Saturday, October 22, 2011

After the Melbourne ‘crackdown’; Rebuilding the ‘We are the 99 per cent’ movement

above:  Victoria Police's idea of 'Minimum Force'

In this article Tristan Ewins refutes criticisms of the "We are the 99 per cent" movement and considers tactical questions facing that movement.  He also considers the implications of violent tactics on the part of police for the liberal rights of all Australians.

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Tristan Ewins

At the time the author began writing this article (21/10/11) police in full riot gear had smashed a peaceful protest in Melbourne that was organised in solidarity with the  'We are the 99 per cent’ and 'Occupy Wall St' movements in the United States and around the world.  Peaceful protestors have been left bruised and bleeding, many suffering the effects of capsicum spray, choke-holds and pressure-point tactics.  The protestors were engaging in peaceful ‘sit-in’ tactics of the kind popularised by the anti-segregation movement in the United States in the 1960s.  And yet the Melbourne Herald-Sun (22/10/11) labelled them a “defiant mob”,  and a “threat to [the] Queen’s visit”, while also claiming the brutal  crackdown comprised “[the] police [taking] back OUR city”. But citizens would be better advised to consider what this precedent means for all of us – for our right of free assembly.  At the time of writing apparently at least 50 protestors have also been arrested by police; but perhaps the figure is much higher.  
In Australia we are supposed to be a liberal democracy. Again: this should mean we enjoy certain rights - freedom of speech, of association and of assembly. If citizens do not have the right to freedom of assembly in a dedicated public square - then is this a violation of those same liberal rights? What would we have said 25 years ago if a similar kind of occupation was forcibly and violently dispersed in East Berlin?   If people will not stand up for their rights - or are contemptuous of those who do - then they have to be prepared to lose those rights - not because this would be right, but because that is the logic of their attitude. 

Right-wing critics attempt to portray the “We are the 99 per cent” movement as being hypocritical. Apparently partaking of any of the benefits of modernity makes one unqualified to criticise the excesses of capitalism – which have almost brought the United States and Europe to ruin.  If I own an I-Pod apparently I am unqualified to complain if after losing my job and my home I am thrown onto the street.  Apparently I am a ‘hypocrite’ if a own a mobile phone, but being unable to afford private schooling for my children instead watch them flounder in a state system starved of funds, resources, staff and infrastructure.  In reality poverty is relative. In today’s information age internet access is crucial for the most basic social inclusion; and even for job-seekers to have the opportunity to find employment in the first place. The fallacies of the political Right, here, need to be refuted clearly and logically.

It's important to recognise the core message of the protests also.  In Australia and worldwide extreme inequality is rife.

In the US the top 1% own about 43% of all wealth and the bottom 80% have only about 7% total wealth between them.  See: 

In Australia, meanwhile, the top 20% have on average *40 times* the wealth of the bottom 20%.   See:

Elaborating further: according to the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) in Australiathe ‘top’ 20 percent own 61 percent of the wealth while the ‘bottom’ 20 percent own just one percent of the wealth.”  (See:  )

 This translates into lopsided power relations - culturally, economically, politically. It is anathema to democracy. Meanwhile there is a massive shortfall in disability services, aged care and public education. There are cost of living pressures for ordinary people with energy, water, and housing stress stemming from privatisation and the Howard era housing bubble. Taxes are gradually ‘flattened’ over the decades, becoming less and less fair, and providing the context for increasing ‘corporate welfare’. The needy go without to pay for the privileges and excesses of the few.

The consequence of such extreme disparities in wealth is also to be found in increasing rates of poverty.

Peak welfare-body ‘ACOSS’ (the Australian Council of Social Service) claims that “ 2.2 million people, or 11.1% of Australians were living in poverty in 2006” “compared with 9.9% in 2004, and 7.6% in 1994.”  The trend has been towards higher and higher levels of poverty, so updated figures would likely reveal an even more disturbing reality. 

Inadequate pensions have also been identified as one of the main causes of poverty in  Australia.   Dr Cassandra Goldie of ACOSS has stated that Australia spends 3.2% of GDP on income support compared with the OECD average of 6.5%. And yet for “73% of households with the lowest incomes, these government pensions and allowances are their main source of income.”

But all our varied movements around the world - against inequality, for social justice and for peace - each needs a minimum program: a clear set of demands to rally around.  Indeed, we could also do with an international minimum program – for the global movement – as well as national positions.  A process needs to be initiated to determine what form this will take.

 Here in Australia the first step must be progressive reform of tax so the wealthy pay their fair share; so the vulnerable get the services they desperately need; and so ordinary working people get a fair go.  This author intends to go into greater detail in the future as to what may comprise a viable ‘minimum program’ for the Australian movement.

 We will not achieve all the demands we make in the near future; but we must set out to build the kind of mass movement that will influence a generation, and begin to ‘turn the tide’ against neo-liberalism.  This necessitates careful planning to ‘appeal to the mainstream’ and build a broad base of popular support.  

Conservative ‘Herald-Sun’ columnist Miranda Devine fears an “opportunistic” Left will “co-opt” the movement and enforce ‘its own agenda’.  (20/10/11) Yet while the movement needs to be broad, the organised Left (broadly defined) brings crucial insights to the movement, and is the only force capable of organising and sustaining this kind of mobilisation over the long-term. 

We can’t allow ourselves to be divided either – or our base narrowed - on the basis of caricatures of the Left.  

We know that capitalism involves tendencies towards class bifurcation and monopolisation.  We know that the rate of exploitation has intensified in recent decades; that the wage share of the economy has been shrinking; that there is greater inequality in the labour market; and that there is a social services shortfall to pay for effective corporate welfare.  We know that we are experiencing a ‘two speed economy’: with mining prosperity driving up the dollar and making other industries (eg: manufacturing, tourism) uncompetitive.  And yet tens of billions of mining profits – from our resources that can only be extracted ONCE  – are heading overseas.   (see: )   

Meanwhile the rise of new competitors (China, India) increases the future risk of war as Great Powers strive to dominate a finite world market.  

In short: we know there is a problem with capitalism.

At the same time, though, the Left needs discipline in leading the movement: to maintain and appeal to that ‘broad base’ and avoid unnecessary confrontations that could see the movement isolated.  ‘Ultra-leftism’ – an indulgence in confrontation that serves no strategic purpose – needs to be rejected.  If the Queen’s visit comprises a flashpoint from which we have nothing to gain, perhaps the movement would be better advised to re-establish a presence after she has left Australia.  Thereafter: rather than a large ongoing occupation, perhaps a vigil and information table could be maintained in the city with rolling rallies and a ‘carnival-esque’ atmosphere in which participants from all walks of life feel welcome.  Here a balance must be maintained between keeping momentum on the one hand, and avoiding exhaustion of new and casual participants such that they ‘drop away’ from the movement.  The aim must be massive mobilisation and retention at a variety of levels over the long term.

We also need to be prepared for defensive struggles in the event that a world-wide economic downturn leads to further attacks upon our social wage, our welfare state, and our liberal rights. (including industrial rights)   This would necessitate co-operation with the broad labour movement.  In the face of austerity there could be need for industrial actions that serve a very real and clear strategic purpose.

We must have resolve that the recent excess on the part of police in Melbourne is not the end of our campaign, but only the beginning.  And we must resolve to broaden the appeal and the base of our movement to maximise our impact.

Tristan Ewins is a freelance writer, blogger, qualified teacher and long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party.

above: Protest image from the Vietnam War

nb:  Readers may also be interested that John Passant has also written a compelling article on some of these issues over at ‘En Passant’.  See:

Saturday, October 15, 2011

How to improve social wages with tax reform: Labor’s mission

above: Labor activists need to mobilise for this year's National Conference to ensure the ALP Platform is altered to allow a modest increase in overall taxation to provide real improvement to social services for the Aged, for the Disabled, and Cost-of-Living Assistance for ordinary families.

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Tristan Ewins

Former NSW Labor Premier Kristina Keneally has argued recently that Labor needs to ‘get back to basics’. This doesn’t have to mean dropping a price on carbon or forgetting the rights of minorities. But to actually deliver on cost-of-living pressures before the 2013 federal election, as well as desperately-needed programs for the vulnerable, would require a significant ongoing public investment. The next two years offer the Labor Party the opportunity of delivering real reform, thus reviving Labor’s electoral and organisational fortunes.

The recent tax summit had all manner of people arguing that the wealthy ought pay more tax. Through tax reform, restructuring and the closing of loopholes (including unfair superannuation concessions for the rich) Labor should aim to expand annual social expenditure by at least 1.5 per cent of GDP over the next two years - a little short of $20 billion in today’s terms (in the context of an economy valued at approximately $1.2 t rillion). But this would require a change in the ALP Platform at the Party’s next National Conference, due in December 2011.

Already Labor Senator Penny Wong has warned that with rising pension, health care and aged care demands the Australian government could be “tens of billions of dollars short by 2050”. Meanwhile the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), if implemented in the near future, in today’s terms would come at an annual $6.5 billion price tag. And yet legitimate demands for cost-of-living relief, for fairer pensions, higher quality aged care and improved disability support and services loom immediately ‘in the here and now’.

Speaking recently to Paul Versteege from the Combined Pensioners and Superannuants Association (CPSA) I was told that “nursing homes are like warehouses for old people.” Now I was already under this impression but I felt it to be a very powerful and accurate metaphor. Usually there is little to do for residents in nursing homes. Even in ‘common rooms’ residents are simply sat down to stare at walls hour after hour, day after day. There is no variety in life, no change of scenery. Usually these facilties are stark, there are no gardens in which to find peace and comfort.

Many of our aged citizens spend years in these facilities, years of acute suffering admist death and awaiting death. Often there is a lack of qualified staff, especially nurses. This means residents can acquire bed sores if not turned at the necessary intervals, and sometimes residents can be left in soiled beds. Food is often of poor quality, and low staff-resident ratios mean that aged care workers do not always check to ensure residents have actually eaten their meals. Malnutrition and weight-loss can compound each other in a ‘downward spiral’. In the past lack of dental care has led to infections and even death. In the future access to information technology will be crucial.

The indignity and suffering of the aged deserves much more attention than it is receiving. An ageing population will demand an increse in funding. But we also need to improve services now, not just ‘tread water’. Crucially, many of us that live to old age will one day need aged care. And so will our families and loved ones.

It is essential that we move away from user pays models in aged care. Despite claims to the contrary the Gillard Labor governemnt is still effectively demanding that aged Australians sell their homes in return for sub-standard care. The mechanism operates like a massive regressive tax. We need to ensure that all aged Australians receive the same very high quality of care on the basis of need and regardless of wealth. And such high-quality universal aged care must be funded progressively, not through what the Combined Pensioners and Superannuant’s Association calls a “pre-death death tax”.

Meanwhile there is some hope on the disability support and services front with Julia Gillard’s annoucement earlier this year of the government’s intent to implement the NDIS. Crikey reports that the scheme will offer “financial cover for services including for respite care, vehicle modification, accommodation support, therapies and prosthetics,” It is “expected to cost the government an extra $6.5 billion a year.”

And yet while the Productivity Commission suggested a 2014 implementation it is not certain that the government will meet this time-frame, with some suggesting a delay of seven to eight years. This simply is not good enough. Properly a NDIS should also involve construction of dedicated care facilities for the disabled who require intensive care so they are not left in aged care facilities in which they are isolated and do not ‘feel at home’.

But importantly the needs of the aged are just as desperate as those of the disabled and their carers. If there is $6.5 billion in additional funds that will be devoted to a NDIS then surely a similar amount must be devoted to improving the quality of Aged Care, supporting carers and removing user-pays mechanisms for poor and working class families. The government could begin with an annual $5 billion injection with more ‘in the works’ for the future.

Then, of course, there is the question: Where is the money coming from?

There could be progressive levies for the proposed NDIS and for aged care – or maybe some kind of single shared levy. And perhaps some of the funding gap could also be met with progressive reform and restructure of income tax. Venture capitalist Mark Carnegie thinks the wealthy (including himself) need to pay their ‘fair share’. Specifically he has suggested at the recent tax forum that 15 per cent extra in tax ought be levied from the wealthy top 15 per cent. Yet Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten has dampened expectations claiming such measures would be unlikely to be implemented.

Shorten has been an eager proponent of the NDIS, but he needs to start thinking of progressive ways to actually fund and implement the program. And hopefully he will apply the same standards of decency and compassion by popularising a similar program for aged care as well. John Passant has suggested other measures: an inheritance tax, minimum company tax, end capital gains tax concessions, tax trusts as companies, implement land tax for properties valued over $1 million, apply stronger economic rent taxes on mining, banking, and supermarket oligopolies.

Some of these proposals could form part of a more long-term agenda of reform, with Labor aiming to expand the social wage proportionately by 1.5 per cent of GDP per term of government, levelling out after several terms.

Nonetheless, funds levied over the next two years could then be deployed to provide stop-gap services and support in anticipation of a broader NDIS by 2014, with a similar scheme for aged care. Such ‘stop-gap’ measures could be crucial in that the government would be seen to be ‘delivering the goods’. This is always more valuable than promises only ‘for the distant future’.

By locking such investments in and implementing the necessary funding mechanisms pressure would also be applied upon Opposition leader Tony Abbott to maintain bipartisan support. Abbott would appear callous were he to sabotage or obstruct such programs, and in contravention of self-professed Catholic/Christian convictions of compassion towards the vulnerable.

After reform of Aged Care and Disability Support and Services, much of the remaining funds (from an $18 billion pool) could then be dedicated to a major cost of living package aimed at mainstream working Australia as well as the most vulnerable. Tax reform measures as alluded to earlier could be deployed to provide robust subsidies for energy and water in the case of low-middle income households, and for new public housing (increasing supply, and hence enhancing affordability). Broader tax restructure could also benefit these households, and comprise part of the package.

Over the long term, meanwhile, Labor could move to gradually resocialise energy and water, perhaps on a national basis, while moving away from user-pays mechanisms for roads and other essential infrastructure. Lower public sector borrowing costs could be passed on to consumers, while small consumers (individuals, families) would no longer be discriminated against because of lack of market power. Finally, productivity agreements with unions - including retraining and active industry policies - could deliver the best value for the public over the long term while providing justice and security for workers. Such initiatives would thus negate the core arguments for privatisation. Tighter regulation of energy/water over the trasnsitional period necessary for resocialisation could also be an essential part of a cost-of-living package.

Some of this money could also go towards funding the realisation of the Australian Service Union’s (ASU) community sector wage claim, which would make a massive difference mainly for women but also for men, working in that field. This could also lead to an influx of skilled labour and a big increase of morale in aged care.

Finally, the dire need to improve poverty-level Newstart benefits (even in the midst of harsh active labour market policies) demands action. And stricter conditions for the Disability Support Pension need to be reconsidered in light of the reduced job prospects and capacity of those genuinely disabled nonetheless judged able to work in someform.

Some funds could flow to the public coffers by cutting Dividend Imputation from 100 per cent to 75 per cent. Dividend Imputation involves ‘credits’ applied so that dividends are not taxed ‘a second time’ after Company Tax. But the measure – not applied widely outside of Australia – overwhelmingly favours the wealthy and in any case Company Tax rates have been steadily eroded in recent decades.

Partial withdrawal of Dividend Imputation could be crucial in reaching the $18 billion target. John Quiggin has argued for half dividend imputation in the past (which would yield over $10 billion). But getting ‘a foot in the door’ for tax reform (with 75 per cent imputation) could be a precursor for further reform in the future.

Targeting Dividend Imputation like this is a good strategy because, as opposed to raising Company Tax, the costs are less likely to be passed on to workers and consumers through reduced wages and increased prices. As a strategy it would target the ‘rentier’ capitalist class and thus would be a fair and egalitarian measure.

Assuming the implementation of such a reform agenda, even were Labor to lose in 2013, there would be a valuable and lasting legacy of which Gillard, Swan, Shorten, Wong and the federal Cabinet could be proud. Indeed, such programs would comprise a veritable ‘rallying cry’ for Labor’s eroding membership and core support base.

But by actually deliving such a big $18 billion/year package and making a real difference for mainstream working Australia as well as the most vulnerable Labor can still hold hope of victory in 2013.

Ammending Labor’s National Platform this coming December 2011 to enable an expansion of social expenditure by 1.5 per cent of GDP would provide hope for Labor and for Labor’s constituency.

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