Australia: growing class inequality and the need for a new opposition

Posted: July 8, 2014 by Admin in At the coalface, Australian politics, capitalist crisis, Capitalist ideology, Class Matters, Poverty & Inequality, Protest, Unemployment, Unions - Australia, Workers' rights

140122 Callam 2by Ben Hillier

There hasn’t been much good news for workers in the last few months. The May budget is an obvious disaster and confirms, if confirmation were needed, that the Liberals want to construct a society characterised by misery for many and splendour for a privileged few. A number of reports and decisions have shown how far we have already moved in that direction.

The June annual Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management World Wealth Report estimates that the number of Australian millionaires is up by 12,000 in a year and 30 percent since 2007. Oxfam calculates that these 219,000 individuals, representing just under 1 percent of the total population, own as much as the bottom 14 million. The nine richest billionaires own as much as the poorest 4.5 million people.

These astonishing figures might be underestimates: the Forbes rich list, released in late June using more up to date data, shows that the average wealth of the richest 200 has reached $968 million, up 9.5 percent from 2013. Australia is now home to a record 39 billionaires.

Contrast that result with the Fair Work Commission’s national minimum wage order last month, which imposed a pay freeze in real terms on 1.5 million workers. Or the wage cut the commission gave to 40,000 hospitality workers when it reduced the Sunday penalty rate by 25 percent.

These decisions come despite the fact that the Australian economy has been cushioned from the worst of the global economic crisis; bosses here have been given more room to move than their peers in Europe and North America. Yet industry associations are pushing for more attacks. We have seen only the beginning of what they intend.

We’re also told that we are living beyond our means and that cuts have to be made to welfare and pensions over time. Most people can see through the sales pitch because it is so transparently false. For example, a June Australia Institute paper, Mining the age of entitlement, estimates that state government handouts to the mining industry totalled almost $18 billion over the last six years. That’s on top of the estimated $4 billion per year coming from the federal government.

Add to these gifts the other benefits going to large corporations and the people running them – capital gains exemptions, superannuation concessions, huge income and corporate tax breaks etc. This is New World Entitlement in which the system is increasingly designed for and gamed by the bosses.

Economic inequality has its partner in political inequality – the diminishing ability of workers and the poor to advance their interests using existing institutional channels. This is where the rich have really hit pay dirt: the Labor Party long ago lost its left and embraced dog-eat-dog neoliberalism, albeit while throwing a bone to supporters in the form of rhetoric about “safety nets”; the ACTU by and large did the same and is now little more than a PR department of the ALP; the trade union movement’s ability to impose on the parliamentarians has been greatly reduced; and in most unions, the officials’ will to challenge the government by mobilising the rank and file is almost non-existent.

Meanwhile, the Greens are too busy proving themselves politically and economically respectable to be a vehicle through which the billionaires’ agenda could seriously be challenged.

The fact that the multi-millionaire Clive Palmer is seemingly the most prominent voice of resistance to the most anti-working class budget in decades speaks volumes about the state of the official opposition.

Our side suffers from a contradictory dynamic: political and organisational atrophy combined with the seeming inability to change course. It is a reflection of the bosses’ victories, but also reinforces them.

We need to rebuild a left that will fight: fight the bosses, fight the politicians and fight the union officials who won’t lead. It’s not rocket science. But if we could take a few steps in that direction, we’d be on the road to rebuilding political opposition.

At the moment that rebuilding can only be done outside of the mainstream parties. There is nothing left within them worth salvaging. Even if there is disagreement about that, it is clear that every attempt thus far has proven futile. In the workers’ movement we have to focus at the rank and file level – at least for now.

The work has to be done to build an alternative to the major parties, and to this unjust, unequal and ruinous system. If you agree, then join us.

The above article first appeared on Red Flag, paper and site of the Australian organisation Socialist Alternative, here.


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