The Guardian • Issue #1968

Politics in the Pub Perth

What would a people’s budget look like?

As both federal and state governments begin to shape their next budgets, the Communist Party of Australia held a Politics in the Pub to discuss what a People’s Budget would look like. The Chair for the evening was the State Secretary of the Western Australia Branch, Elly Hulm, who invited attendees to consider an alternative to the Coalition government’s pro-business, anti-worker, and oil and gas-fuelled budget. Instead of subsidies for the big end of town, for fossil fuel corporations and private schools, what would a budget look like if people are put first and people’s lives are not left up to market forces.

The first speaker Owen Whittle, the new Secretary of Unions WA, set the tone saying that under both federal and state governments we live in an age of austerity, where governments save money on government services, and reduce wages and conditions of workers to help protect the profits of big business.

In early 2020, when COVID hit in Australia and many businesses were closing and laying off workers, it was only through pressure from trade unions and non-government organisations that the government introduced the COVID subsidy. This subsidy helped keep 500,000 workers from falling into poverty. As soon as the worst of the COVID crisis was over, the subsidies were wound back and the Newstart Allowance was increased by such a miniscule amount that it will hardly have any effect.  The government’s argument that people need an incentive to work is ludicrous, especially when at the same time they suppress wages. A move to a more people focused government which prioritises working people would also see governments more actively consider free and universal access to childcare and 26 weeks of parental care to be accessible by both parents.

Under federal and state governments, regardless of which Party is in power, there has been no progress addressing wage stagnation which has been prevalent since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. The state Labor government in WA has continued its appalling wages policy for the state public sector workers of $1000 wages cap per financial year which in effect also suppresses wage outcomes in the private sector. This austerity by governments in the wages policies in both state and federal public sectors has led to a cut in real wages for public servants at all levels.

It is sometimes difficult for workers to see why they should belong to a union when there are wage caps that their unions appear powerless to challenge. The only answer must be the greater the membership the greater the chance unions will have to have influence and make a difference.  In Western Australia a Public Sector Alliance  of unions has agreed to postpone all or part of their wage bargaining negotiations so that their agreements will align giving them more bargaining power to fight back against, “the blunt policy” of State Wages Policy.

Mick Buchan, State Secretary of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) spoke about a particular but very important aspect of the deliberative capacity of the state, being procurement policy and the need for changes to this policy to increase efficiency, better value for money for the state and better wages and conditions for workers who provide their labour through that procurement/tender process. Buchan said the goal of a good procurement policy was to deliver quality services and infrastructure.  The people of WA expect government to provide quality services and infrastructure. Also, workers money in superannuation should be used to deliver projects that generate jobs and benefit for the people.

Buchan spoke of a workforce that is seeing up to 70-80 per cent of the workforce being employed under labour-hire arrangements. The government can set any conditions on tenders that it wants for example to set targets for 30 per cent of women on a project. If the government managed the construction of its own infrastructure, it could set the standard for wages and conditions of workers employed on government projects through proper enterprise bargaining which would then flow on to the private sector.

The final speaker was Seamus Carey, a CPA member and student activist. He said, we have come to expect federal Budgets that do not serve the interests of the people – though the corporate media frequently dress them up as though they do. Carey continued, “We have become accustomed to the erosion of hard-won gains by workers in the past, of our wages and conditions.” To reverse this trend, we require a government that puts people first. We demand a planned program for recovery led by the public sector, designed around meeting needs for universal health care, publicly funded and run aged care, free education, and affordable medical and dental treatment available to all Australians. The pharmaceutical industry should be nationalised and provide universal access to affordable medications, and public housing should be a right affordable to all. Carey added that the vast majority of householders in Australia do not own more than the house they are living in. Preserving the present distribution of housing ownership benefits only the minority of landlords and property developers.

The speeches were followed by a passionate and lively Q&A.

Australia needs a strong union movement. There must be a significant increase in the minimum wage, and a public superannuation scheme so that the benefits would flow to the Australian working class, instead of private financiers. The CPA campaigns for a real liveable wage.

The Communist Party of Australia advocates for a people’s government which would deliver a people’s budget, and prioritise the environment, sustainability and renewable energy.

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