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Issue #1584      March 6, 2013

Editorial

The discussion Australia should be having

The Australian public is being prepared for the mother of all “Mother Hubbard” acts following the federal election on September 14. If the grim predictions of a Coalition victory prove correct, we can expect to see Prime Minister Tony Abbott or Treasurer Joe Hockey front the media with a long face and say that the advice from Treasury is that the economy is in worse shape than anyone suspected. Years of allegedly profligate spending by Labor on what will be described as ill-conceived projects and welfare for the undeserving poor have left the financial cupboard bare. Australians, spared the worst of the economic downturn thanks to demand for its mineral exports from China, will now have to feel some of the pain felt by workers, pensioners and the unemployed in Europe, the US and elsewhere.

Joe Hockey used a speech in London last year to flag the “end of the age of entitlement”. He warned that if “we” want to go further down the road of lower taxes and greater incentives to “free enterprise” something will have to give. “The social contract between government and its citizens needs to be urgently and significantly redefined. The reality is that we cannot have greater government services and more government involvement in our lives coupled with significantly lower taxation,” he said. We should no longer feel entitled to the benefits of public health, education or social security from governments, according to the shadow treasurer. “Entitlement is a concept that corrodes the very heart of the process of free enterprise that drives our economies.”

Former BHP Billiton chairman and National Australia Bank CEO Don Argus took up these themes again last week in a speech given in Melbourne. Nightmare scenarios were to the fore: an ageing population, public indebtedness that could blow out quickly to Irish or Icelandic proportions, debt pressures in households and so on. “If we think we can avoid the fallout from the austerity measures which will be required to stop the economic bleeding in developed economies, then we are viewing the world through rose-coloured glasses,” Mr Argus said.

The conservative business elder insists that it is time Australia had a “discussion” on the future of “welfare”, which “ ... fundamentally involves providing for the needs of those that are less fortunate in our community, funded from those that are better off.” The class bias of Mr Argus is breathtaking. The reality is that the less well off in the community (the workers) produce the wealth from which the likes of Mr Argus have drawn an obscenely disproportionate share. But his message has been hammered so often in recent times that “both” sides of parliament accept its skewed pro-corporate, pro-wealth “logic”.

The Gillard government could respond to Mr Argus that it has done quite a bit to “reform” welfare and impose “austerity”. Qualification for unemployment benefits has been made harder and harder. It is currently trialling the humiliating Compulsory Income Management scheme first imposed during the Northern Territory Intervention. The decision to kick single parents onto the dole has drawn attention from the United Nations special rapporteur. There is now a means test for some bonuses and rebates and so an axe has been taken to “middle class welfare”. Labor is sticking to the plan to raise the retirement age. And, naturally, Mr Argus won’t get an argument with the Coalition on the question of “welfare” and the need to put an end to the “age of entitlement”.

It is small wonder that many workers look on the “choice” before them at the federal election with a combination of cynicism and apathy. Unfortunately, that apathy can stand in the way of action to ensure that the federal government levies higher corporate taxes including a genuine mining “super profits” tax. It prevents them from mobilising to defend public health and education. It limits the response to attacks on trade unions and rights in the workplace. It stands in the way of the building of a genuine anti-monopoly alternative to the parties of big capital. The discussion Australia should be having right now is how to shake off apathy and move on from capitalism.

Next article – Perth rallies for jobs and local content

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