The Guardian June 26, 2002


Last week in parliament

Several of the Howard Government's Budget nasties were spiked in the 
Senate last week by a combination of the Labor Party, Democrats and 

They included the Government's attempt to increase so-called "co-payments" 
for medicines on the Pharmaceutical Benefits list. It would have 
substantially increased the cost of medicines for every Australian. The 
Government was set to skim off an extra $1.1 billion from the sick over the 
next four years.

The real problem forcing the escalating cost of drugs is the exorbitant 
prices charged by drug manufacturing companies who make obscene profits out 
of the illnesses of the community. But this fact is not going to be tackled 
by the Howard Government.

Another major objective of the Government was to alter the eligibility 
rules for those on disability pensions able to work more than 15 hours a 
week. Its intention was to force them off the higher disability pensions 
and on to the lesser unemployment benefit. This could have resulted in a 
loss for some of $50 per fortnight as well as forcing them to undergo the 
humiliating experiences now imposed on those looking for work.

This has also been spiked by the Senate  at least for the time being.

Another Budget measure that has been rolled is the proposal to reduce the 
surcharge paid by high-income earners on their superannuation. The 
surcharge was to have been reduced from 15 per cent to 10 per cent which 
would have netted large savings to those with incomes over $85,242. Using 
one of its usual tricks the Government linked this gift to high-income 
earners to another superannuation measure which would have given some 
benefit to low income earners.

But it was not only the Government's Budget measures that ran into trouble 
in Parliament last week.

At last, finding some courage on the refugee question, the Labor Party 
refused to endorse the Government's attempt to exorcise a swathe of islands 
to the north of Australia as areas from which, if they landed, refugees 
would not be able to process claims for refugee status in Australian 
courts. The Greens and Democrats also opposed this measure and it was 
defeated in the Senate.

This extraordinary step by the Government is an attempt to erect an "island 
curtain" against refugees to the north of Australia. The measure not only 
indicates the Government's inhumanity towards refugees but its 
determination to go to any lengths to refuse rights to refugees to which 
they are entitled under international law.

But, if the Labor Party is to regain any credibility on this issue, it must 
oppose the discriminatory and racially based policies of the Government 
which are also a violation of international law.

This is not only a question of regaining credibility among a large section 
of the Australian people who do not agree with the Government's refugee 
policies, it also means taking a stand against policies that are steadily 
isolating Australia, particularly in third world countries from which most 
refugees come.

The widespread objections to the Government's "terror laws" are another 
positive development. But, once again, the stand of the Labor Party is 
equivocal, limiting its opposition to merely proposing amendments. This is 
a dangerous course and is likely to allow the Government to get away with 
major parts of its neo-fascist legislation.

The Labor Party seems likely to accept legislation that would create a 
crime of "terrorism" and make it a treasonable offence to assist a national 
liberation struggle waged by guerilla forces and in which Australian forces 
were involved.

But who is to define "terrorism"? Leaving it to the Attorney General or 
even a Parliamentary majority to define would still enable struggles for 
national liberation that an Australian Government was attempting to 
suppress, open to being declared "terrorist".

If the present legislation had been on the books at the time of the Vietnam 
War, there is little doubt that the Liberal Government and the Labor Party 
leadership, which also supported the war in Vietnam until it was near its 
end, would have banned support for the Vietnamese national liberation 
movement and jailed those who opposed this "dirty war".

There is only one course to take and that is to reject the anti-democratic 
legislation completely and not tinker with ineffective amendments.
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