The Guardian November 26, 2003


Unemployment plus

Economists call it full employment. The Government is 
euphoric. It's "as good as it gets" according to the mass media. 
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) says unemployment is at 
5.6 percent. The big banks have turned in record profits. Tourism 
took a boost with the Rugby Union World Cup. To cap it all, 
Access Economics is forecasting a $6.9 billion federal budget 

Conditions in the international economy are "clearly improving" 
say the pundits and the risks to Australia's economy "from a weak 
global economy [have] receded".

The Reserve Bank raised official interest rates by one quarter of 
a percent to 5.0 percent last week to slow the ever burgeoning 
consumer spending and booming housing market. By comparison the 
US interest rate is one percent.

To take advantage of the higher interest rate in Australia 
foreign investors are turning to the Aussie dollar  a major 
reason for the substantial lift in the exchange rate of the 
Australian dollar. It's good news for importers but very bad news 
for exporters.

But if one is to take off the rose-tinted glasses of the 
Government and the Reserve Bank and look through the eyes of a 
worker, student or pensioner, then what do we see?

It looks different to the thousands of workers sacked during the 
course of the year, those workers who have lost all their 
entitlements, thieved by unscrupulous companies. There is the 
casualisation and marginalisation of tens of thousands more 
people to make an ever-growing strata of working poor. Public 
utilities, schools and universities are being privatised (much of 
it by stealth) and there are more cuts to community services. 
Medicare is being slowly destroyed and there is an all out attack 
on the rights and working conditions of workers and their trade 
unions in the latest round of anti-union industrial legislation.

A report just released by the Australian Council of Social 
Service (ACOSS) says the official ABS figure of 5.6 percent 
(580,000) unemployed exclude 716,000 "hidden unemployed". These 
are persons who are severely under-employed, or were marginally 
attached to the labour force and did not work enough to earn a 
basic living.

The ABS definition of an employed person includes those who had 
only one hour of paid work in a week. Add the two groups together 
 what ACOSS calls the unemployed plus rate  and the figure is 
12.9 percent, that is, 1.3 million Australians who could be 
considered to be job deprived.

With every visit to the supermarket more items have price hikes -
- not by two or three percent but by 30 percent or more in some 
cases. Banks keep on finding new ways by which to increase fees. 
No wonder they are making huge record profits. Bulk-billing is 
being replaced by upfront fees of $20 or $30 or $100 for a 
pathology test or visit to the GP or a specialist. In South 
Australia electricity prices have gone through the roof and look 
set to rise even higher. In NSW the Carr Labor Government plans 
to more than double the price of public transport.

The difficulties facing families are reflected in a growth rate 
of 22 percent in household debt. This month's increase in 
official interest rates will push up mortgage repayments on 
already over-inflated housing prices. The prospect of even more 
price rises is very real.

This is the reality for most working families and it is 
unsustainable. Already the charities are finding it difficult to 
cope with the demand for food, clothing and shelter.

But there is an alternative. The priorities of both State and 
Federal Governments have to be changed:

* Instead of sackings a shorter working week of 35 hours in the 
immediate future.

* A boost to workers' wages will give more real purchasing power 
to families without them having to resort more and more to 
plastic money.

* Not privatisation but the maintenance and expansion of publicly 
owned enterprises.

* Retention of Medicare and universal access to bulk-billing by a 
substantial increase in the rebate paid to doctors.

* A guarantee to maintain the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme to 
provide low price medicines.

* The expansion of cheap public housing to force down rents and 
the idiotic prices now being paid for private housing.

But for this to happen Australia must establish a new type of 
workers' and people's government based on a coalition or alliance 
of left and progressive forces committed to real change in the 
interests of people  one that judges economic performance on 
the basis of people's living standards and quality of life, not 
private profits and stockmarket prices.
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