

Historically, tariffs were a duty levied on imports with the objective of making the price of such goods higher, thereby giving a better opportunity for locally produced goods to compete. The Victorian state government was the first to introduce tariffs in Australia in the 1860s. The aim was to protect the rising secondary industries which were beginning to be established.

The Victorian government also provided subsidies on agricultural products to enable farmers to sell at prices competitive with similar products grown in other countries. Other state governments soon followed the Victorian lead. At this time, Federation had not taken place and there was no federal government. The states were, for all practical purposes, direct colonies of Britain.

With Federation and the formation of the first Commonwealth government in 1901, a tariff policy for the purpose of “protecting economic and efficient Australian industries and granting preferential treatment to certain imports from countries in the Commonwealth” was adopted.

The ALP was a supporter of tariff protection. Its 1915 platform, under the heading of “New Protection” called for the “encouragement of local industry” through bounties, excise rebates, protective tariffs and the encouragement of home consumption. But as the economic and trade problems of all industrialised countries increased “export more and import less” became the slogan. Tariff barriers were seen as serious obstacles.

We are now in the age of transnational corporations and giant monopolies whose manufacturing and trading operations span many nations. They want to move products freely around the world, use the most profitable and convenient raw material and energy sources, employ the cheapest labour. Also use the countries with the most favourable taxation policies and weakest laws governing employment, safety, health and environmental protection.

So we have mining giants here carrying out a ruthless political campaign against paying taxes. This is also behind the growing offensive against organised labour, in many cases in the name of “competitiveness” and “efficiency”. As to what they mean in practice it is instructive to quote former prime minister Bob Hawke.

Speaking on the waterfront in 1991 he stated: “By year’s end, the national waterfront labour force will be cut by over 1,500 – in anyone’s language a major gain in efficiency.” Australian ships will have “smaller, more efficient crews.” Indeed, Ships of Shame with super-exploited foreign crews.

Wage restraint and cuts across industries and workplaces – the increased exploitation of labour – is at the top of the corporate agenda. Serious inroads are being made into all aspects: permanency, hours of work, holiday loadings, safety and health. Enterprise agreements and individual work contracts have resulted in very serious losses of conditions.

Sooner or later the working class will have to take the more far-reaching step of ending the system which is increasingly crisis ridden and reactionary. This will need the introduction of new principles which include economic planning and running the economy and trade for the benefit of the working people. That is the road to the basic solution of the problems which are overtaking the people of Australia today.

Next article – Joint Statement – Iraqi trade unions in Basra denounce sham elections

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