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Sunday, August 8, 2010

Abbott a threat both to fairness and prosperity

above: Australia's Federal Parliament House

In this article Tristan Ewins considers the coming Australian Federal election, incuding what the consequences of an Abbott conservative government would be in terms of social justice and economic prosperity.

As the 2010 Australian Federal election nears the future of our nation hangs in the balance. A few months back many would have thought the prospect of an Abbott Coalition government unlikely at best. Labor was riding high in the polls: credited with navigating our way from the dangerous shoals of recession. And the government had done this with an eye to social justice, not only reforming pensions, but also buoying consumer confidence with direct payments to those on welfare and low incomes.

As opposed to the conservatives, Labor looked to the future; with a promise to build the National Broadband Network, laying the foundations for the future knowledge economy. By comparison, in this regard the conservatives have been short-sighted and opportunistic.

Further: the Abbott ascension to Opposition leadership initially underscored divisions amongst the conservative parties, and their lack of substance and credibility on climate change.

But since then – and for some months – it has been mainly downhill for Labor.

There were issues that had weakened the government for some time, but Labor's re-election chances remained strong.

The home insulation and school infrastructure programs are now widely believed to have been poorly managed. In reality, though, the school infrastructure program added to the stimulus when it was needed most; and for many schools the product of the expenditure has been of real value: its benefit long-lasting. Genuine shortcomings in regulatory oversight were partly the fault of public servants who should have advised the government, but the government could not avoid responsibility for flaws in policy implementation.

As a consequence, the conservatives have been able to make up ground on the theme of “competency” outside any values context.

More recent developments, however, have threatened the survival of the Federal Labor government.

The mining industry fear campaign over resource rent taxation had saturated the media, marking a turning point with Labor put decisively onto the defensive. Suddenly Rudd’s leadership was seen as a liability, with a ‘fresh start’ perceived as the only way to stem the haemorrhaging of the government’s support.

With Julia Gillard now catapulted into the office of Prime Minister, Federal Labor’s support in the polls appeared to firm. Gillard thus resolved to take advantage, and seek for herself a mandate, calling an election for August 21.

But since then Gillard’s proposal for a ‘Citizens Assembly’ to work for consensus on climate change has been interpreted as indecision. Further, Abbott has whipped up groundless fear over debt (Australia’s government debt is amongst the lowest in the world), and has outflanked Labor in trumping the government with commitments to aged care and mental health funding.

Finally: Sensational leaks from within the government have overshadowed policy debate, and for many the removal of Rudd has left a bitter aftertaste.

Importantly, here, areas of the media are to blame for focusing on this drama of leaks from within the government, and even an intervention from Mark Latham: when in the public interest they should have been focusing on substantial policy debate. (across the spectrum, and including the Greens)

The ‘bigger picture’ – what’s really at stake

But there are broader concerns at stake in this election: and neither the government nor the Opposition seem to be planning ahead more than maybe a term or two. Labor’s commitment to the National Broadband Network, school infrastructure and increased employer superannuation contributions are very notable exceptions. (although the problem of a two-tiered Aged Pension remains with regard to superannuation – as always) And as we will see, Labor’s policies are more sustainable in a social sense over the long term.

To begin, there are structural fiscal challenges associated with the ageing of Australia’s population, and what this means for health, aged care and welfare: with flow-on effects elsewhere, including transport infrastructure and education.

At the outset, therefore, it is important to note Abbott’s commitment to cutting the tax base beyond what is sustainable, including effective cuts in overall Company Tax beyond what has been promised by Labor, and the scrapping of the Resource-Rent (ie: mining) tax that rightly gives taxpayers a share of the benefit from exploitation of minerals and other resources that belong to all of us. As a consequence, increases in employer superannuation contributions would also be dropped under an Abbott government. http://www.theage.com.au/national/abbott-says-libs-wont-increase-super-levy-20100504-u7a3.html

Further, Abbott’s parental leave plan promises to direct what sparse budget funds remain away from where they are needed most: welfare, health, education; in a move that will effectively see those on lower incomes subsidising those on higher incomes. Specifically, the program would “cost more than $8 billion during its first two years”, and a mother on an income as high as $75,000 would receive six months leave at full pay. http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2010/s2972436.htm

Australia needs progressive tax reform, with the aim being to support an expanded social wage to ensure certain ‘baseline’ needs are met for all of us. This must encompass health (including aged care), welfare, education and other areas such as communications and information, social housing, social recreation facilities and transport.

Without reform, as the proportion of our population outside the taxable labour market increases, shortfalls in social services will become increasingly critical. Here also a ‘two-tiered’ and polarised system comprising the market and a residual public social wage will deepen: what John Kenneth Galbraith encapsulated with the term “private affluence, public squalor’.

The crisis is further compounded by a rising cost of living: especially in areas such as water and energy – where the public are now paying the price for privatisation. And with high property prices the impact of interest rates when they rise is magnified as a legacy of the Howard-era housing bubble, with home ownership now out of reach for many.

To put none too fine a point on it, without progressive tax reform there just won’t be enough public money.

So public hospital waiting lists will worsen; dental care will remain inaccessible for many, and there won’t be enough money to include crucial medicines on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Public education will continue to be chronically under-resourced as compared to privileged private establishments.

Insufficient public funds, here, will undermine even the meagre liberal principle of ‘equal opportunity’; disadvantaging less-privileged citizens, and failing to provide for the demands of an ever-evolving economy.

And again: whatever short-term commitments Abbott makes on mental health; a dwindling pool of public funds under the Liberals will translate into savage austerity elsewhere. An example of this is Abbott’s dumping of plans for ‘Super Clinics’ which would take pressure from desperately over-stretched public hospitals. Or else mental health commitments will themselves be fudged on over the longer term.

Other consequences could include insufficient public funds for infrastructure such as roads and public transport.

In keeping with this logic, we may see a further deepening of the ‘user pays’ principle. Where access to such infrastructure and services takes this form, and is levied at a flat rate, those on lower incomes are again disadvantaged or even excluded entirely.

Tendencies towards labour market polarisation also mean that there are many who are adversely affected by this deepening of ‘user pays’, especially in the absence of a sufficient social wage.

What we certainly don’t want in this country is a slippery slide towards an American-style polarised labour market, with the material needs and rights of citizens undercut further as a consequence of only-threadbare social services and protections.

And again: a strong social wage is necessary to provide a fair baseline with regards access to services and amenities; and to make up for distributive injustices that arise as a consequence of unequal bargaining power amongst workers in the labour market.

Abbott in strategic play regarding some of our most vulnerable

Abbott has provided strategic policy announcements in areas of special concern to the public. Although the overall picture under Abbott would be one of savage austerity, the would-be Prime Minister has attempted to trump Labor with announcements of funding for mental health and aged care.

In aged care the Opposition has pledged a “$935 million package” including “21 days of convalescence care for around 20,000 eligible patients at a cost of $300 million”, “$14 million for pet therapy programs”, and “$12 million to promote wellbeing and funding for companionship programs.” http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/08/01/2970226.htm

And in mental health Abbott has promised a $1.5 billion package including “800 new hospital beds”, “$440 million for the creation of 20 Early Psychosis Prevention and Intervention Centres” and “$225m would be allocated to build 60 Headspace services - treatment centres for young people.” http://www.perthnow.com.au/news/top-stories/tony-abbotts-mental-health-strike/story-e6frg12l-1225886499800

Importantly, though, experts remain critical. Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) spokesperson Yvonne Chaperon has highlighted insufficient wages for qualified aged care nurses, with the consequence of many skilled professionals leaving the system. In turn, this leaves aged care facilities with an insufficient skills mix. http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/08/01/2970226.htm

And Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Dr Andrew Pesce has slammed Abbott’s proposal to cut Labor’s $98.4 million in incentive payments for GPs to provide services in aged care homes.
http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/08/01/2970226.htm

This is an area of desperate need for those in aged care.

In the bigger picture it is well worth noting that the Australian economy is valued well over AUS $1 Trillion.

The commitments of the major parties seem paltry in this context. Quality of services in aged care and mental health fall way short of the real human need, and that needed to uphold human dignity for our most vulnerable. Across the political spectrum parties are ‘scraping the bottom of the barrel’ for desperately needed funds in these and other critical areas: but few confront the need for progressive tax reform to turn the situation around.

Nevertheless and again:, despite shortcomings Abbott appears so far to have ‘trumped’ Labor in these sensitive areas. In effect he is challenging Labor on its own traditional terrain of Health services. Labor cannot afford to cede this terrain: the consequence of doing so would be to lose crucial credibility and support.

Perhaps the best response would be for Labor to announce a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Such a scheme would need to be implemented in a fashion which valued and promoted the human worth and social participation of recipients. And in freeing up crucial additional funds, further action would become possible: reform of pensions and disability services: as well as commitments to mental health and aged care.

Conclusion

There are many reasons to vote against Abbott in the coming election: and not only those already alluded to in this essay.

Abbott has no credibility on the environment, having famously proclaimed that “climate change is crap.” And despite the conservatives’ emphasis on internal ALP division, the Liberal Party itself remains divided – as Malcolm Turnbull and others remain philosophically committed to a price on carbon. http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/abbotts-climate-change-policy-is-bullshit-20091207-kdmb.html

Further, Abbott remains committed to the spirit of WorkChoices, despite proclaiming the policy “dead”. http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/shades-of-latham-in-abbotts-ir-stunt-20100720-10i4t.html

As Abbott himself stated “the word WorkChoices is dead”. But even if a Liberal government did not change the existing legislation, it could legislate outside that framework, effectively circumventing it regardless. http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/07/17/2956429.htm

Crucially, Abbott is ‘running scared’ from a debate with Julia Gillard on the economy. Wanting to rely on pre-existing prejudices in the electorate, the last thing he wants is to provide Labor a platform from whch to spruik the ‘good news’: recession avoided as a consequence of Labor stimulus, interest rates low, and investment in education in infrastructure essential to the future of our economy. And then there’s Labor’s National Broadband Network (NBN), and its crucial role in paving the way for the future knowledge economy.

Abbott’s claim to greater ‘competency’ in managing the economy doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. And anyway: politics concerns values: matters such as distributive justice and compassion for the poor and oppressed that run deeper than “technocratic management.”

Finally: as we have considered in depth here already, Abbott is attempting to deceive us with a “sleight of hand” on austerity. He wants us to focus on conservative initiatives on mental health and aged care: but in doing so he wants to distract us from savage austerity elsewhere – health, education, infrastructure, welfare – cuts that could spiral into the tens of billions.

Labor is not yet committed to tax and social wage reform of the scale that this author is fighting for. But the difference between Labor and the Conservatives is tens of billions in austerity, the abandonment of crucial infrastructure such as the NBN, an uncertain future on industrial relations, and an outdated neo-liberal economic outlook that would have seen Australia into recession if Abbott had had his way.

Vote 1 for Labor; or for the Greens: but for Australia’s sake put the Liberals and Nationals last.

nb: If you enjoyed this article pls join our Facebook group - to link up with other readers, and to receive regular updates on new material.  see: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=58243419565

Also this article will be re-appearing in On Line Opinion on August 10 - pls feel welcome to comment and discuss these issues there and then as well! :))

10 comments:

  1. Why don't you call for a vote for Socialists before Labor?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Fair Enough Terry; though there are socialists in the Greens and ALP as well. This article's going to appear in On Line Opinion this Tuesday too - to a mainstream audience. I was aiming for what options I thought most readers would be open to. But feel welcome to leave comments here - as detailed as you like - putting the case for readers to vote Socialist Alliance.

    ReplyDelete
  3. i consider myself a socialist,but i won't be voting for labor this time. They seem to be just in it to win it, will side with the noisy minority to get votes rather than stick to principles of equity. nit too far to the left of Liberal anymore. Goodbye Labor, hello Greens.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I understand people voting for the Greens in the Senate. But did you know the Greens have directed preferences to the Liberals in the knife edge seat of Melbourne. A pity that such a good woman as Cath Bowtell may well be defeated: she's a woman whose commitment to fairness and equity, and whose capacity to fight for those things would be such an asset in parliament. And these could be the few votes that deliver Tony Abbott as PM.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Jude, I hope you're wrong - and I urge readers to look into this themselves to confirm one way or the other. For the Greens and the ALP not to be working closely and consistently together at this point - to avoid an Abbott government - would be a disgrace. The threat of an Abbott govt is by far the greatest danger for all of us.

    ReplyDelete
  6. For those who are interested: as best as I'm aware Terry Townsend is a Socialist Alliance activist. In response to his complaint earlier in this thread I thought I'd make the notes below.

    Socialist Alliance has a very radical platform on social expenditure, budget reprioritisation and tax reform.

    My feeling is that these policies are too radical in the sense that they seek to achieve too much too quickly - and people aren't ready for change that is so swift and dramatic.

    But to make up for not mentioning the most radical corners of the Australian Left in my article above, I'm including the URL below: which will take readers to an account of these Socialist Alliance policies.

    http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/45074

    Again - readers pls feel welcome to discuss my original article (above); and maybe go into the issues further - including, if you wish, your feelings on the mainstream parties and/or Socialist Alliance platform.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It is entirely natural for supporters of one side or another to seek to credit their own group and discredit one or more of the rest. Tristan is a member/supporter of the ALP.

    But neither Abbott nor Gillard is what this or any election is or should be about.

    Firstly, there is a bipartisan – multipartisan if one includes the Greens, the Democrats (dec.), etc. – refusal to recognise not just the class nature of our society, but also the limits imposed by factors such as the tyranny of circumstance and the destructive influence of consumerist narcissism. Accordingly, the political parties refuse to recognise the true issue wherever doing so conflicts with their narrow bourgeois ideology, and will refuse to accept any potentially effective solution that does so.

    Obviously if the only effective solution were to be outside their range of acceptability (meaning that the only realistic solution was unacceptable) we would have a big problem. As any serious counters to climate change, for instance, require a technocratic and regulatory structure that would threaten fundamental capitalist interests, yes, we do have a big problem. Likewise, any effective policy regarding indigenous people (and third world countries generally) requires a fundamentally different and non-capitalist philosophy; that is why it has been such a social policy failure for so long.

    Labor’s Fair Work Act is philosophically much like Work Choices, and occasionally worse than the Workplace Relations Act of 1996. Orwellian titles suit such things. There is clearly a bipartisan succession of oppressive Commonwealth industrial relations Acts.

    Tristan rightly referred to “the mining industry fear campaign …” Yet surely those such as SEARCH Foundation would deem such attempts to pervert the democratic process as being guaranteed to fail? In contrast, I’d argue that such campaigns reflect the class nature of our society, or to put it differently, the fundamental imbalance of power between the ruling class and the ruled class.

    Secondly, the importance of effective and efficient structures was shown especially obviously by the shambles of the house insulation scheme. Gillard, Rudd and a few others drove the planning, notwithstanding Peter Garrett’s own shortcomings. It would seem that they disregarded the warnings not only because they felt they could spin their way out of any problems, but also because they appeared to feel that their cause was so good that they had but to Lay On their Hands and There would be Light.

    One of the reasons for the collapse in Kevin07’s popularity was exactly his obvious incapacity for effective administration. It was ironic that it was a Labor PM - Bob Hawke in 1984 - who began the destruction of what was an independent, apolitical public service. In its pre-1984 form it would have saved Kevin07 from many of his mistakes.

    contd ....

    ReplyDelete
  8. Thirdly, as was shown by the knifing of Kevin07 when he looked unlikely to be Kevin010, the cult of the personality – quite deliberately – overlooks the importance of the attitudes and values of the factions, party machine, and even the party faithful. Both Abbott and Gillard are there because they are seen by the factional heavies as being the best prospects for winning. Being good politicians is a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite, nor does any uniqueness they may have in any way pose any challenge to the ethos of their parties. Both lack any progressive view of policy, or of politics, or even of the people. However, they are not parallel lives; Abbott does have principles, narrow and reactionary though they are.

    Gillard is simply a ruthless politician who shares the contempt for ordinary people common in senior Labor and Coalition circles. Her education “revolution” was bad public policy, and even worse administratively.

    But Rudd himself had not lost popularity simply because he was no longer De Man. He had lost popularity because he had lost his way. While we were - by accident - well served by Gillard’s dumping of any emissions trading scheme, it underlined the emptiness of Rudd Labor’s political and economic strategy. He, she, and they have the mental straitjacket referred to in the First point above.

    More generally, I’d completely disagree with Tristan’s characterisation of the organisation misrepresenting itself as Socialist Alliance as “… [having] a very radical platform on social expenditure, budget reprioritisation and tax reform.” It has nothing of the sort. It has a few barely interesting policies on a few topics, of which only climate change is potentially of mainstream political interest.

    At the start of the Socialist Alliance project (when it was both Socialist and an Alliance), its controlling faction clearly decided – like the CPA – to abandon all pretence of commitment to revolutionary Marxism, then to use the process to become – rather like SEARCH – a feelgood walk-the-walk talk-the-talk social democratic organisation that presumably nevertheless continues to pay good compensation to its senior managers. It then expelled a large portion of its membership, and took over the “socialist alliance” with no more interest in democratic consultation of the non-DSP members than the Soviet Communist Party of the 1930s would have shown.

    To return to Labor’s industrial policies, let us consider the evidence:
    • Kevin07’s and now Julia10’s government is seeking to develop an election pitch based on returning productivity growth to the rapid rates achieved in the 1990s, with commensurate pressures for more flexibility.
    • Gillard claimed she believes in a sustainable Australia rather than a Big Australia, but then claimed population had nothing to do with either natural increase or immigration.
    • Gillard did not seek any significant increase in the last National Wage Case.
    • Gillard intervened to oppose any extension of trade-union right-of-entry powers.
    • Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard's deeply dubious assurance that workers' take-home pay and conditions would be protected during the then Rudd government's award revisions.

    Would Abbott really be so very different?

    ReplyDelete
  9. RR; Yes Abbott WOULD be different.

    Even with the backdown, the mining tax is worth over $10 billion a year. Abbott's cutting of the mining tax has to be paid for somehow - and that would be through austerity. And then there's Abbott's parental leave system which would have hairdressers subsidising through their tax the relatively wealthy - leave with full pay for 6 months - $75,000... Finally there's the NBN, which will drive information and knowledge industries in such a way as would really improve the quality of life for many. Abbot, on the other hand, wants to invest $6 billion in dated technology which will in relatively short order have to be replaced. (and he talks of 'waste'!!)

    re: Socialist Alliance policies - the best thing readers can do - if they're interested - is to follow the link I provided in an earlier comment and make up their own minds.

    re: Class relations; Christopher Pierson in his book 'Hard Choices' notes that:

    “Of course, for social democratic politicians who have spent much of their adult lifetime in the painstaking work of trying not to frighten voters, problematising property rights belongs in the category of the really unthinkable and even more compellingly unsayable.” (p 149)

    and:

    “A century ago, an inheritance tax, though fiercely condemned by some, was certainly a topic of polite debate among the mildly progressive – but even this now lies largely beyond the pale of polite conversation.” (p 149)

    These are the problems of electoral politics; where parties are challenged to form a majority; and the media and public sphere are dominated by those who oppose us. But in response to Pierson I have written also:

    "a purely parliamentary social democracy cannot but be deeply flawed and susceptible to compromise. But victories can also be won OUTSIDE the electoral process; and democratic (ie: parliamentary/representative) structures alone do no guarantee legitimate liberal and social rights."

    The cultural struggle is where it's really at.

    Tristan

    ReplyDelete
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