- by Dorothy Costa
- The Guardian
- Issue #1972
Incredibly, fifteen months after the first COVID-19 lockdown in Australia was declared, the Sydney outbreak of the Delta variant is now being called a national emergency by the NSW government. The Berejiklian government has been forced, by the spread of COVID-19 Delta across Sydney, to criticise the lack of supply and rollout of the Pfizer vaccine and shift responsibility for the growing disaster in Sydney onto the Federal government. The increasingly panicked conservative NSW government has also had no choice but to shine a political torchlight on the reliance of Sydney’s economy on the working people of Western Sydney and the government’s failure to protect them. In truth, what is unavoidable to ignore is that Sydney’s working class, including essential workers, are the economic backbone of NSW.
The ideological curtain normally used to shroud the crucial position of working-class Australians in the maintenance of our essential services has been unexpectedly stripped away. These same workers who are the lowest paid, in insecure work, and often have few accumulated resources to fall back on. The reliance of the class-divided system on the availability of a cheap and vulnerable labour pool has come into sharp clarity. The result is panicking the system’s political representatives, who are aware of their growing vulnerability but cannot accept that we need to adopt social, people-oriented policies that will shift the burden onto big businesses and big business budgets.
The costs of the present state and federal anti-worker policies are accumulating on the backs of workers and small businesses and the already marginalised unemployed and at-risk groups. They also threaten the long-term ability of capital to continue to extract superprofits in the face of the inevitable growth of people’s resistance and political, social, and economic instability.
WORKERS: HEART OF NSW ECONOMY
Western Sydney is not only highly populated by essential workers, many of whom are casual or temporary workers, it also has a high concentration of low-income earners who manage from week to week and a largely young demographic. The new Federal income support measures introduced in response to the recent Sydney lockdown are significantly lower than Jobkeeper and Jobseeker. They also exclude many people or detach them from whatever precarious work they had before the lockdown. The result will be a post-lockdown environment in which more Australian workers and small businesses will be pushed down into poverty and destitution. An upsurge of resistance and struggle against the attempt to make people pay to save profits and profiteers is the beginning of the way out for working people.
JOBKEEPER OR DIVIDEND KEEPER?
Shockingly, evidence that the 2020 Jobkeeper scheme was exploited by big businesses to fund dividend payments and executive bonuses is now public. A recent report revealed that of the 290 ASX300 companies in receipt of over $1.8bil in wage subsidies from the Jobkeeper scheme, twenty-five have paid executive bonuses of over $24mil and seventeen have paid shareholder dividends of more than $250mil. In light of these obscene wealth shifting stratagems, the Jobkeeper scheme is being renamed, Dividend Keeper by working Australians who have been made to beg to pay their rents and mortgages.
Australians are more and more convinced that socially-oriented government action and policy is missing and desperately needed. Policy that clearly prioritises protecting people’s health and their economic interests before the interests of pharmaceutical companies, pathology cartels, private providers of social services, and over the interests of mining companies and big banks who are quarantined and subsidised from economic penalties during COVID-19.
THE VACCINATION VACUUM
While the pandemic killed millions in other countries and developed more dangerous variants, our politicians have been concerned with securing a quick economic bounce back. A fake and temporary “bounce back” predicated on the working people paying the “COVID-19 debt.” Future belt-tightening and austerity packages have been foreshadowed so workers are prepared to accept the pro-big business agenda that can now be accelerated on the pretext of a COVID-19 economy and COVID-19 debt. Future austerity and belt-tightening by workers for the “national interest” is the big picture agenda. An agenda to support monopolies and big capital in extracting more super profits and better positioning themselves in the global market in the post COVID-19 world. Business groups in NSW couldn’t wait last week to demand more flexibility to reduce workers’ shifts and avoid paying penalty rates in NSW.
THE “ALL IN THE ONE BOAT” CON
The Australian working people and small businesses around Australia accepted the main burden of the first lockdown while fed a diet of “social contract” clichés centred on the myth that “we are all in the same boat.” While cynically exploiting this image of “one boat,” our governments have duplicitously pursued their anti-people agenda favouring and supporting the monopolies and protecting big banks from having to absorb losses or contribute to keeping the boat afloat. The mortgage moratorium postponed interest payments to ensure big banks would not lose, the interest on loans allowed to accumulate for working people, the big banks’ super profits survived and their liquidity maintained. Socialist measures are opportunistically applied to save the capitalist sector from the reality of the markets and the system.
Despite being lauded as the fruits of a benevolent and democratic society, Jobseeker, Jobkeeper, various handouts and incentives to small businesses, including moratoriums on repayments, were ultimately designed to prevent the collapse of capitalist economies in crisis from their own contradictions. COVID-19 was the last straw. The temporary income support helped to hide the bailing out of the capitalist economy and created the image of a benevolent state. Though this smoke and mirrors trickery did not extend to large groups including casual workers and overseas visa holders in 2020, and is even less generous in 2021.
The $100 million dollar-a-day Australian defence budget has remained in quarantine despite the increasing need of the Australian people for vaccines and income support and protection. The joint military war games with the US continued on the Great Barrier Reef in July. In concert the warmongering language and belligerent attitude towards China by the Australian government is recommitting Australia to hitching its flag to US imperialism and not the interests of the Australian people. The burgeoning profits of monopolies, including in Big Pharma, mining companies, big banks and health-related industries, have never featured in the debt/people equation of the business governments.
Reality has clearly demonstrated we are not in the same boat as the big pharmaceutical and medical companies who are multiplying their profits at the expense of people’s urgent need for masks, sanitisers, and vaccination supplies. Nor do workers and small businesses have the same interests as the monopolies and big businesses who pocket government subsidies and incentives to add to their bottom line.
Reality tells us that small businesses and workers will pay for the COVID-19 lockdowns with a loss in income, depleted savings, and added debts, and in the longer term with wage freezes and reductions, attacks on their working conditions, and harsh new industrial relations environments, unless the struggle to oppose this agenda is developed and strengthened as quickly as possible.
“FLEXIBLY ADAPTING” NOT PLANNING AND PREPARING!
Australians are not all in the same boat in a class-divided system. Many working people are struggling to stay in the “boat.” Recently a new fine-tuned ideological message has been rolled out, claiming that governments are following the health advice and are flexibly adapting to an evolving situation. And this despite watching the experience in the rest of the world and while Australia was in effect granted a temporary reprieve to prepare for the more dangerous variants emerging in Africa, India, and South America!
In 2021, working people can no longer afford a system that distorts the social benefits of advances in science and technology to serve private for-profit Big Pharma. A system that refuses to challenge Big Pharma’s control of vaccine patents and denies safe vaccines to people because they can’t pay. It is more than time to strengthen and fire up the struggle for a system that does not face these irreconcilable contradictions between the working people’s needs and the few who siphon off the socially created wealth and knowledge for individual enrichment.