- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #2050
Sydney Fight Back rally in support of Unions. Photo: Anna Pha.
May Day is just eight days away from the federal budget. All we hear from Treasurer Jim Chalmers are attempts to soften up the electorate for the disappointments that lie ahead, with comments such as “funds are limited and the government can’t do all it might like to do,” or how the “budget will be handed down in the context of an uncertain and volatile global economy, which is precariously placed.”
On all fronts there are crises that need addressing urgently: cost of living, wages, poverty on the rise, public health system, public education, the NDIS, public housing, aged care, early childhood education and care, below-poverty-line social security payments, climate change, and Closing the Gap.
It is nonsense to claim “limited funds” as an excuse for refusing to put people and the climate first. It is a question of priorities. The Labor government has an important choice to make: Will it put the well-being of people and the planet first, or will it persist with its gift to the US war machine of $386 billion, and to the rich of $254 billion in tax cuts?
This waste on killing machines and war preparations is outrageous. Likewise, the tax cuts for the rich. The majority of Australians are experiencing a serious recession. Their purchasing power has taken a sharp decline even though the government can point to economic growth – the growth is in profits and for the rich. The inequalities have never been larger.
The Treasurer does say there will be some relief in an “affordable way that doesn’t blow the budget and add to the inflation challenge.” But don’t hold your breath. “Affordable” means not spending what is required where it is required. “Inflation” is a euphemism for not increasing spending.
Wages are in sharp decline after decades of real reductions and stagnation. The cost of food, rental, interest rates on home loans, and power bills have rocketed. Prices of some staple items have doubled. Families, especially sole parents, are struggling.
It is important to support the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ seven per cent claim before the Fair Work Commission to be handed down in June. In the circumstances seven per cent is a modest claim. The National Minimum Wage is $21.38 per hour or $812.60 per week.
A two-bedroom apartment in the outer suburbs of Sydney or Melbourne can cost $500-$600 per week. Three or four-bedroom rental accommodation costs upwards of $700. What does this leave you to live on? How can anyone feed a family on what’s left over? Mortgage repayments have risen by more than $1000 a month on recent loans, leaving many families in a precarious situation.
Women earn on average $474.40 a week less than men. “Women’s work” such as early childhood education and care, aged care, cleaning, nursing, and retail is not only lower paid, but tends to be casualised or part-time.
The failure of wages to keep up with the cost of living is very much due to a fall in the rate of trade union membership, and a decline in the militancy of some trade unions. Trade unions have been kneecapped by an ideological campaign waged by the ruling class and by governments with successive rounds of anti-union legislation that virtually outlaw the right to strike.
Breaches of this legislation have seen unions hit by hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars in fines, and union officials denied the right to enter workplaces to see members, check on safety, or recruit new members.
The struggle for trade union rights is integral to the struggle for a living wage and public services.
The Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee, set up by the government as the result of an agreement with ACT independent Senator David Pocock, called on the government “to commit to a substantial increase in the base rates of JobSeeker Payment and related working age payments as a first priority.”
Raising the rate to “90 per cent of the Age Pension would improve adequacy and return them to payment relativities of 1999,” the Committee found. According to Treasury it would cost $24 billion over four years. This is peanuts compared to the cost of war preparations.
An increase in JobSeeker and other social security payments for youth, students, pensioners, and carers would provide genuine security and wellbeing at a fraction of the cost.
As a rich country, Australia’s social security payments are amongst the lowest of any industrialised nation.
The NDIS has been virtually privatised. At the same time those requiring funding and services have been dragged through the ringer attempting to access their rights, participate in society, and live in dignity.
Once again it is the most vulnerable who are neglected, under-resourced and facing more cuts.
EDUCATION & HEALTH CARE
The almost three million Australians with student loans will likely see the size of their debt increase by at least six per cent this year. It is appalling that HECS debts are being increased in line with price inflation. Education should be free at all levels from early childhood through to university. Making higher education financially accessible for all would go a long way towards overcoming skill shortages.
Public hospitals are in crisis. Waiting lists grow longer. People are dying waiting for a procedure, or to see a specialist. The essence of Medicare with universal access to bulkbilling is all but a dream.
Nurses are underpaid, overworked and burnt out. But once again, it comes down to government values and priorities. War preparations first, people last.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS) around Australia are facing a crisis. Core federal funding has been cut, but demand has doubled since 2018. ATSILS nationwide are calling on the Federal Government to urgently deliver a $250 million emergency support package. In NSW they will be forced to freeze criminal defence services in 13 Local Courts if the Federal Government doesn’t provide emergency funds.
The low-and-middle income tax offset for people on taxable incomes of between $37,000 and $126,000 is set to be abolished. That could see those workers face a tax hike of between $675 and $1,500. They cost the government $7 billion per annum.
Compare that with the stage three tax cuts, which Labor says it still plans to implement. Those on taxable incomes of $200,000 or more a year will get a tax cut of $9,075 a year. “More than 50 per cent of the tax cut goes to the top 10 per cent of taxpayers. Men get twice the benefit from the tax cut when compared to women,” The Australia Institute reports.
That’s $254 billion over ten years in tax cuts for the rich. A tax increase for those on low and middle incomes and NOTHING for workers on less than $37,000!
Labor has lost any pretence of serving the interests of the working class. No government that puts people first at a time of such a cost-of-living crisis, declining wages, rising poverty and homelessness would turn its back on the vulnerable and victims of the current crisis while finding more than half a trillion dollars for death and destruction and tax cuts for the rich.
Any relief will depend on the pressure mounted on the government. That will take united action by trade unions, left political parties, community groups, and individuals. Write now to your MP and Senators demanding the war preparations cease and tax cuts for the rich be abandoned.