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Issue #1660      October 15, 2014

Cuts and privatisation – consequences laid bare

The furore surrounding Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures for jobs growth over recent months points to a hastening trend. The wheels of public institutions required to manage conditions for transnational corporations are starting to fall off. Political influence is confusing the data used by the Reserve Bank to set interest rates, for example. Big punters on the share market don’t have an important, trustworthy indicator of the health of the economy. The business pages of the dailies agree; the hardship imposed on the lowest income earners by the federal budget and other cuts might be regrettable but the loss of bankable data provided at public expense is intolerable.

Bureau of Meteorology – Darwin Airport office.

Problems with ABS figures became obvious in August when the customary dip in the number of jobs in the economy at that time of the year turned up as an unbelievable 120,000-strong increase. Among other methodological changes, part-timers interviewed by the ABS were encouraged to list themselves as working even though their income fell well short of a liveable wage. Swingeing job cuts and political pressures at the ABS appear to have had an impact on the professionalism of the service.

The official unemployment rate has long incorporated the fudge regarding part-time work but the sudden incorporation of extra fictitious “jobs” to the adjusted jobs growth figures has thrown big business interests. For the captains of industry, figures need not express the precise truth regarding employment and unemployment, in fact it’s better if they conceal the full extent of unemployment from the public, but the stats need to be consistent.

Acting chief statistician Jonathan Palmer has announced a review of the ABS that will take advice from an outside source that has not been named at this stage. Elsewhere, Treasurer Joe Hockey has been confronting realities thrown up by his own axe-wielding. Job cuts at the Australian Taxation Office have left the country increasingly vulnerable to the machinations of the transnationals. The federal treasurer was bemoaning the rise in tax evasion, especially transfer pricing and profit shifting practices, at recent G20 finance summits.

Transnationals play governments off against one another. The ATO doesn’t have the numbers on their establishment to investigate. High-level officers sacked from the public service sometimes find themselves engaged by big business, providing expertise on how to thwart the taxation system. The zero tax environment for big business is arriving before compliant national governments are ready for it.

State governments have their own slash and burn agenda. South Australia’s Defence Industries Minister, Liberal defector Martin Hamilton-Smith, has urged the Commonwealth to flog off the Australian Submarine Corporation to an overseas weapons manufacturing monopoly like BAE. WA Premier Colin Barnett wants to privatise a host of public assets like the Utah Point berth in the Pilbara, the Kwinana Bulk Handling Terminal and the Market City facility in Perth’s southern suburbs. He’s hoping for $6 billion from outright sales and 50-year “leases”. Decades or even century-long leases are an increasingly common cover for what are, in fact, public asset sales.

Barnett hopes the Cash Converters-style windfall will restore the state’s AAA credit rating. Queensland treasurer Tim Nicholls has also flagged a number of public assets sales ahead of the state election in March. The proceeds will be used to pay down debt and provide a well-timed pot of money to distribute among the large number of Queensland households hitting a cost of living wall. The Ports of Gladstone and Townsville are short-listed for sale, as are CS Energy and Stanwell Energy and the state’s commercial water pipelines.

NSW Premier Mike Baird wants to sell 49 percent of electricity “poles and wires” enterprises to the corporate sector. The move will leave NSW consumers even more exposed to profit-gouging transnationals and put the $700 million Climate Change Fund at risk. Established in 2007, the Fund has provided $302 million for programs in the household, government and business sectors.

The CCF can claim savings of 873,000 megawatt hours of electricity, 909,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions and 19.8 billion litres of water as a result of its programs. That’s the equivalent of $205.7 million in utility bills. Unfortunately, buyers of Ausgrid, Endeavour Energy and Essential Energy won’t be thrilled at the thought of paying into a fund aimed at reducing consumption of their product – a neat demonstration of antagonistic class interests under capitalism. The CCF may go the way of the Environmental Defenders Office in each state, which have had their federal funding unceremoniously withdrawn.

The heedlessness of the Abbott government regarding the environment comes as no surprise but its impact, in concert with that of like-minded governments internationally, may be irreversible. Rather than face the facts of climate change, Maurice Newman, chair of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council, has called for an inquiry into the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) and the CSIRO. In a piece in The Australian, Newman suggested a sort of Climate Gate scandal at the BoM with statistics being doctored to fit in with the anthropogenic global-warming conclusions of the international scientific community.

“Now is not the time for a tame review. For the sake of public policy and the BoM’s reputation, the air must be cleared,” Newman wrote. “Nothing short of a thorough government-funded review and audit, conducted by independent professionals, will do.” If the recommendations of these “independent professionals” are adopted, we may well end up with the sort of data about climate change that we get concerning unemployment in Australia.

Next article – To forge unity from rich diversity

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