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Issue #1562      29 August 2012

Workers warned

Post-boom wages and conditions in crosshairs

BHP Billiton’s announcement that it was shelving its Olympic Dam uranium and copper project has prompted some deep thinking and sweeping assessments in government circles. Federal Resources Minister Martin Ferguson used the occasion to declare the once celebrated, economy saving boom is “over”. Others said there never was a mining boom. Treasurer Wayne Swan had a different take altogether. “The mining boom is perhaps better understood as a series of booms – a boom in prices, a boom in investments and a boom in exports,” he told the media. Whatever the official opinion of the health or existence of the “boom”, there is unanimity on what needs to be done on both sides of parliament. Workers must tighten their belts and governments must keep bending over backwards to attract and keep transnational corporations’ interest in Australia.

Predictably, the Coalition pounced on BHP Billiton’s change of heart to attack the federal government’s Mineral Resource Rent Tax and carbon tax. Though BHP Billiton chief Marius Kloppers ruled these out as considerations in the shelving of the $30 billion Olympic Dam project in South Australia (the taxes don’t apply to uranium or copper), Tony Abbott could be relied upon to argue that no big business should be subjected to these lightweight imposts. He quotes BHP chair Jack Nasser who claimed investors are nervous about Australia because of its changing tax arrangements. It is unlikely the opposition leader or Jack Nasser lose any sleep over Australia’s tax regime. Corporate taxes have been heading sharply downwards for over a decade and the government is committed to keep them going that way.

Grim realities

On this occasion, the former “big Australian” mining company has revealed part of the truth. Prices for resource commodities on international markets have “gone off” to varying degrees. The high exchange rate for the Australian dollar is not helping matters. The capitalist crisis dragging the US and European economies down is causing a slowdown in Chinese output. Growth in demand for Australian resources has eased. The shine has gone off uranium following the disaster at Fukushima in Japan. BHP Billion announced it was also delaying the $20 billion Outer Harbour project at Port Hedland in WA. A number of other transnationals’ resource projects around the country have been put on ice.

The government is left to consider what might happen now that the economy has been restructured along global neo-liberal lines and turned into a “one trick pony”. Some are hoping the crunch can be delayed until sometime in the future. Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten is in this camp. “I don’t think the contribution that mining is going to make in jobs and economic output for Australia has peaked at all,” he told the media. “My department is projecting that there’ll be another 100,000 jobs created in mining over the next five years.” Trade Minister Craig Emerson claims the boom is “not even half way through.”

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill is also doing his best to sound optimistic in the light of the Olympic Dam decision. Though his predecessor Mike Rann signed a shamefully generous indenture agreement with BHP Billiton in December last year, it wasn’t enough to satisfy international capital. BHP may use the current unsettling situation to press for the bending of the environmental rules to allow for the speedy introduction of the notorious acid leeching extraction method at the site.

Weatherill has said that the future for the struggling state economy may well rely on “niche manufacturing”, which in recent times has meant military industries concentrated at the Techport industry hub near Port Adelaide. Traditional manufacturing, such as vehicle building, has been sacrificed by successive federal governments because the big manufacturers involved have other plans to achieve bigger profits elsewhere. There is real fear that Holden may wind up production at Elizabeth in 2016.

Future at stake

Australian governments are trapped. Their long-standing commitment to capitalist globalisation means they are bound to deliver more of the same to the Australian people: cuts to services, the loss of public sector jobs, privatisation and attacks on the wages and conditions of workers. Santos chief executive has asked a provocative question to readers of The Australian Financial Review. “There is a real cost challenge you have to get on top of. Where are we going to get the next $100 billion in investment?”

The use of the term “we” can be discounted. The warning is to Australian workers (you) that wages and conditions are in the corporate crosshairs. “Flexibility” is the buzzword being bandied about in Australian parliaments when speaking of industrial relations. Tony Abbott is being more frank than most. He says the Australian Building and Construction Commission should be resurrected to step up the campaign against workers in the mining sector. He omits to mention its functions survive largely intact in a special agency within the Gillard Government’s Fair Work Australia bureaucracy. But the sentiment is clear, Abbott will step up the anti-union assault even further than Gillard to deliver the conditions transnational investors want.

Lost in all of these events and threatened changes are the wishes and needs of the Australian people. They don’t want a future dependent on exports of uranium to countries like the US where they enable the production of nuclear weapons and depleted uranium shells. They don’t want the wishes of the Aboriginal people ignored or the environment sacrificed to boost the bottom line of transnational corporations. They don’t want to have to beg profit-bloated transnationals to make a suitable tax contribution out of the fortunes still being made out of resources that rightfully belong to the whole people. They want a sustainable, pro-people economy.

The struggle to overcome capitalism and start down the road to socialism will be a long one in Australia. The first step has to be the building of the greatest understanding of what is in store for Australian workers, the strongest unity and most determined resistance to strike down the neo-liberal agenda.  

Next article – Editorial – Entrenching disadvantage

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