Last month’s budget was designed to punish the poor and line the pockets of the rich. Yet the thieves it benefits have fallen out. Despite last year’s landslide election victory, there are signs of important differences among the rich and powerful who back the Howard government, with squabbles over industrial policy, the depth of the cuts, and the Wik decision.
Employer groups such as the influential Business Council of Australia (BCA) criticised the budget and attacked Prime Minister John Howard for lacking any vision on industry policy. The cuts weren’t deep enough for them – the budget didn’t stick the boot deep enough into the working class. The BCA also promotes Victorian premier, Jeff Kennett, as the ‘man with the vision’ for Australian industry. Translated, this means they want the unions crushed and little Johnny is too wimpish to do it.
Howard’s response was to put the Goods and Services Tax (GST) back on the agenda, despite his earlier claims that it was dead in the water. This regressive tax would further shift the taxation burden onto lower income earners. By dusting it off, Howard tried to reassure his powerful backers of his reliability.
Why, then, is there such disarray in the conservative camp? Why didn’t Treasurer Costello go for the jugular with as draconian budget as last years’?
There are a number of reasons, but the first is that, despite the ACTU’s back-down after the so-called ‘riot’ at Parliament House in Canberra last year, the working class is increasingly combative. This is shown by the upsurge against the West Australian industrial relations bill; by the campaign against Kennett’s gutting of WorkCover in Victoria; and by the significant escalation of strike action over wage claims this year.
Threats of double dissolution
Howard is also worried that he still does not control the Senate, despite the Judas gold paid to ALP defector Mal Colston. Industrial relations Minister Peter Reith has threatened a double dissolution election if the Senate blocks his ‘reforms’ to the unfair dismissals legislation. Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot has dismissed this as bluff, but it remains a possibility because the Liberals’ big business backers are impatient with what they see as the snails’ pace of ‘reform’.
The most likely reason why this years’ budget was not as savage as last years’ is that Howard does not want to jeopardise his chances in a snap election.
The Liberals are in a real dilemma; the outcome of such an election is not a foregone conclusion, despite workers’ memories of the betrayals of the Hawke and Keating years.
Also, Howard is under sustained attack from another section of right wing opinion. The Nationals, the junior partners in government, are deeply split over how to proceed with the alleged threat posed to big farming and mining interests by the Wik decision. At present, National leader Tim Fischer has kept the lid on the bubbling revolt in his party, but for how long? There is a real possibility that the right wing forces in Australia might split, with a large splinter of the Nationals (and some Liberals) fusing with the Hansonites and other far right forces.
For workers it’s more of the same
However these squabbles pan out, they bode ill for a workers’ movement which has still not regained confidence in its ability to fight back against reaction. High rates of unemployment have become a permanent feature of the social landscape. An ever-growing number of workers are consigned to precarious, part-time, casual and contract work. The model is the USA where the largest employer, the labour hire firm Manpower Inc, now employs twice the workforce of General Motors.
The economic rationalist agenda to slash public expenditure on health, education and social welfare will continue: it is not a matter of whether there will be cuts, but how deep they will be, as the May budget shows. These policies have created a massive social crisis that is reflected in soaring rates of suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, crime, and the despair that leads traditional ALP voters to support racist demagogues like Pauline Hanson. Far from swinging to the Left, the ALP leaders want to rid themselves of the last vestiges of socialism. They have no solutions for working people.
Militant says that the labour movement needs a fighting programme to unite and defend the workers and the poor. The key planks should include: * the 35 hour week without loss of pay across all industries. With the average full time working week now around 43 hours, this would be a genuine job creation scheme;
-a massive programme of socially and ecologically useful public works with union protection;
-an implacable struggle against all attempts to use racism to cut across working class solidarity;
-the nationalisation under workers’ control of industries such as BHP which cannot or will not guarantee jobs and decent wages;
-solidarity with the workers in South East Asia to fight union busting, raise wages throughout the region, and prevent the shifting of industries offshore.
-a guaranteed living income for all, with regular increments in line with increases in the cost of living.
By John Tully
Originally published in the June 1997 edition of The Militant, predecessor of The Socialist