Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Building a movement to stop budget cuts

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The problem with March Australia’s approach

Late August saw another round of anti budget protests organised by the March Australia groups. Unfortunately these protests were significantly smaller than previous anti budget demonstrations. It is important to understand the factors that have led to the dwindling of the movement so that the problems can be addressed in a constructive way.

Editorial from the October 2014 edition of The Socialist

Clearly the government has not won people to the idea that their budget cuts are fair and necessary. New analysis shows that women in low income households will suffer the most from Abbott’s measures. Women in the poorest 20% of households will be at least $2566 a year worse off by 2017. These figures do not even include the impact of the proposed GP co-payment fee or changes to higher education.

People understand that the cuts are disproportionately aimed at those on lower incomes while big business profits are being protected. Far from people accepting the idea that they should be forced to pay for an economic crisis that they did not create, the decline of the protest movement stems from the mistaken strategy outlined by March Australia itself.

In the aftermath of the budget announcements March Australia organised some very well attended rallies around the loose slogan of ‘bust the budget’. People were furious about the scope of Abbott’s proposals and there was huge potential at that time to build a movement capable of beating back the budget cuts and defeating the government.

Unfortunately March Australia never outlined exactly how the budget could actually be ‘busted’. Instead they sowed illusions in the idea that the only way to stop the cuts was to rely on Labor and the Greens blocking the budget in the parliament. On some occasions it was even suggested that the Palmer United Party (PUP) could be some sort of saviour.

March Australia ignored the fact that Labor and the Greens had actually laid the basis for many of Abbott’s cuts in the previous term. When in power, Labor propped up by the Greens, implemented measures to raise the retirement age, slash public sector jobs and cut payments to single parents, among other things.

When Abbott’s budget was put before the parliament both Labor and the Greens voted with the government for the appropriation bills. These bills contained around $80 billion of cuts including to health, education, pensions, the CSIRO and the ABC.

Both Bill Shorten and Christine Milne claimed that they had to vote for these bills because they included wages for public sector workers. While it’s true that these bills included funding for public sector staff they also locked in thousands of public sector job cuts.

Both the Greens and Labor made clear that they were not prepared to cause a ‘constitutional crisis’ by voting against the appropriation bills. According to them providing stability for the Liberals and big business profiteers is more important than defending the living standards of millions of ordinary people.

The PUP has also shown that they are open to horse trading on the cuts that require legislation separate to the appropriation bills. Now that they have the effective balance of power in the Senate the PUP have voted on several occasions for the government’s program in return for some relatively minor concessions.

Against this backdrop you can begin to understand why people are becoming less inclined to attend the March Australia rallies. Most people can see that the strategy outlined by March Australia has not come to fruition and Abbott has now successfully passed the bulk of his measures.

It is likely that most of the rest of his measures will get through on the basis of further deals with the PUP. The idea of ‘busting the budget’ now seems fanciful to many of the people who were originally protesting with enthusiasm. An element of demoralisation has set in and, while there is still hatred for the government, many people see no point in protesting around a demand that is vacuous.

The truth is the March Australia leaders were never trying to build a movement that was capable of bringing down the Abbott government. Their aim was to channel the huge amount of anger that existed along safe lines. Just like the pro Labor trade union leaders their aim is to allow people to let off steam at rallies while pushing them in the direction of re-electing a Labor government at the next election.

Years ago Labor would have just been out campaigning in their own right but today most people see Labor as fundamentally the same as the Liberals. The idea that Labor are some sort of lesser evil is becoming much harder to sell. In response pro Labor forces try to think up ways of encouraging people to vote against the Liberals. In a two party system this is a round about way of winning defacto support.

The ‘Your Rights At Work’ campaign led by the pro Labor unions in the lead up to the 2007 federal election was a prime example of this approach. The union movement mobilised huge numbers of people around the hatred that existed at John Howard’s industrial laws. Labor was thrown into office on the back of this campaign but when in power acted in practically the same way as the Liberals.

In fact over the past 30-40 years Labor has been just as responsible as the Liberals for implementing cuts and counter reforms. For all intents and purposes Labor serves the same function as the Liberals. They are a capitalist party that represents the interests of the big business elite.

While they have historic connections to the trade union movement the party has been emptied out of its working class base, it lacks real democracy and it has adopted practically the same program and policies as the Liberals. The differences that do exist are more about style rather than substance.

Far from relying on Labor or the Greens, ordinary people need to rely on their own strength to stop budget cuts and the winding back our living conditions. While protests are a good start industrial action is necessary. A 24-hour nationwide strike would send a strong message to the government and its big business backers. It would also give people a sense of their potential strength.

At the same time campaigns aimed at stopping the implementation of the budget measures need to be organised. Non payment campaigns, protests, occupations and civil disobedience could stop the cuts from being carried out.

Elements of this approach can implemented by community campaigns but for it to be most effective it would need to be implemented by the trade union movement. The problem with the trade union movement today is that, just like March Australia, it is for the most part aligned to the Labor Party. This needs to be challenged.

The reason that Labor, the Greens and the PUP voted for most of the cuts is because at the end of the day they have the same economic and political approach as the Liberals. All of the mainstream parties support the capitalist system, a system that prioritises private profits over all else.

Far from accepting the idea that our choice is between one or another of these capitalist parties, ordinary people need to struggle to build a new political movement. We need an organisation that can challenge the mainstream parties in elections but more importantly an organisation that fights against the system that demands cuts and austerity measures in the first place.

This is the approach that the anti-Abbott and the trade union movements need to adopt. This type of political alternative coupled with a fighting industrial strategy is the only way to stop budget cuts, defend our living standards and build a society that puts people before profits.


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