Sunday, June 26, 2011

Double Standards when its comes to talk of ‘Class War’

above: Prime Minister Julia Gillard

Increasingly - in the Murdoch press especially - there has been talk of 'class war' in response to even modest proposals for progressive economic redistribution.  But redistribution against the interests of the disadvantaged and ordinary struggling workers has been going on for decades; intensifying under Liberal governments.  In this article Tristan Ewins works to illustrate that point, showing such examples as the increasingly regressive tax mix, and falling minimum wages.  Ewins argues for Gillard Labor to be brave in pursuing distributive justice for the disadvantaged, and orindary struggling Australian workers.

Tristan Ewins

June 26th 2011

In a column appearing in both the Herald-Sun and The Daily Telegraph recently Miranda Devine has had another go at Julia Gillard and the carbon tax.

Condemning Gillard and the proposed tax, she characterises it as:

“Wealth redistribution, pure and simple. A year on, there’s no secret what Gillard stands for. It’s just no one can believe it.” 

And this isn’t the first time Miranda Devine has used such language either.

For instance in the Herald-Sun on May 12th 2011 she beats up the spectre of “class war taxes” in response to Labor’s Budget. ( see:   )

 In response:

Briefly, the main aim of the carbon tax is to create market signals to drive changes in investor and consumer behaviour: to do our part (as all nations must) in reducing emissions .

But that established: it is possible that modest distributive goals could be pursued as a by-product of overcompensation. And why not?

This brief article will consider inequality, redistribution and the double-standards at play with language of ‘class war’ which has been so common recently.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how attempts to tax the wealthy and relatively wealthy – to give a fair go for ordinary workers and the poor; or improve the wages and conditions of the most disadvantaged workers – is labelled “class war” in the right-populist monopoly media. And yet all these years that Australia has been drifting towards greater polarisation of wealth and income, and greater disadvantage for the poor: this has not aroused the same kind of ‘outrage’.

The wage share of the economy has been falling for decades; with an accompanying intensification of the rate of exploitation. 

Larvatus Prodeo reported this year that the wages share of national income was at its lowest level since 1964; slightly over 52%.  And to be fair the wage-share of the Australian economy had been contracting for decades under both Labor and Liberal governments; as the leadership of both parties accepted the notion that wages need be depressed to restore profitability.

Yet if structural forces in the capitalist economic system were driving these changes; why then were workers not at least duly and properly compensated with collective capital share? 

 Even under Hawke in the 1980s, celebrated increases in the ‘social wage’ came in the form of tax cuts; and so necessarily led to a smaller pool of funds for welfare and services. A veritable ‘double-edged sword’.

But there is more. 

Under both Labor and Liberal governments – but especially under the Conservatives - the ‘tax mix’ has been restructured as to be less progressive. Income tax had been gradually ‘flattened’. Dividend imputation has reduced the proportionate tax burden of the wealthy; and the GST in taxing consumption has affected the poor disproportionately. Accompanying compensation for lower-income demographics, here, was largely neutralised by regressive restructuring of the tax and welfare mix elsewhere.

Meanwhile, concessions and incentives in superannuation for the relatively wealthy and the outright wealthy have come at the cost of potential social programs in health, education, aged care, infrastructure and welfare.  

Privatisation of retirement pensions may well lead in the future to the marginalisation of the public aged pension, with impoverishment for many women, and those disadvantaged whose labour market participation has been sporadic, or who have been trapped in ‘low-end’ jobs. 

It begs the question of whether the government should rather be pursuing a more progressive and democratic model of collective capital formation.

Furthermore for decades there has been increasing labour market deregulation, and an end to the old style of progressive cross subsidies for essential utilities as a consequence of privatisation – or of corporatisation in-anticipation of future privatisation.

Privatisation has also resulted in falling government revenues for vital social programs, and increased costs for everything from power and water, to the use of private toll roads.

‘User pays’ ends up having the same effect as regressive-flat taxation.  And demand for increased profit margins with privatisation have seen structural increases in the cost of basic necessities; while the added cost of borrowing for the private sector in order to modernise infrastructure has also been passed on to consumers.  And in these new markets – eg: for power – ‘small consumers’ are disadvantaged due to their limited purchasing power.

With regard to minimum wages, recently the ACTU has noted:

“While the average Australian income has jumped 21 per cent in real terms since 2000 and company profits have increased by 50% in the past five years alone, the real value of the minimum wage has increased just 7.1 per cent.” 

And also importantly during the Howard years:

“Average award wages dropped by around $30 a week and some award workers had their real wages cut by almost $100 a week.”

The ACTU has observed that falling minimum wages have affected over 1.4 million workers in recent years.  (See: )

And in addition to all this -  there are many workers – including on low incomes – who have faced reduced wages and/or conditions under the government’s ‘Award modernisation’ process – despite promises to the contrary.

Importantly: There are many who have no sympathy for the unemployed as a result of constant campaigns of vilification on the pretext that ‘dole-bludging’ is rife. And yet Australia has stringent active labour market policies, pursued under both Labor and Liberal governments, with provisions that could reasonably be described as ‘punitive’.

Under recent changes long-term unemployed will be compelled to work two days a week ‘for the dole’, and yet no corresponding increase in payments for these people has been announced.

The OECD has seen fit to criticise Newstart as woefully inadequate compared to unemployment pensions elsewhere.  Writing in late 2010 for ‘Inside Story’, Peter Whiteford reported how under Newstart “unemployed adults receive about $470 per fortnight”, and how  

“Since 1996 the level of Newstart for a single person has fallen from around 54 per cent to 45 per cent of the after-tax minimum wage.”  (despite the fact minimum wages themselves have fallen)

Finally, during the Howard years a number of programs sprung up that were lambasted as ‘middle class welfare’. Included, here, were Family Tax Benefits ‘A’ and ‘B’ – introduced to assist in the costs of child-rearing- and provided even to those on high incomes.

There has been confusion, here, on the Left, with some arguing in favour of ‘universalism’.  But while many of us (this author included) support in-principle Swedish-style social-democratic universalism, the facts ‘on the ground’ in Australia are those of a relatively tight social wage and tax regime.  With a limited scope to expand progressive taxation, and hence expand welfare and social programs - a higher degree of targeting and means testing is necessary in the Australian context.    

Interestingly, though, Bernard Keane notes at ‘Crikey’ how Labor has failed to markedly reform the Family Tax Benefits regime.  He concludes how:

“In [Labor’s recent]…budget…[Family Tax Benefit payments are] forecast to cost $18 billion in 2011-12.”

And thus

“…FTBs are now Labor’s as much as they are Howard’s, which makes the “war on the middle class” rhetoric from News Limited and its journalists even more risible.”

All these years ‘redistribution’ has been going on.

Redistribution from low and middle income earners to the wealthy, and to the upper middle class. 

Redistribution from workers to the ‘corporate bottom line’ as a consequence of eroding real wage share, labour market deregulation, privatisation (including ‘Public Private Partnerships) and user pays. 

And more redistribution from workers to big corporations with effective ‘corporate welfare’, as corporations no longer contribute adequately or proportionately towards the costs of education and infrastructure from which they benefit.

 There has been impoverishment of pensioners – and especially the unemployed. (again I reiterate: despite stringent and indeed punitive active labour market policies)

 And there has been vilification of trade unions and stigmatisation/criminalisation of industrial action even where only used as a last resort.  This has resulted in a greatly reduced capacity for workers to fight back in the face of these changes.

So amidst all these changes over the past thirty years or so: how often have we heard terms like ‘class war’ thrown around in the mass media as a response?  

The answer: Not often. Not often at all. 

And yet if there is the prospect of  even a mild degree of redistribution in the context of overcompensation for the proposed carbon tax, the ‘class war bogey’ is brought out just as it always is when it comes to the interests of the privileged, and the relatively privileged. 

If those on lower and middle incomes are to receive a ‘fairer slice of the pie’ in terms of the tax mix, provision of social services, and welfare for those in need, it is only reasonable that those in the top 20% of incomes demographic pay their fair share one way or another.  If those on low to middle incomes are to enjoy a ‘fair go’ it can be no other way.

That said, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has recently announced that families on incomes above $150,000/year will miss out on carbon tax compensation. That’s roughly 10% of Australian families. (‘The Age’

 Unfortunately – as far as redistribution via overcompensation goes, the kind of strategy it seems Gillard is suggesting would provide a far shallower pool of funds to work with than would be the case were the top 20% incomes demographic excluded. 

Perhaps given this context pensioners will miss out on overcompensation even under Labor; and those on low to middle incomes won’t receive the more robust degree of overcompensation they deserve.  This could prove a missed opportunity for Labor – in maximising the reconsolidation of its ‘class base’.  Although doubtless Gillard sees it as a strategic choice to keep more voters ‘on side’.

Nonetheless, perhaps it’s not too late for compromise. Perhaps if pressured by the Greens and Labor’s Left Prime Minister Gillard could strike an agreement to withhold compensation for the top 15% of households, to be redistributed to those genuinely ‘doing it tough’.  A higher carbon tax rate in this context could be another option - an alternative to lower compensation 'cut-off thresholds' - to increase the total pool of funds available for redistribution from the top 15% to those in genuine need.

Regardless of the very cautious and modest nature of Gillard’s proposal, doubtless it still will not please critics such as Miranda Devine, and other Murdoch writers.  Devine seems to have an aversion for the very concept of progressive redistribution – no matter how mild.  But as far as this author can tell she has barely considered the situation of those who have been left disadvantaged by decades of “neo-liberal reform”; and the very real process of redistribution which has occurred to the detriment of workers and the poor.   Indeed: After all these years of redistribution from low and middle income groups TO the wealthy and the upper middle class, the modest forms of progressive redistribution suggested here should simply be seen as a tentative move towards some kind of 'correction'.

Yes Labor is struggling in the polls. Elements of Labor’s core class support base have been drifting away gradually for a long time under the perception that Labor no longer represents their interests.   But the prospect of progressive redistribution to the advantage of the vast majority of Australians who are on low to middle incomes is what the conservatives are scared of.  They’re afraid of a Labor Party which takes action to re-consolidate its class base.

By contrast when the Conservatives speak of cutting taxes to reward ‘hard work’, they’re usually talking of ‘relief’ for those on higher incomes. The underlying assumption is that ‘the market is just’: that those on higher incomes deserve increased benefits for their effort.  The implication is that they work harder than others. 

 But in an Abbott ‘tax reform’ package, you can be certain that it is those on low incomes – including some very hard working people – who would miss out in outright terms compared with upper-middle class and wealthy taxpayers. 

We speak here of people on minimum wage and thereabouts: cleaners, child care workers, retail and hospitality workers, textiles workers, and many manufacturing workers.  These are the same people who would suffer from a winding back of the social wage, or the effective introduction of ‘flat taxes’ with user-pays mechanisms in the context of Public Private Partnerships.  And Abbott’s proposed tax cuts must draw from the Budget bottom-line somewhere.

Too many people have been disadvantaged and suffered injustice in recent decades. And it is a process which always accelerates under Conservative governments.

Increasingly, though, there are those who once felt they could depend on Labor to defend their rights and interests – who no longer believe this to be true.  This is even undermining Labor’s membership base; its mobilisation as a social movement.   

Now, though,  is Labor’s opportunity to re-establish its credentials as a party with values; a friend of the disadvantaged, and true to its class base.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Labor needs a policy ‘circuit breaker’ - NOW

In the following article Tristan Ewins argues that overcompensation is key to 'selling' the carbon tax' - and that welfare recipients should not be 'left behind'; But also that Labor needs a 'policy circuit breaker' NOW if it is to have any hope of re-election in 2013. A National Disability Insurance Scheme, and pay parity for community sector workers - could provide 'a way forward'.

nb also: If you find this article interesting PLS join our Facebook group - to link up with other readers, and to receive regular updates on new material. see:

Speaking to Melbourne’s ‘Herald Sun’ on June 18th Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard seemed calm in the face of appalling poll results.    In an article titled: “Why I Rolled Kevin Rudd”, the Prime Minister seemed to hold out hope for a Labor victory in 2013.   (nb: we will assume PM Gillard did not anticipate the choice of title used by the Herald-Sun, with the usual loaded language and negative connotations)

Specifically, Phillip Hudson reported how Gillard:

“warned that poll numbers might not lift until after the tax begins in July next year and anxious voters "live it" and see the effect of the whole package and compensation on their daily life.”

What is most crucial at this point is for Labor to implement some kind of policy “circuit breaker”, to stop voters from ‘switching off’ before it is too late.  
On 18th June 2011  “popular support for the Federal Government [had] fallen to its lowest level in 39 years, with a…Nielsen poll putting approval for Labor at only 27 per cent.”
This was a devastating result for Labor.

Gillard cannot afford for everything to hinge upon reception to a carbon tax a whole year into the future. (ie: mid-2012)    Even if compensation (and overcompensation) does emerge as intended, voters may already have firmed in their judgements before then… 

 But a National Disability Insurance Scheme could provide the vital ‘policy circuit breaker’ needed so desperately by Labor.  We will return to this issue later.

The carbon tax is perhaps the most problematic issue for Labor, as fear has been whipped up so effectively by Abbott and by sections of the media.

There are also tensions between the Greens and Labor.

The Channel 7 website has published an article reporting a developing impasse between Labor and the Greens on the form any future carbon tax will take.   

Specifically, Jeremy Thompson reported that:

“It is understood the Greens are unhappy with the Government's preferred deal on industry compensation, including substantial assistance to coal miners.”

Here assistance to coal miners seems pointless.  Already low and middle income consumers – as well as trade-exposed industries - should be compensated for any increased flow on costs from coal-fired energy.  If coal-fired energy plants are directly compensated, however, then where are the ‘market signals’ driving a shift to renewables?  

The other question, here, is what rate the carbon tax will be set at.  Ross Garnaut has argued that a carbon tax at $26/tonne would raise $11.5 billion in its first year.

This author has argued in the past that there will likely be a rate of $20/tonne: a position that seems to be popular with Labor.  But in the past the Greens have argued for a rate as high as $40/tonne.    

 Also notable (again as I’ve reflected elsewhere) is Garnaut’s argument that pensioners ought not be ‘overcompensated’ because of previous improvements to pensions.  Garnaut had also argued that compensation to be phased out only for incomes “well north” of $80,000/year.

It’s important to note here that even before carbon tax implementation electricity prices have risen in Australia by about 30% in recent years, and already this has hit pensioners hard.  (see: ) 

Melbourne University Researcher, Roger Darville blames this situation on the troika of renewable quotas, the need for new infrastructure, and increased demand.  But privatisation is the real ‘elephant in the room’ with increased finance costs and profit margins for the private sector, and reduced market power for small consumers.  (see: in any case increased demand should not simply translate into higher charges pocketed by private companies in the form of profit.

Pensioners are already absorbing these and other costs (eg: water), and so should not be ‘left out of the equation’.

From this it’s possible to draw a number of conclusions.

Firstly, a higher carbon tax rate could provide more scope for overcompensation for pensioners, as well as low and middle income working families. 

As this author has argued elsewhere, Newstart recipients  are ‘doing it tough’ – to put it mildly.  Indeed, Newstart is currently only $474.90/fortnight, and has not kept up with a rising basic cost of living. (See: )

In light of existing punitive active labour market policies there are no decent or valid arguments not to reform Newstart.  And real increases to Austudy are also crucial to provide conditions where students can apply themselves fully to study, rather than risk failure or underperformance as a consequence of the pressures of part-time work. 

And here a ‘loans scheme’ is neither equitable nor fair.

 If reform is not implemented here in the context of carbon tax overcompensation, then it needs to be achieved separately; But progressive Labor figures on a cross-factional basis, and the Greens -  need to demand reform one way or another during the current term of Labor government.  Ultimately carbon tax overcompensation may prove the easiest path to reform regardless.

But to achieve robust overcompensation for low and middle income groups difficult decisions need to be made about ‘cut off’ thresholds. 

Based on previous modelling for a CPRS (carbon pollution reduction scheme – ie: via emissions trading), it has been argued that a carbon tax at $30/tonne would cost families $863.20/year.

 It’s difficult to extrapolate a figure for single income earners from this, but it would be reasonable to assume the costs could be easily absorbed by individuals on $80,000/year.  (as well, the rate is unlikely to be $30/tonne) Therefore, in order to maximise the scope for overcompensation for low-middle income groups – including pensioners and the vast majority of workers  (that is – the vast majority of voters as well) compensation could begin to be ‘phased out’ at around $70,000/year (or maybe somewhat higher), dissipating entirely at $80,000/year.  (ie: for those who could reasonably be described as occupying that range from 'upper middle class' to 'wealthy')

Robust overcompensation for low-middle income groups will be crucial if Labor is to retain government in 2013; but must be paid for somehow.  Therefore after reconsidering, the author believes that to provide the scope for such extensive overcompensation, a rate of at least $26/tonne – as preferred by Ross Garnaut – and with the ‘cut-off points’ suggested here - is preferable.  And of course the rate and cut-off thresholds would have to be properly indexed.

Finally, compensation might best be provided in the form of regular cash supplements (also indexed) – as otherwise tax cuts could be ‘taken for granted’ and forgotten.   With regular cash payments there would be a constant reminder of compensation provisions.

A ‘circuit-breaker’ for Labor

Labor has been taking ‘hit after hit’ in the polls and in popular media for a long time now.  There are many publications which will put a ‘negative spin’ on pretty much anything and everything Labor says and does.  The danger is that voters will ‘switch off’, virtually determining the government’s fate more than two years ahead of the next election.  The carbon tax may turn out well ultimately, but a year from now it may be ‘too late’ for the government. 

 The government needs a ‘circuit breaker’ and needs it now.   Labor needs to break the cycle of fearful speculation now - with an agenda of constructive and visionary reform with which to inspire and engage the electorate.  The National Broadband Network (NBN) helped Labor ‘across the line’ last time; but the government needs new initiatives, as well as substantial progress on the NBN.

 A National Disability Insurance Scheme has long been touted as an option by rising Labor parliamentarian Bill Shorten.  

According to the ‘Every Australian Counts’ website, a NDIS would:

  • maximise employment opportunities for the disabled, with comprehensive support services and any necessary equipment

  • provide similar support to assist in providing education opportunities

  • “provide funding for home modifications and specialised equipment and support to ensure people are able to live as independently as possible in their own homes”

  • provide support for family and carers

  • provide “early intervention and support” for children with disabilities
(see: )

In addition to this a NDIS needs to provide substantial new funds (ie: several billions every year) via a Medicare Levy-like mechanism rather than just a restructuring of the funding mix.  New funds are necessary to increase Disability Support Pensions and Carers’ Pensions; extend support services and provision of necessary home infrastructure; and to bring more crucial medications under the umbrella of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

 Specifically as a consequence of a NDIS, in current terms carers and disability pensioners should also receive a rise in their pensions of at least $25/week; indexed on top of existing pension formulae.

A NDIS could also source additional funds for improvement of mental health services: an issue which is resonating strongly with the electorate.

While a NDIS could disrupt the cycle of fearful speculation about a carbon tax, it would also comprise a landmark reform – a genuine record of achievement for Gillard Labor.

Finally, the government could move onto the front foot regarding the ‘equal pay’ campaign being driven by the Australian Services Union – to provide effective pay parity for workers (mainly women) in the community services sector. 

Because it is mainly women who are employed in the sector, this issue has been raised as one of effective gender discrimination. But not-for-profit organisations providing aged care and other services (as well as in the public sector) will need support from the government in adapting to any improved regime of pay and conditions.  Hence for these – and other vital reforms – the government needs to aim during this term for a sustainable expansion of social expenditure in the vicinity of 1.5% of GDP; backed by progressive tax reform.

Generous superannuation concessions for the wealthy could also be wound back.

But until the carbon tax is implemented – with accompanying compensation and overcompensation – some degree of fearful speculation will continue. Labor needs to finalise its carbon tax package soon – to put fears to rest. 

But speeding up implementation could also be crucial; and Labor could do well to aim for the end of this year, rather than allowing damaging speculation to continue until mid-2012.  Again: by then it could be ‘too late’.

Debate welcome as always!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Right-Populist monopoly media attempts to ‘deprive carbon debate of oxygen'

above: Cate Blanchett in the recent advertisement backing action on climate change

In this article Tristan Ewins reflects upon the Australian carbon tax debate as transpired recently on the ABC television program 'QandA'.  (Questions and Answers)  He considers issues such as compensation, welfare reform, and 'trivialisation' in Australian politics. The treatment of Cate Blanchett for participating in a related commercial is a case in point.

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Tristan Ewins, 2nd June 2011

In a recent episode of  ‘QandA” (Questions and Answers) the debate over the Australian Labor government’s proposed carbon tax continued in the same manner as it has for quite some time now.  In particular, the representative on QANDA for the conservative parties,  Liberal Senator George Brandis, repeated the usual line citing cost-of-living pressures and job destruction as the essential reasons the tax ought be rejected. While Labor MP Kate Lundy repeated again and again that low and middle income groups would be fully compensated (the point of the tax being not to raise revenue - but to create ‘market signals’ and so change patterns of consumption and investment)   Brandis calculatedly avoided engaging in his response – as to give any recognition here would ‘give the debate oxygen’ and reveal the ‘convenient fictions’ propagated by the conservative parties in attempting to build up pressure for an early election.

Brandis ignored the issue of what would have happened to the Australian economy without Labor’s stimulus; and the extent to which the most recent budget deficit was exacerbated by natural disasters beyond the control of any political party.  He also continued with the same ‘line’ that ‘Labor is addicted to debt’, ‘cannot handle money’ etc: not because it is true, but rather because Liberal focus groups must be reporting that these kind of truisms ‘resonate’ with the public. But if this is so it is only because these kind of ideas have been reinforced again and again over decades by the right-populist monopoly media.  The same focus groups must be telling Abbott that opportunist ‘lowest common denominator’ politics – especially in the case of vilification of refugees - are eroding Labor’s support base; ‘backing Labor into a corner’.  The human suffering of refugees is little consequence for many on the Right: ‘Anything goes’ for Abbott, and for ‘fear campaign shock troops’ like Scott Morrison in pursuit of personal ambition.

Debate on the proposed carbon tax had intensified as a consequence of a recent advertisement in favour of action on climate change – sponsored by progressive lobby association ‘GetUp!’, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).  Australian actress Cate Blanchett in particular had ‘come under fire’ from conservative forces, including most of the right-populist monopoly media, for taking a stand on this issue.  Opposition leader Tony Abbott, George Brandis and others had accused her of being ‘out of touch’ with struggling Australian families trying to make ends meet as a consequence of her personal wealth.  And yet the conservatives and their media allies want to attack truly vulnerable pensioners, while pleading for upper-middle class welfare for those on $80,000/year and more…

 If anything the focus on Cate Blanchett as a personality detracted from the real debate over climate change.  This was no accident – but was a tactic of distraction intended to avoid engaging on the issues; to prevent the message of this campaign from ‘getting through.’  This ‘trivialisation’ of politics in Australia is a regular phenomena – and perhaps a deliberate one – having the effect of weakening our democracy.  Australian social commentator, Guy Rundle – also a participant in the ‘QandA’ episode - observed tellingly that the conservative response was ‘a beat-up’.

 Perhaps the greatest deception of all by the conservatives, here, is the underlying assumption that a carbon tax would see cost-of-living pressures passed on to the public: while an Emissions Trading Scheme or Abbott’s so-called ‘direct action’ would not. This is crucial as an ETS has in the past been supported by past Liberal Party leaders John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull. 

 In reality a market-driven ETS would see the price paid for carbon credits being passed on to the public in about the same dimensions as with a carbon tax. And Malcolm Turnbull has estimated the cost of Abbott’s ‘direct action’ approach could approach the vicinity of $18 billion a year were the government “buying offsets or otherwise directly paying for abatement”, and aiming for an 80 per cent reduction of emissions by 2050, as urged by scientists.  A much more modest target of a 5% overall cut in emissions by 2020 would cost $2.1 billion/year in today’s terms.

 These costs would of course be passed on to Australian families also – via the tax system. Only it would be ‘hidden’ in a wide range of other different taxes – rather than an overt and obvious carbon tax.

It should be noted, of course, that Ross Garnaut also argued in ‘The Age’ on 1st June that a carbon tax at $26/tonne would rase $11.5 billion in the first year. But the overwhelmingly vast majority of this money would be returned to low and middle income families. Again – the point is not to raise revenue, but to change consumer and investor behaviour.  While the ultimate rate is probably more likely to be $20/tonne, once compensation is provided low and middle income groups will actually be better off.  Although over the longer term any kind of structural adjustment to deal with climate change will come at a cost (even if only as a ‘once off’) as it will necessitate investment in new technologies and infrastructure.  (including under Abbott’s ‘direct action’)

The point is that any kind of action on climate change will cost elements of the public directly or indirectly. By raising the spectre of ‘cost of living pressures’ while supporting ‘direct action’ Abbott is obfuscating this essential truth, and deceiving voters.

That said, there are some kinds of ‘direct action’ that make sense; and others that don’t.  At QandA Guy Rundle pointed out that Abbott’s program was one of ‘socialising’ the costs and losses of business – to be paid for by the public – while ‘privatising the profits’.  An example is Abbott’s preference to pay businesses directly for changed practices on climate change. This kind of ‘corporate welfare’ has become standard fare in recent decades.  And it also begs the question: where has the rationale for privatisation gone – supported by both Labor and the Liberals - where there is effectively no ‘risk'? (ie: when things go wrong ‘government picks up the pieces’)  The same could be said of Public Private Partnerships – also supported by ‘both sides’ of politics.

 But the right kind of direct investment in renewable energy could make a very significant difference, combined with other incentives. In particular new public initiatives in the power industry could be combined with a German-style program mandating compulsory purchase of energy from renewable sources fed into the national energy grid. In 2009 Germany enjoyed a share of over 16% of the power supply provided from renewable sources. 

 But in Australia the figure is only slightly over 5 per cent. 

Writing for Green Left Weekly, David Nichols also explained in 2008 how the costs of power privatisation in Australia have been passed on to the public.  He explains that “private capital has to earn a higher rate of return than public investment” and this means large enterprises with significant purchasing power can bargain for a better deal then, say, pensioners and others on low incomes.   He explains also how according to privatisation consultant KPMG, “the rate of return on publicly owned electricity generation capacity [was] 7.1% in Queensland and 10.6% in NSW, while corporate investors wouldn´t touch electricity generation until the rate was 15%.”  Finally Nichols contended  “private debt is more costly than public debt.”  The consequence of this is that public ownership could deliver a 30 per cent cut in costs as flowing from lower finance costs alone.”

As Guy Rundle effectively contested at QandA – privatisation is the ‘elephant in the room’ that the conservatives will not acknowledge when it comes to cost of living pressures.  But for that matter – neither will Labor – which had long since assimilated the privatisation ideology and effectively abandoned the mixed economy.

Perhaps now there is a need for introspective reflection within Labor on a cross factional basis – to reconsider the mixed economy, and concede  past mistakes. And even within the Liberal Party there could well be recognition that the mixed economy was undisputed under Menzies.

The final issue we will consider here will be the nature of carbon tax compensation. 

In ‘The Age’ on 1st June 2011 Ross Garnaut was quoted as arguing for 55% of carbon tax revenue to be passed on to tax-payers, rising to 64 per cent by 2021-22, with industry receiving 35 per cent, moving down to 20 per cent by 2021. (presumbly as industry adapted and modernised)  But ‘The Age’ also reported him as arguing that there should be “less compensation for pensioners and welfare recipients…because of [the] 2009 rise in benefits.” Effectively this would mean ‘no overcompensation for pensioners’.

 There are  a few issues here.

 Firstly overcompensation is essential for Labor in ‘selling’ the carbon tax.  This is as much the case for pensioners as for anyone else.  Pensioners vote!

 It is also key for social justice imperatives. Pretty much all pensioners struggle, and many disability pensioners and carers in particular don’t have many options in improving their financial circumstances.

Writing in February 2011, Peter Martin noted that :

Working households faced extra costs of 4.5 per cent in the year to December, age pensioners 3.1 per cent and welfare recipients 4.5 per cent. The CPI grew 2.7 per cent.”

He also noted how the Bureau of Statistics had argued:
“Age pensioners spend a relatively high proportion of their income on utility bills and fruit and vegetables, both of which shot up in price in the year to December.But while aged pensioners had their payments adapting to  “either the CPI [or] the pensioner living-cost index or male total average earnings (whichever is most favourable),  Newstart Allowance is only adjusted to only “what is…the lowest of these.” 

This means that even in the face of onerous active labour market policies and ‘work for the dole’ programs, Newstart has been eroding greatly relative to other pensions for a long time. 

Carbon tax overcompensation is a great opportunity to finally provide for the basic cost-of-living pressures faced by all pensioners, and especially by Newstart recipients.  Most Newstart recipients ought receive overcompensation of $50/week. And those working two days a week under the government’s new ‘work for the dole’ provisions could receive overcompensation of at least $100/week.  (for progressives this would be ‘making the most of a bad situation’)

Other full-pensioners (disability, carers, aged pensioners), whose financial situation is not necessarily so dire as that of the unemployed, could receive overcompensation starting at $25/week. Single Parents also deserve a significant extension of benefits.

And all such increases should be fully indexed on top of existing formulae.

Although improvement for Disability and Carers pensions – and associated services- could also be achieved via a National Disability Insurance Scheme; which would have Labor seen as ‘moving onto the policy front foot’. Perhaps providing such reform for Disability Pensioners and Carers separately would enable proportionately greater carbon tax-related compensation for other low to middle income groups, making the carbon tax ‘easier to sell’. But on social justice grounds Gillard Labor would still have to provide for Disability pensioners and Carers separately via a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) well before the end of the current term. Labor needs a positive message to re-engage with voters, and a NDIS could be crucial here.

The Greens and Independents especially need to make the most of their leverage over Labor to promote this reasonable and achieveable social justice agenda.

Here’s hoping that conservative forces fail in their strategy of attempting to ‘deprive the climate and carbon tax debate of oxygen’; manipulating voters through distraction and focus on trivalities. The issues are just too important to be engaging in these kind of cynical games.

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