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Issue #1704      September 30, 2015

Culture & Life

Patience, Turnbull and cosmetic change

They say patience is a virtue, so Malcolm Turnbull must be feeling particularly virtuous right now. He patiently waited out Tony Abbott as PM, serving dutifully as a relatively junior Minister while Abbott (helped by Joe Hockey) repeatedly shot himself in the foot with displays of unfeeling arrogance calculated to alienate everybody except the very rich.

Despite Turnbull’s various cosmetic changes the essence of his government is the same: the interests of big business.

Then, when the opinion polls indicated the time was finally right, he very efficiently knifed Abbott in the back and took his job. The PM changed, a large part of the Cabinet changed, even some government policies changed, and the people, the electorate, had no say in the matter. It’s called “Parliamentary democracy”. Isn’t it grand?

In an opinion piece in the business pages of The Sydney Morning Herald on September 18, William Pesek ran an article setting out Turnbull’s immediate tasks, at least as far as business is concerned, under the headline: “Turnbull must rage against smugness.” Three days later, the Herald’s front page featured a photo of the smuggest-looking Turnbull you have ever seen (and as a wealthy banker he is a past master at smugness).

Turnbull’s photo accompanied a report of his new Ministry, a bunch of appointments intended to not only shore up Turnbull’s position within the Liberal Party but to win votes from those voters who sadly put their faith in cosmetic changes. Thus, top of the list was the appointment of our “first female Defence Minister” (Marise Payne). Now, her appointment is clearly meant to aid in winning the women’s vote. It would be truly significant and meaningful if it indicated a change in policy from our present slavish following of the USA in preparing for a war with China. But it doesn’t. It is purely a cosmetic vote catcher.

The hugely unpopular Joe Hockey has been dropped, but there were moves within the Liberal Party to get Abbott to do that some months ago. Turnbull is just recognising that Hockey was a real electoral liability.

Pesek’s business advice to Turnbull’s government represents the views of Australian capitalists outside Tony Abbott’s favoured mining sector. “During the past two years, neither Tony Abbott nor his Treasurer Joe Hockey implemented the structural reforms needed to increase incomes and boost competitiveness.

“Rather than invest in education, training and infrastructure and tweak taxes to empower small business, Abbott’s team protected mining billionaires (by scrapping carbon tax policies).”

Pesek is not talking about increasing workers’ incomes, of course. That he means business incomes becomes crystal clear a paragraph or so further down when he says “Business leaders complained, rightly, about a lack of resolve [on the part of the Abbott government] to overhaul an outdated labour market.” That’s business-speak for rendering trade unions impotent, placing working conditions and wages entirely at employers’ discretion.

In class terms, Pesek (like The Sydney Morning Herald itself) is speaking for our national bourgeoisie who have viewed the de-industrialising of Australia under Howard and Abbott – and the Labor governments in between – with dismay. “The new government”, he warns Turnbull, “must be less ideological about attaining budget surpluses and more attuned to how Australia risks getting left behind by globalisation.”

How does he propose that Turnbull’s government prevent that unhappy outcome? “It must invest more in human capital to increase productivity and in physical hardware – better roads, ports, power grids and telecommunications systems.” All aids to boosting industry profits, and all, you’ll notice, paid for from the public purse. The next might be a bit hard for Turnbull to pull off, however: “Turnbull needs to create new jobs to mitigate the hollowing out of industries, including manufacturing.”

Creating jobs, real jobs, not Mcjobs, is not something that capitalism is very good at these days. I wonder how – or even if – Turnbull will try to tackle that one?

Despite inroads made into it in recent decades, Australia still has a progressive taxation system, that is, the rate of tax goes up as your income goes up, so that people on high incomes pay a higher rate of tax than people on low incomes. Capitalists hate that. They think rich people should be able to pay tax at the same rate as poor people. After, all that’s only fair, isn’t it? (Well, no, it isn’t, but they never seem to be able to see that!)

Pesek thinks that way too, and says that Turnbull “must overhaul an antiquated tax system to encourage the nation’s best and brightest to create a home-grown Apple or Google,” and he admiringly quotes Turnbull – “as far back as 2002” – saying that Australia’s tax system was “totally uncompetitive”. By which Pesek and Turnbull both mean that gung-go business types can’t make the profits they would like to make because if they did they would be kicked up to a higher tax bracket, and there is nothing your business person hates more than paying tax to the government. (Although, without taxes, one wonders how Pesek expects a Turnbull government to build all those “roads, ports, power grids and telecommunications systems” that we need to be “competitive”.)

Despite Turnbull’s various cosmetic changes, such as including three more women in the Cabinet than Abbott had, the essence of his government is the same: the interests of big business will always come first. And even if the different sectors of the capitalist establishment argue among themselves over who should have priority, we know that the interest of ordinary working people will most certainly come last.

Clearly, under capitalism, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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