Over the last few months the Labor premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, has been styling himself as a progressive figure on a largely conservative political landscape.
Activists and campaign groups have welcomed several of the various commitments and promises that he has made. Andrews for example issued an apology to those who were criminalised and imprisoned by previously existing homophobic laws.
He also committed to fund a “Pride Centre” and the Safe Schools Coalition anti-bullying program. This was in response to the federal government cutting funding to Safe Schools nationwide. The Victorian Labor government has also committed to fund some domestic violence services and asylum seeker legal centres.
Some people argue that this is a fundamentally different approach from that of previous Labor leaders who have regularly made huge cuts to social services. What exactly is behind this seemingly progressive turn, and where has Andrews found the money for these things?
While it is true that the Australian economy as a whole is on shaky ground the situation in Victoria is somewhat unique. The mining boom took place mainly in Western Australia and Queensland but on the east coast the economy was propped up by large scale investment in property development. While the mining boom is coming to an end, the property bubble is yet to burst.
Because of increased land prices the Victorian state government has been able to reap billions of dollars more than anticipated in property taxes. This means that Daniel Andrews is currently under less pressure to squeeze savings from the pockets of ordinary people.
Labor has decided to use a small portion of this money to fund social services while at the same time offering concessions to businesses. 36,000 businesses will pay less tax as a result of lifting payroll tax thresholds and 2,800 businesses will no longer pay any payroll tax at all. Imagine how much more could be funded if businesses paid more, rather than less tax.
While this modest increase to social spending is to be welcomed, it does not flow from an ideological push from Andrews to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor. Rather Andrews’ mild populism is designed to undercut parties like the Greens who are seen as a left opposition to Labor and pose a threat to them in some inner city seats.
Andrews hopes that these funding measures will be enough to ensure that the campaigns that have developed around LGBTIQ rights, and against domestic violence, direct their anger elsewhere. It is also hoped that the positive spin he has put on these announcements will help to divert attention away from what Labor is doing elsewhere.
No matter which major party is at the reins, reforms like these are always temporary. Any party that supports the capitalist system is forced to play by its rules. A bursting or deflating property bubble is just one of several possible triggers for an economic downturn lurking in current market conditions in Victoria.
Such a downturn will lead to an immediate return to budget restraint, and potentially a refusal to follow through on some of these promises. In the search for budget savings, if it is not Safe Schools and the Pride Centre that are first on the chopping block, it will likely be other much-needed lifelines to vulnerable communities.
Activists and campaign groups need to look past the rhetoric of politicians and to the substance of their politics. While some politicians may make grand gestures and may even be pressured into granting concessions on occasion, history shows that when push comes to shove pro-capitalist parties will always prioritise the needs of business above ordinary people.
Rather than putting our faith in the major parties we need to focus our energies on building our own social movements, community campaigns and trade unions. These are the organisations that will be best placed to fight for improvements to our living conditions.
But ultimately we need to move beyond fighting over crumbs from the capitalist cake. We will only achieve genuine equality and full access to all of the social services that we need by changing the entire economic, social and political system. We need to build a society that prioritises the needs of ordinary people above the “needs” of big business. None of the major parties share this vision, so instead we must build an alternative.
By Meredith Jacka