Dateline Australia — Fight-back against austerity needs union leadership

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An infamous image said it all. After drafting the largest attack on the poor in Australia’s history with a drastic budget scheme, chief finance minister (treasurer) Joe Hockey and his deputy were photographed smoking cigars outside Parliament house in Australia’s capital, Canberra.

What did the image say? “Screw you!” And four days later, Australian workers found out just how far the government intended to go.

Broadside assault. With the election of the reactionary government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2013 the class war escalated. Every government announcement has furthered capitalism’s grand plan to dismantle this country’s social security system, universal health care and public education.

The scope of the attack is difficult to overstate. Take the so-called $7 “co-payment” for Medicare. The government’s spin-doctors would have us believe that it’s a single payment for attending a General Practitioner (GP). It’s not! Take a woman with symptoms of ovarian cancer: GP consultation — $7; blood tests, biopsy, ultrasound, X-rays, consultation with specialist, any tests that specialist prescribes — each another 7 dollars. This is capitalism telling poor people to die quietly.

The Abbot’s regime has increased the retirement age to 70 for all people born after 1965, giving bosses five more years of profit from our labour. And they have just done a deal in the Senate to freeze employers’ compulsory contribution to pension funds at the current level for ten years.

But the main onslaught is cutting wages. Capitalism always has “on reserve” a pool of unemployed workers that puts downward pressure on wages and working conditions. Fighting against this are unions organising workers to defend hard-won pay and entitlements. It is no accident, then, that the Abbott government has gone after some of the strongest unions through its Royal Commission into alleged corruption. The clear aim is to break these unions.

The Abbot administration’s outrageous proposal to deny any benefits to job seekers under 30 is a crude attempt to drive them into taking non-union jobs at any wage, thus pricing organised workers out of a job. Deregulation of higher education, which will cause massive increases in school fees and force more youth out or school, will also propel students into the cheap labour pool.

At the same time, older workers unable to retire face age discrimination. Both younger and older workers face pressure to compete for the same jobs to take whatever work they can get. This is why the entire union movement needs to leap forward in the fight for workers’ solidarity against the Abbott government.

Fake “budget emergency.” Australia has one of the strongest economies of any of the leading capitalist countries. The Gross Domestic Product is growing at a much faster rate than that of the U.S. and the European Union. The country’s economy grew for the 26th year straight, which is the longest continuous growth of any capitalist country. Australia was spared the worst effects of the Global Financial Crisis through a massive program of government spending and a tightly regulated banking sector.

Despite this, Hockey bleated that federal coffers were bare, necessitating an austerity drive. His campaign was so strident that business confidence began to fall. At that point, corporate representatives were trotted out to subdue the government’s spin. Hockey’s leash was shortened and the “budget emergency” miraculously dissipated.

But not the austerity program, although a lot of that is currently held up in the federal Senate, because of political infighting among right wing parties and Senators.

It is true that government revenues are down because of low inflation, but a remedy is easy. Raise taxes on big business instead of cutting them! Stop spending billions incarcerating refugees in offshore concentration camps! Tear up the contracts for expensive U.S. military hardware!

Simmering anger. The killer budget is deeply unpopular and has provoked angry opposition. A weekday Bust the Budget rally in July called by the union movement attracted tens of thousands in Melbourne, but its scope was limited by most union officials who failed to call for workers to walk off the job. This was followed by massive national weekend rallies mobilising unionists and communities. There have been huge campus demonstrations, including actions in both Sydney and Melbourne, where students staged militant sit-ins.

A new protest movement, March Australia, organised enormous national rallies against the government in March, May and August, though these had little union presence. These various efforts remain fragmented, each mobilising different crowds. Grass roots union and community activists could bring them together.

The Freedom Socialist Party is part of a united front initiative, Campaign for a General Strike to Stop Tony Abbott. It aims to create a ground swell amongst unionists for a general strike in as many industries as possible to beat back the Abbott government’s attacks on the poorest and most vulnerable. The potential is there. It requires conscious, steadfast leadership.

The national peak union body is planning a day of activity on Oct. 23. There are also mass rallies called across the country on Nov. 16 to coincide with the G20 summit being held in Brisbane. Socialists and grass roots unionists need to combine the issues and protests and build momentum for stop-work actions.

Big business and its puppet government need to know that Australian residents will not give up the victories of a century and a half of working-class struggle. If you don’t fight, you lose!

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