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Issue #1565      19 September 2012

Unions fight austerity measures

Over the past few weeks, thousands of public sector workers have joined protests in defence of public sector jobs and services including health, education and emergency services. They have received considerable support from other trade unions and members of the community in their struggle against the neo-liberal austerity measures of Liberal-led state governments. The savage cuts, mass sackings and attacks on wages and conditions are a warning of what lies ahead if a Coalition government is elected in the next federal elections.


A crowd shot of the rally in support of public services held in Sydney last year.
(Photo: Anna Pha)

The cuts taking place will do untold damage to public health, education, community and other services, result in real reductions in the incomes of public sector workers and swell the ranks of the unemployed. They will also have a contractionary impact on an economy that is already on the brink.

Forget all the election promises of Liberal premiers Ted Baillieu in Victoria and Barry O’Farrell in NSW and Queensland Liberal National Party leader Campbell Newman. It is a full-on attack on the public sector dressed up as saving their states from unsustainable fiscal crises. The big end of town stands to benefit from deregulation, privatisation and ongoing subsidies from the public purse.

Victoria

The Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union (AEU) is holding an emergency rally on Thursday September 20 (midday) in Treasury Gardens, following the leakage of a “cabinet-in-confidence” report to make even larger cuts to TAFE than previously announced (see this issue Vic TAFE staff to rally). The AEU warned, the TAFE system is now in a fight for survival.*

“The 86-page report (PDF) outlines proposals to sell off campuses, close courses, increase student fees dramatically, cut jobs and [make] tens of millions of dollars of asset sales,” the AEU said.

“The message to the Baillieu government is clear – the Victorian public will not take these cuts lying down,” AEU Victorian branch president Mary Bluett said.

This week’s rally follows the AEU’s biggest ever action on September 5 when around 40,000 teachers, support staff and principals went on strike and 400 schools were closed in support of the union’s pay dispute with the Baillieu government. (See Guardian, 12-09-2012, No 1564 AEU schools staff stage Victoria’s biggest ever stopwork)

On September 7, staff, students, community members and supporters from other unions took part in local protests when the Legislative Assembly sat in Ballarat and the Legislative Council in Bendigo. They were organised by the National Tertiary Education Union, the AEU and Save Ballarat TAFE.

These protests were against budget cuts of $20 billion, 100 full-time jobs and 43 courses from University of Ballarat TAFE and $9 million, 100 full-time jobs and 39 courses from Bendigo TAFE.

More than 15,000 signatures were collected from staff, students, local traders and concerned community members in and around the Melbourne suburb of Prahran and in Lilydale as part of the community campaign against campus closures and $35 million in cuts to Swinburne University’s TAFE operations.

On September 13, Victorian firefighters and supporters marched on Parliament, protesting against $66 million in cuts to firefighting services. The cuts are nothing short of criminal; they fly in the face of the Black Saturday Royal Commission’s recommendations and will put more lives and property at risk.

Queensland

The $7.8 billion in spending cuts in the Queensland budget on September 10 are primarily targeted at health, education and the public service.

Treasurer Tim Nicholls announced the axing of 14,000 full-time equivalent public sector jobs, with 10,600 permanent employees declared redundant. The other 3,400 are temporary employees or on contracts which will not be renewed.

More than 10,000 marched on Parliament House to hear public sector employees and representatives of the community sector outline the impact of the sackings and slashing of services. Rural and regional economies will be hit hard, unemployment will rise and services decline or be completely withdrawn.

Queensland Health will lose up to 4,100 jobs, including in nursing and midwifery, despite firm job security commitments given shortly after the March elections in an enterprise agreement negotiated with the incoming Newman government. The LNP did an about turn and passed legislation to nullify those provisions in the agreement!

Education is set to lose around 1,140 full-time equivalent positions with the cutting of programs despite rising student numbers and the need for more teachers.

While there are a few dollars for school maintenance, outpatient services, tourism, capital spending on hospitals and more police, the main thrust of the budget is more money for roads and the cuts. Apart from a small increase in royalty payments when the price of coal rises above a certain level, big business is laughing with the promise (which will be kept) of a new round of privatisations and deregulation.

The government will sell its remaining 34 percent share of QR National. QR National is one of the largest and most profitable freight operators in Australia, moving coal, iron ore, other minerals, agricultural and general freight around Australia. It made a net profit of more than half a billion dollars last year and paid dividends of $180 million. Like other privatisations, the sale makes no sense economically. It denies the government millions of dollars in future income.

NSW

TAFE is also under attack in NSW. The O’Farrell government has announced the slashing of 800 TAFE jobs over the next four years, including many front-line teaching staff. Students face an increase in fees of 9.5 percent and the student concession fee will nearly double.

In all the government has announced $1.7 billion in budget cuts (over four years) to public education and the loss of at least 1,800 jobs.

NSW Teachers’ Federation (NSWTF) deputy president, Gary Zadkovich said, “After years of state and federal government cutbacks in funding, after years of casualisation of the TAFE teacher workforce, after years of privatising TAFE course delivery through the policies of competitive tendering and introducing TAFE course fees, we now see another wave of cuts to TAFE.”

Previous cuts and lack of income support have already seen a drop in student numbers in some areas. It is clear that both federal and state governments are not serious about addressing skills shortages, not while there is the employer-preferred option of low paid imported labour.

“Federation will be working with other unions, public education groups and local communities across NSW to defeat this attack on our students’ right to a quality public education,” NSWTF president Maurie Mulheron said.

The TAFE cuts were part of a horror budget delivered last June with the cutting of 10,000 public sector jobs on top of the 5,000 previously announced. (See Guardian 20-06-2012, No 1552 NSW hit with horror budget)

The O’Farrell government has embarked on a massive privatisation program. Ferries have been privatised, buses look set to be next followed by trains. While public transport faces cuts, there is no shortage of money for roads. The way has been opened for the mining of 30 percent of the state, which will see key agricultural land destroyed and contaminate clean water supplies, including Sydney’s.

Wrong policies

The austerity measures not only hurt the workers and their families directly affected but the whole of society. They create hardship and turn basic rights such as education, training, health, aged care into privileges for those who can afford them.

The Barnett government in Western Australia has been implementing a similar agenda since its election in 2008 albeit at a more gradual pace compared with its counterparts in the eastern states.

The onslaught on public services is accompanied by an attack on wages (reduced, capped or frozen meaning reductions in real terms), job security and working conditions. The cuts to jobs and incomes reduce workers’ purchasing power which in turn reduces the demand for goods and services. This has a contractionary effect on the economy at a time when stimulus and job creation are required.

Governments constantly refer to their austerity measures as “tough decisions”, as though that makes them okay, or even a sign of strength and responsible management. Nothing could be further from the truth. At the centre of the attack is the neo-liberal, big business agenda of destroying the welfare state and privatising services and the government sector.

The reason given for the cuts and sackings is to bring in a budget surplus and to win approval from the private ratings agencies. Is a smokescreen. If that were the case they could cut corporate welfare and raise taxes on the rich and corporate sector.

One of the reasons for the ferocity of the attacks in the eastern states, apart from political expediency, may well be to push for an increase in the GST. As previously reported in The Guardian in the article, “Watch out for Abbott on the GST” (27-06-2012, No 1553), demands for an increase in the GST or its extension to areas presently exempt, are on the rise. The states with their “big bang” austerity measures are creating just the climate to argue for an increase. And now O’Farrell has raised it.

The aim of increasing the GST is to fund the loss of revenue from removing state taxes on the rich and businesses and to enable the federal government to reduce its contribution to health and education and so slash corporate taxes. It will not be used to improve public services, nor to retain public service jobs.

It is not surprising Coalition leader Tony Abbott refuses to outline what a Coalition has planned for the federal public service or remaining public services. The essence of the austerity measures and their aims are the same as those being imposed in Greece, Spain and elsewhere.

There is little time left before the next federal elections to build a political alternative that will fight for and build the public sector and restore public services. The involvement of the community in the campaigns being waged by public sector unions is an important start.

* Readers are urged to join the campaign to save TAFE at www.tafe4all.org.au  

Next article – Editorial – Asylum seekers pay for political cynicism

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