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Thursday, October 8, 2020

'Supply Side' Budget Stimulus - Government could have done more for 'Battlers' and Women

above:Anthony Albanese has called for more funds for Child Care and Social Housing

Dr Tristan Ewins

The 2020 Federal Budget projects a deficit of some $213 billion – a far cry from the previously projected surplus.   An already sluggish economy – hit now by Covid-induced economic collapse – left no option but massive stimulus – lest the nation sink into a Depression. 

In a way it is encouraging that the government has thrown away the book on neo-liberal orthodoxy to some extent.  A contractionary budget would have been disastrous.  A notable amount of the stimulus (about $6 billion) comprises wage subsidies aimed at the young – with the aim of supporting some 450,000 jobs. The plight of the older unemployed – thrown onto the Jobseeker scrapheap – is another question.   In the largest  single measure over $26 billion in tax breaks will be delivered to business to write off the value of new investment by June 2022.  There will also be a $4.9 billion “loss carry-back scheme” enabling businesses  “to claim refunds or offsets on taxes in previous years.”  Importantly, the third round of tax cuts – aimed at high income earners – has not been brought forward  - in a win for Labor and the Greens.  But the business sweeteners are not consistently tied to job creation and job retention – so for all that money there are no guarantees for workers.  According to ACTU President, Michelle O’Neil, the government also projects zero wage growth even if there is economic growth in the coming years.

In Aged Care, $1.6 billion will provide 23,000 home care packages. But this is below demand, and there are no big plans to reform residential care.  Perhaps this will come with the final findings of the  Aged Care Royal Commission and the next election: but the need is urgent and ought not be put off.  In fact it is dubious the Conservatives will find the money for comprehensive Aged Care reform: Home Care and Residential packages to meet demand ; with quotas for Aged Care Workers and registered nurses, a winding back of user pays, exercise and GP visits for all residents, and an emphasis on quality of life. It will be up to Labor and the Greens to put up a fight, though disappointingly Labor has known about these problems for over a decade, and is only making the right noises now with the focus provided by the Royal Commission.  We are talking many billions of dollars annually to make a difference over the long term.

‘The Age’ reports that “about 11.5 million workers will get up to $2745 more in their pay packets this financial year”.  Though the raising of the threshold of 32.5 per cent to $120,000 from $90,000 is arguably badly targeted.  And support for pensioners and the unemployed is insufficient, with a total of $500 in payments to Aged Pensioners meant to bring relief and fuel spending.  More for those on  low incomes and welfare would have a greater stimulatory effect, and would contribute to fairness.  On the other hand the low income tax offset will rise from $445 to $700 in a modest but welcome measure.

Importantly, of the new spending measures only $6.7 billion is going to the states for new infrastructure.   Including other infrastructure measures the figure is closer to $10 billlion extra over ten years.  The government’s main emphasis is in providing support and incentives to ‘kickstart’ business as opposed to measures directly supporting consumption at the low and middle ends ; although increased business confidence would support jobs.   The Budget measures emphasise the ‘supply side’ but neglects the ‘demand side’ when it comes to low income earners, the unemployed and pensioners.  The opportunity to permanently raise Jobseeker appears to have been neglected, and many jobs will be lost with the premature withdrawal of Jobkeeper.

Of most concern, stimulus is not a ‘black hole’. Getting people spending and back to work is part of a ‘virtuous cycle’ which can restore growth and rejuvenate the government’s balance sheet.  With record low interest rates the time has never been better for investment, and the Government could have done more here.

The economy’s pre-existing weaknesses have not helped ; but a Labor Government could not have avoided a Covid recession.  As Labor has argued it will be putting the case for ‘better bang for our buck’ in the stimulus. This should mean more emphasis on those on low incomes and welfare, and providing support where it will grow spending and investment in jobs most vigorously.  Too many businesses will be pocketing these 'sweeteners' without necessarily creating jobs.

In response to the Budget, Anthony Albanese has committed to further child care subsidies and half a billion to refurbish public housing.  We need wage subsidies for child care and early education workers as well however. And also subsidies for consumers of child care and early childhood education. Both as a matter of fairness (for child care and early education workers – and women workers more generally) ; to get more women working, and to attract talented educators into the field. Also with housing out of reach for so many people a big investment (into the billions) in public housing now could both stimulate the economy and promote affordability.

Modern Monetary Theory supposes government can issue currency to ensure a ‘full employment guarantee’.  Such stimulus is part of the picture, but can be limited by inflation and currency devaluation.  Though inflation seems unlikely in the current environment.   Redistribution can’t be done properly and fairly without tax ; but MMT has something to contribute to this debate.  The government's projections on unemployment are nowhere near ambitious enough.

If Labor was in government this kind of stimulus would be derided as an ‘irresponsible’ ‘cash splash’.   Consensus that stimulus is part of the way forward in times of economic weakness is at least a good thing in itself.  It sees Conservative arguments against the Rudd stimulus of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) blown metaphorically out of the water.   Labor governments of the future will be able to point to the current effective consensus on SOME form of stimulus to help justify their own efforts when governing in times of downturn or stagnation.  Which will inevitably come as part of the capitalist cycle. But this government's emphasis on the 'supply side' of the equation is nowhere near discriminatory enough.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Covid 19 has hit the economy hard; But where is the Recovery going to come from?

Richard Denniss of The Australia Institute thinks the Economy will not simply 'snap back' after the Covid-19 Crisis. A long term government role is required.

Dr Tristan Ewins

Covid 19 has hit the Australian economy hard.   By some estimates the Australian economy will shrink by approximately 7 per cent in 2020.  Maybe more.   That’s a virtually unprecedented recession.

Shutting down workplaces: hospitality and tourism, higher education and some manufacturing: comes at an enormous cost.

We can’t put a price on peoples’ lives and peoples’ health.  But many people will need to sacrifice to ‘spread the burden’ of funding recovery.

Some have suggested a ‘HECS-style loan’ for those unemployed as a consequence of this crisis.  

Because this discriminates, it is unfair.  Richard Denniss – speaking on ABC radio – is correct about this.  Though I think he is wrong about HECS more broadly.   Income contingent loans to pay for government  support of individuals during the crisis would mean a veritable ‘labour market lottery’ as to who was left with debt. Denniss agrees with this much.  But also ‘income contingent loans’ have a longer history of losing their progressivity as governments reduce thresholds to help pay for other endeavours – such as ubiquitous corporate welfare.

Also will the government temporarily increase corporate tax  during the recovery period to service debts incurred supporting the private sector during the crisis?

But one rational assumption is that the economy won’t simply ‘snap back’ at the end of a six month period ; and as a consequence the government cannot afford to ‘step back’ and just let the private sector ‘fill the breach’.  The real economy doesn’t work like this.

In hospitality and tourism the structural effects on the economy could last quite some time. We don’t know whether there will be a ‘second wave’ or whether we will ‘break the back’ of the spread in this country.  But global travel will take years to ‘get back to normal’, and the US and the UK are still deep in crisis.  The ACT and Northern Territory also understandably want to reap the benefits of wiping out the virus, and don’t want it reintroduced from interstate.

On the other hand the crisis provides an opportunity to broaden and deepen the public sector to create the ‘economic infrastructure’ around which recovery will occur.  Make strategic infrastructure investments, as well as structural improvements in public services ; unemployment services ; in Health, Aged care and disability services ; in welfare, transport, communications, arts.  The NDIS needs to be more accessible, with 'consumers' interests protected more vigorously.  The CES (or 'Centrelink' these days) should be refunded as a 'one stop shop' for job-seekers - but without the usual harassment and humiliation.  Homelessness could be addressed 'head on' with a big investment in public housing. Fix the NBN with ‘fibre-to-the-home’.  A big public investment in renewables. And coming out of the crisis: Have an active industry policy which strategically supports and invests in high wage manufacturing.

This is also an ideal opportunity to progressively reform welfare across the board ; and lift job-seekers out of poverty.

On ABC radio high speed rail was inferred as perhaps a ‘dubious investment’.  But it could drive growth in the regions, with a flow on of jobs and affordable housing.  As well as containment of urban sprawl and the transport crises that ensue from that.

The simple truth is that the public sector might have to pick up the slack on the economy for some time to come if there is to be any chance of a recovery.  And if we navigate this in the right way it can present an opportunity.

Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) holds that as the issuer of the currency the government can create money at will to invest and ensure a ‘full employment guarantee’.   Though this is limited by real economic constraints concerning the scale and nature of goods and services actually produced in the economy at the end of the day.  In some instances there might also be inflation ; and you cannot ‘create money’ to fund an infinite influx of imports.

But full employment is in everyone’s interests: so long as there is an ‘efficiency dividend’ which provides benefits for all ; and so long as consultation with unions ensures there is no endless ‘wage-price spiral’.   Higher employment has a ‘multiplier effect’ on the broader economy that also makes debts easier to service. At the same time, the wage share of the economy has been falling for decades ; and long term there is a need for a structural correction which could also create extra demand in the economy.   

As part of this picture there should be reform of the labour market improving compensation in low-paid jobs – either with regulation, or through the social wage. (or both)

Modern Monetary Theory has been somewhat skeptical of the role of taxation, claiming it ‘takes money out of the economy’.  But this need not be the case if all that money is spent ; if indeed there is a stimulus.  Taxation also allows for a much more finely targeted redistribution of wealth: which should be desirable for progressives.

As MMT theorists also recognise, state governments in Australia cannot issue currency.

The current public health crisis is going to cause much more pain before it is overcome.  But the right kind of policies on investment, industry policy, welfare and stimulus can minimise that pain, and even help ensure in the end we come out of the crisis stronger.

(nb: I'm wanting to publish this article elsewhere as well ; but I'm interested in feedback from readers on how I can improve the piece before I do that ; looking forward to comments :)  )

Monday, November 4, 2019

On Socialism Today - Planning a Way Forward

The following article - which the author plans to submit for publication by the Australian Fabians - is an in depth survey of the background and options for democratic socialism in Australia and the world.  The idea is to spark debate in the lead up to a series of events in Victoria planned for 2020.  Your contributions to the debate are also welcome!

Dr Tristan Ewins

Socialistic sentiment can be traced back to the slave revolt of Spartacus and Peasant uprisings in Europe ; for instance that led by Thomas Muntzer in Germany.  But ‘modern socialism’ began with those labelled as ‘utopians’ by Karl Marx.  Figures like Robert Owen – who personally wanted to convince the bourgeoisie (and nobility) of an egalitarian, communal society based around the means of production.   (specifically communes of up to 3,000 people) And all those others who depended on a ‘socialist vision’ to convince people of the desirability of a socialist order ; as opposed to Marxists who based their approach on ‘the fact of class struggle’.

Generally, socialists preferred equality ; an end to exploitation ; extension of democracy to the economy.  Marxists wanted to socialise the means of production to end both exploitation and the destructiveness and wastefulness of  capitalism and its boom-bust cycle.

But Marx had another criticism of capitalism ; and that was the way in which the division of labour and demanding nature of much work traumatised workers.   This was his theory of Alienation. Today in Australia for instance we are a world away from the working conditions of the 19th Century.  But in call centres, offices and factories the division of labour can still exclude creative control and work fulfilment.  Indeed, work conditions can still be traumatising.

In Germany where the class struggle was advanced the Social Democrats arose as a combination of the Marxists (Eisenachers) and the Lassalleans.  Lassalleans (led originally by Ferdinand Lasssalle) believed in industry-wide co-operatives with state aid.  Eventually Marxism became dominant.  But by 1914 in Germany right-wing ‘socialists’ had come to predominate in unions and the parliament, and those people eschewed internationalism and supported the First World War.

Before World War One both the European and British socialists supported the class struggle and the fight for universal suffrage to advance workers’ rights.  But Britain was relatively liberal ; and this resulted in less emphasis on revolution and more emphasis on incrementalism.

Fabianism arose in the 1880s ; and came to represent a movement to influence opinion in liberal and progressive circles. Especially in the Labour Party in Britain.  Beatrice and Sidney Webb (prominent British Fabians) expressed sympathy with the achievements of Soviet Communism – but that view did not last.  Some Fabians would focus on practical public policy ; others on the more radical aim of incrementally replacing capitalism.  Again: Generally Fabians were gradualist rather than supporting a ‘sudden rupture’.

Modern Australian Fabianism shared the British Fabian principles and was formed organisationally in 1947.  The height of Fabian influence was in the Whitlam Labor Government.

After World War One the broad Left was generally divided into Communist, Social 
Democratic and Labourist Camps.   Although pockets of Social Democracy remained highly radical – as in Austria in the 1917 to 1934 period.  (Austro-Marxism)   These sought a ‘middle path’ between Bolshevism and ‘mainstream’ international social democracy. And there were anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists – who were significant in the Spanish Republican forces and the fight against the Nazi-backed fascist insurgency of Franco in the Spanish Civil War.

From the 1940s through to the 1980s Swedish Social Democracy enjoyed remarkable success (replicated to various degrees in other Nordic countries) with full employment, active industry policy, strong unions, and a strong welfare state.  For the overwhelming majority of this period Social Democrats held government. Basically workers received social security in return for a ‘corporatist settlement’ including wage restraint.  The full employment achieved under the ‘Rehn-Meidner model’ also made a stronger welfare state possible. Though Walter Korpi conceived of the  Swedish situation differently:  as a ‘democratic class struggle’, involving mobilisation of ‘Power Resources’ and compromise depending on the balance of class power. But in the 70s and 80s Sweden also had to respond to the Oil Shocks and devalue the Krona.  The ‘Meidner Wage Earner Funds’ plan sought to compensate workers for wage restraint by giving them collective capital share.  But this implied a radical redistribution of wealth over time.  Also - because it appealed only to workers and not to citizens, it could be argued that the funds could have included a wider base. (which is democratically preferable anyway)  Capitalists went on the offensive : socialists on the defensive. And there has been a slow retreat since.

Up until and including the 1970s and 1980s there remained strong pockets of radicalism in many Labourist and Social Democratic Parties.  But the Oil Shocks of the 70s and the drive to restore profits divided the Left and led to Socialist retreat.  Also the Soviet Collapse during 1989-1991 had an enormously demoralising effect on the Western Left ; despite the fact the Western Left had long distanced itself from Stalinism. It’s not unreasonable to see the Gorbachev reform movement as a window of opportunity ; and a missed opportunity.

From Hawke and Keating onwards Australian Labor has broadly internalised neo-liberal Ideology.  Small government,  privatisation, free trade, limits on the liberties of organised labour, trade agreements which give capital an effective ‘veto’ on regulation and public sector expansion.  Marxism used to have a strong base in the Socialist Left.  But increasingly the factions have lost ideological cohesion ; and have been subsumed in the mainstream political discourse.

Indeed, the experience of Hawke and Keating inspired Tony Blair and Antony Giddens with their ‘Third Way’ or ‘Radical Social Democratic Centre’.  In the 19th and early 20th Centuries ‘Centrism’ had been a largely Catholic phenomenon including limited support for trade unions, labour market regulation and welfare.  Since Giddens and Blair the ‘Third Way’ has come to represent ‘neo-liberalism with  a human face’.   Punitive welfare on the one hand, but also the principle there should be an economic and social ‘floor’ below which no-one should be allowed to fall.  Blair also marginally increased tax.  (will Australian Labor still consider tax reform for the next election?)  But he would not retreat an inch in opposing any re-socialisation – no matter how badly privatisation had failed.  (eg: of railways)  In Australia more recently ‘Centrism’ as epitomised by the ‘Centre Alliance’ struggles to maintain a credible liberalism – let alone any kind of social democracy. For instance there was conditional support for the ‘Ensuring Integrity’ union-busting legislation.  Today ‘Centrism’ in Australia can  mean a shallow populism cashing in on broad disillusionment with the two party system.   Significant parts of the ALP Right consider themselves ‘Centrist’ after the Blairite model. Blairites also generally accept capitalism as a given.

Fast-forward to 2019 and ‘What is to be done?’.

Capitalism remains more vulnerable than people think. There is much focus on public debt, but private debt is a ‘ticking time bomb’ that could lead to loss of confidence, panic and collapse.  In Australia, the US and much of the world private debt is many times the level of public debt.  The Australian economy especially has come to rest on the housing bubble. Millions are locked out of home ownership ; but sudden and radical devaluation would cause panic and collapse.  The boom-bust cycle remains a fact: but governments focused on public debt are less likely to engage in counter-cyclical measures. This could one day mean recession (or Depression) as the ‘solution’ to indebtedness.   Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) has it that government can ‘create money’ at will ; but this is not without limits. It involves a  degree of redistribution which capitalists hate – but also inflation.  Progressive tax is still more effective at redistributing wealth in a targeted and progressive way.  But certainly the MMT crowd are on to something.

The Labor Party today is probably inclined to want to ‘save capitalism from itself’.  The welfare state and higher minimum wages can assist by boosting expenditure and demand.  A return to a meaningfully mixed economy can help by reducing cost structures via natural public monopolies. This could flow on to the private sector as well.   As well, this could counter oligopolistic collusion – for instance in banking.  (actually promoting competition)  Higher government expenditure can also add money to the economy ; increase demand ; and ameliorate the explosion of private debt – which is a ticking time-bomb for the economy. (here and globally) 

An expanded social wage, welfare state, collective consumption and social insurance – can also provide social justice and social security. Think reformed pensions – easing means testing and increasing payments.  Public housing.  Better-funded schools and hospitals. More money for the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.  More efficient public provision of infrastructure. (because of a better rate of borrowing and a ‘public interest test’ rather than share value and dividend maximisation)  Also consider National Aged Care Insurance and a withdrawal of regressive user-pays mechanisms.  As well as a retreat of user-pays in Education.

These are ameliorative reforms that can improve peoples’ lives.  But Australia is still captive to the global economy and will suffer along the rest of the world in any ‘general downturn’ or ‘collapse’.

Over the long term we still need to think about an alternative to capitalism. Sub-Prime and the Global Financial Crisis did not only reveal instability – It also revealed the gap between Use Value and Exchange Value as Marx would put it.  That is: there was an abundance of housing amidst widespread destitution and homelessness.   This is a real capitalist failing and vulnerability.

Marx’s weakness was that he did not propose any concrete alternative vision to capitalism. He assumed ‘the class struggle would take care of things’.   So maybe in part the ‘Utopian Socialists’ were on to something?  The context of class struggle had to be engaged with ; but also concrete visions for the future.  Today perhaps we need ‘provisional utopias’. We cannot afford to be ‘a force of pure negation’ with no vision for the future. Especially after the real historical experience of Stalinism.

But capitalism is a globally-reinforcing system.  You can’t just ‘go it alone’ in revolutionising the entire economy.  There are economic AND political constraints.

But what can be done is to begin a process of ‘revolutionary reforms’.  Say in the spirit of the interwar Austrian Social Democrats.  Even today in Austria there is a legacy in Vienna of 60% public housing – and overwhelmingly high quality public housing.  A ‘democratic mixed economy’ would stabilise capitalism (through strategic socialisation and redistribution) while at the same time advancing towards an alternative.  As in Austria this would also involve a counter culture: a rebuilding and reassertion of the labour movement ; but also a coalition with other social movements.  What Gramsci would have called a ‘counter-hegemonic historic bloc’. That also involves establishing online presences ; other publications ; public meetings ; progressive radio and television ; social events of various kinds ; plays ; workers’ sport ; radical music etc.  Establishing footholds where-ever possible.

Importantly the decline of industrial labour (with ‘deindustrialisation’) has widely meant a decline in class consciousness.  Service sector workers can be just as exploited ; but are more likely to think themselves ‘middle class’ or lack class consciousness.   We can and should fight this. But the industrial working class might not any longer be seen (in the Marxist sense) as a ‘finally redemptive’ ‘universal historic subject’.  The labour movement is central: but the modern Left also needs alliances.

And should another Global Financial Crisis occur the big finance houses should not be ‘bailed out at the public’s expense’.   Where the public sector steps in (if that occurs) it should retain a share in ownership.

Of course when it comes to advanced socialist transition bourgeois economic and political resistance has to be expected.  

The ‘democratic mixed economy’ should be the short to medium term model.  That includes a key place for natural public monopolies, strategic government business enterprises , consumers and workers co-operatives of various sorts (including multi-stakeholder co-ops which bring workers, governments and regions together) , mutualist associations . As well as ‘collective capital formation’.  ( The Meidner Funds were such ; In Australia superannuation was a very pale imitation which may actually endanger welfare into the future by narrowing its base) ‘Multi-stakeholder co-ops’ are an important idea - as they could enable expansions of economies of scale to retain competitiveness under capitalism.   All these are part of a concrete alternative. 

There is also a need to restore and consolidate industrial liberties ; to increase organised labour’s power ; its ability to deliver ; and hence its coverage, strength, and ability to contribute to change.

Furthermore: how do we tackle ‘alienation’ today in Marx’s sense?    Even with deindustrialisation, workers still find themselves alienated in modern professions – for instance call centre workers.  The ‘post-industrial utopia’ has so far failed to emerge.  At the least we can improve wages and conditions for the most exploited and alienated workers with low-end labour market regulation.  (and maybe government subsidies where the market will not bear higher wages)  Perhaps enabling a reduction of the working week for  many.  (though others would crave longer hours)  ‘Free time’ is perhaps one alternative (for now) to Marx’s vision of a communism where workers regained creative control ; and labour becomes ‘life’s prime want’.  (a quote from Marx)  But ‘alienation’ is a feature of broader Modernity and not only capitalism.  The rise of co-operatives could at least facilitate worker control – also ameliorating alienation.

In the final instance we need to think of where improvements in productivity could lead. Either to greater equality, plenty and free time for everyone.  Or in the capitalist context only the intensification of growth, profit and exploitation.  And possibly greater inequality if we do not socialise much of the gains of productivity.  What Marx called the ‘coercive laws of competition’  means that competition forces a focus on productivity for capitalist profit and short term economic advantage.   The problem is finding a way out of this ‘circuit’.   (as well as the intensification of exploitation ; and a 'lagging behind in wages' in labour intensive areas where productivity improvements are hard to come by)   We need to think where free trade and internationalism fit in to this problem.  There are environmental implications as well. Capitalism by its very nature will trend towards the ‘endless growth’ option.   Perhaps if the emphasis is on information and service industries it could be more environmentally sustainable.

But Sweden is also a warning.  Again: there has been retreat since the Meidner Wage Earner Funds.  The ‘corporatist consensus’ delivered for several decades in Sweden.  But since the bourgeoisie ‘got cold feet’ and organised more overtly against Swedish social democracy – there has been a retreat.  Swedish social democracy now has to work with Swedish Liberalism to keep the right-wing parties out ; and the price has been a retreat of the Swedish welfare state and progressive tax.  In short: Socialists and social democrats have to be ready for capitalist backlash.

Class struggle creates change. That remains true.  But so too do broader coalitions, cultural and electoral strategies.  The Fabian Society in Australia  is placed to mount cultural interventions ; and hence influence the electoral strategies of the Labor Party and the broader Left.  We won’t get all that we want all at once.  But we need a critique of capitalism.  We have to be prepared for future crises.  We have to think what a transition would look like: under what circumstances and what time frame?  But all the time considering the reality of power – economic and political ; including the power of the  State.  And all in a global context: where global progress remains limited without global consciousness and organisation.  Which is something the Fabians also need to be thinking about.  Building ties with Democratic Socialists of America, for instance, could be a fruitful endeavour.

The Fabian Society re-embracing its place as an organisation of democratic socialism means engaging with these problems.  For the short to medium term it is to be hoped we have an important strategic place in developing a ‘democratic mixed economy’ ; critiquing capitalism ; and imagining ‘revolutionary reforms’ which could decisively shift economic and political power over the long term.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Labor Must Ask Serious Questions on Policy and Values

Above:  Albanese corrrectly indentifies the need for policy review and good policy ; But 'root and branch' rejection of Labor's 2019 Platform would be a mistake.  New policies and 'new angles' are necessary.  But let's not jettison our values and abandon our interests on the way.  Labor's problems were largely 'tactical' ; and this also needs recognition.

Dr Tristan Ewins

Labor has been saying relatively little on policy since its defeat at the hands of the Morrison Government.   Many are saying Labor’s ‘move to the Left’ was the problem.  In that process other problems are being neglected.  The Coalition tax scare campaign (including on a non-existent 'death tax'); Shorten’s wooden performance in the final days ;  failure to build a strong enough ‘central narrative’ ; confusion on Dividend Imputation franking credits – and the failure to means test any measures there instead of applying the same rules to everyone.  Also Clive Palmer's $60 million intervention - dwarfing the monetary resources of both parties - changed everything and channeled preferences to the Conservatives.  Shorten also failed to sell the progressive tax reform message ; and avoided the issue when given the opportunity to ‘take it up to Morrison’ in a Leader’s Debate.  (here I'm thinking of Shorten's refusal to engage on Morrison's example of a very-high-wage workers' tax rising by 2%(!) under Labor)  

Expanding social goods and services necessitates progressive tax ; asking more of high income earners ; and that definitely includes the top 10 per cent.  Maybe even the top 20 per cent. Those in lower brackets need to contribute too based on ability to pay, but would receive much more in return.  Those in the lowest brackets may even receive indexed tax cuts.  (Income Tax needs to be radically restructured overall ; and then the lower brackets indexed – to prevent the erosive effect of bracket creep)  Tax indexation can prevent 'a flat tax by  stealth' via such selective exploitation of bracket creep.

In the big picture, though, Shorten led a united team and developed some very  good policy during his years in the leadership.   His modestly reformist policies have widely been portrayed as a ‘lurch to the Left’ ; and that illustrates well the relative right-wards shift in Australian politics where anything in the way of meaningful reform faces that kind of accusation.

But the Coalition’s massively irresponsible policy of tax cuts ($160 billion over the first 10 years, and much more proportionately over the longer term as ‘phase three’ kicks in) for the well-off put the onus on Labor to mount a response.  

We know we have an ageing population.  For the Left at least, we know tougher means tests, a higher age of retirement, failure of benefits to keep up with a rising cost of living and respond to the need to extend pensions more broadly – should be unacceptable.  Undermining the tax base is the road to a US-Style and strongly class-divided economy and welfare state.   An ageing population will also mean more stress on the health system ; and the correct response is to support citizens on need rather than adhering to some arbitrary ‘tax ceiling’ which can only respond with harmful austerity.  Medicare Dental remains an essential policy for Labor to embrace and campaign on vigorously.

To his credit, Albanese has come out against attacks and stigma against the unemployed.  But we need more.  Raise Newstart by at least $75 a week.  Apply active industry policies aimed at creating job opportunities for ‘at risk’ and vulnerable groups.  Not only the young unemployed, but especially the older unemployed ; and the disabled – including the mentally ill.   Highly educated older job-seekers are being forced to drop their qualifications from their resumes to be ‘more attractive’ for cleaning jobs and the like.  Meanwhile, while many look down on the cleaning profession it does involve skills, and it is hard work.  There is cause to reform the Award in these and other fields – for example Aged Care and Child Care. But where the market will not bear this we need government subsidies. Importantly, many of these areas are highly feminised.

Denmark provides an example in a sense.  That is with their active industry policies which seek development of ‘sunrise industries’ that make use of the skill sets from ‘sunset industries’, mixed with retraining. The policies are expensive: but the gains from labour market participation more than make up for that. 

In that process we need to review the  NAIRU – or non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment – which supports a ‘buffer of unemployment’ (commonly in the vicinity of 5 per cent) to contain the bargaining power of workers and avoid wage inflation.  Hence there are always many more people looking for work than there are jobs – and yet still the unemployed face stigma. Instead we need to look to fiscal policy to contain inflation ; and co-operation with trade unions (eg: accepting higher taxes on high wage workers) in return for expansion of social goods and services and defence of industrial rights.  This would be applied after the Swedish model rather than the Accord – which at the end of the day failed to deliver to workers sufficiently in return for wage restraint.  Full employment makes a massive difference to the Budget and the broader economy if it can be sustained.

In short, Labor needs to take action to raise the status of some of our most exploited professions – while reforming the tax base and making social wage, social insurance, collective consumption, and welfare state expansion possible.   

Let’s explain these one by one to get some sense of what is meant.

‘Social Wage’ refers to the recognition that not everyone receives wage justice. And sometimes it is more effective to receive the proceeds of wages collectively to maximise the collective (and individual) benefit.  Think public health and education.  Corporate Taxation also factors in here as the corporates benefit from a healthy and skilled workforce.

‘Social Insurance’ refers to public-funded insurance against contingencies like unemployment, ill-health or disability via the tax system – which covers everyone.  After all – it could happen to any one of us – or our loved ones.

‘Collective consumption’ refers to when ‘the people’ get a better deal by consuming collectively via tax rather than as isolated consumers.  Leaving individuals with more money to spend at their discretion in other areas at the end of the day.  

It is appreciated that people need a reasonable degree of discretion in terms of determining personal needs structures.  But ‘collective consumption’ delivers massively in the area of pharmaceuticals consumption (think the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme or ‘PBS’) ; and could deliver in other areas as well – eg: infrastructure and goods like water and energy – which are becoming more unaffordable following effective privatisation.  Also think public infrastructure like ports, roads, public transport. communications: which should flow from the public purse where the state’s superior rate of borrowing and not-for-profit stance can deliver a better deal.  (water, ports, communications, transport infrastructure - should be re-socialised - reducing overall cost-structures; Though in some areas (eg: energy) some kind of 'market' should still exist ; But in the context of a public monopoly provider ; much more affordable, but still an incentive to regulate usage)

The “Welfare State’” is often taken in a catch-all sense which covers all of this, but for now think of the tax-transfer system and the need to support vulnerable Australians.  Newstart is the area of the most dire need ; but a 15% increase in other pensions can also be justified ; as well as support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the implementation of a National Aged Care Insurance Scheme (in response to the Royal Commission) which provides high quality services both for at-home and residential care on demand, and without onerous user-pays policies which send ‘consumers’ broke.  That also includes high quality food, quotas , a registered nurse on-site always , training in the handling of dementia , at-home packages on demand , rehabilitation and exercise on-demand , regular GP visits , private rooms , and meaningful (often facilitated) every-day interaction and outings (where possible) instead of just seating people down in-front of TVs all day.  For those ‘at home’ action to combat loneliness is crucial.

More public housing – perhaps interspersed with private housing to avoid stigma – is necessary too in order to tackle homelessness and housing stress.  But large scale public housing projects should also be considered – also providing quality amenities: laundries, pools, common rooms, internet connectivity – which people can respect and appreciate.  Austria manages a high level of public housing well – with very positive results.  Indeed, over 60% of Vienna’s population live in public or social housing.  It is the legacy of the interwar revolutionary Social Democrats (at the time officially of  a Marxist – but not Bolshevist -  disposition)– who prevailed in Vienna in the 1917-1934 period ; and who took government with a more modest agenda in the post-war period.

Eugene Quinn argues the following ; outlining the difference in culture re: public housing in Vienna which could be promoted in Australia as well:

“People here are used to the communal spaces of the social housing estates and are very comfortable living next to someone from a different background,”  Quinn says. “And because people are not crushed by their rents like in other major cities, they have a bit more time to be creative, to study, to get involved in community work.”

Apart from these areas, Labor also needs to take a strong line against the Coalition's ‘Ensuring Integrity’ union-busting laws.  Some in the Left dislike John Setka.  But more is at stake here than one man.  We are talking about the strategic position of the entire movement.  Which the Coalition well knows.  And Labor must acknowledge that as well.

In short, inevitably there must be a policy review.  But let’s be careful about dumping good policy.  Sure, let’s hone our message and our central focus.  Though we need a tactical campaigning review also: perhaps more so than a ‘root and branch’ policy review overall. If we cannot at least reverse Morrison’s overall tax cuts in a progressive way – focusing on tax cuts for the well-off – then we concede defeat.  That would mean conceding an Australia which retreated from anything recognisably social-democratic , and headed towards the divisions and insecurity we see in the US for example.

Importantly we must embrace the message of progressive tax and its implications rather than running away from that debate.  Trying to be ‘everything to everyone’ and not increase the tax burden on virtually anyone – means we have no way of funding reform at the end of the day.  But an openly progressive agenda would give the vast majority an incentive to vote Labor.

It is nonetheless appreciated that ‘middle income’ is not the same as ‘middle ground’, and some disillusioned voters are embracing a ‘centrism’ which is largely right-wing in practice.  Labor’s response must be tactical: appealing not only to interests but also to values.  A liberal response on social values, and stronger action on climate change can also detract from any ‘small ‘l’ constituency’ for the Liberals ; and pressure the Liberals to reform their own outlook ; shifting ‘the relative political centre’.  Labor must contest values in the economy as well as the 'culture wars' ; and its relative neglect here has marked a defeat for Social Democracy and Democratic Socialism in this country.

One thing is certain. Nothing is gained from a ‘culture of policy defeat’.  Labor must find a way to effectively campaign for government without compromising its values and reason-for-being.  

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Australia’s Liberal Party no longer ‘liberal’

above: While Menzies was far from without fault, on many issues today's Liberal Party would be unrecognizable for him. 

Dr Tristan Ewins

Much is said about the clash between the liberal and Conservative wings of the Liberal Party of Australia.   Usually leading figures will speak of a ‘broad church’ which includes a diverse membership.  But the truth is that the Liberals continue to drift ever deeper into the hard Right.  Liberals will stand up for religious liberties (which there may be some kind of argument for) ;  but John Stuart Mill would turn in his grave if he was aware of Liberal policies on trade unions, charities, and attempts to shut down grassroots mass organisations such as GetUp!

The Encyclopedia Britannica identifies various rights as central to Classical Liberalism.  Freedom of association, assembly and speech amongst them.  Also: “freedom from fear of reprisal”, and of arbitrary arrest and punishment.   It also identifies free industrial organisation of workers as a necessary counter-balance in the marketplace.

Interestingly, iconic British liberal John Stuart Mill was even in some ways sympathetic with the socialist social experiments of Robert Owen in the 19th Century.  (see: ‘On Socialism’, J.S.Mill, Prometheus Books, New York, 1976)

And while free markets are crucial to classical liberalism, various liberals are divided on the balance between public and private.  All liberals would oppose a ‘command economy’, and would demand a central space for ‘personal determination of needs structures via markets’. For some liberals, however, Hayek and Rand are seen as occupying ‘the extreme end of the spectrum’ ; but those theorists’ ideas are exactly those promoted by the Institute of Public Affairs - which has a powerful role influencing Liberal Party policy.  Before the 1970s, Hayek and Rand were ‘on the fringes’ in most Liberal and Conservative parties. Fanatical commitment to the progressive and open-ended dismantling the welfare state, social wage, social insurance and public sector would have once have been ‘out of place’ in ‘the Party of Menzies’.   Now those ideas are in ‘the mainstream’.  And for Conservatives, adherence to economic neo-liberalism has eclipsed ‘compassionate conservative’ tendencies.

By contrast with the original liberals, today’s Liberal Party of Australia is committed to the total dismantling of the power of organised labour.  Its ‘Ensuring integrity’ Bill has several aims.   Firstly, the bill (if passed) will take non-protected industrial action as being ‘criminal in nature’ ; and union leaders could thus be charged and imprisoned ; and unions themselves deregistered and ‘dismantled’.   It will enable government to “sack” union officials convicted of criminal offenses: which includes ‘industrial’ offenses such as unprotected industrial action, and entering workplaces to organise or inspect working conditions without notice.  Also: even ‘protected’ rights to industrial action will be able to be withdrawn if an ‘interested party’ argues it affects their interests.  The legislation will establish in many ways arbitrary punitive powers for government against workers and union officials.  While freedom to withdraw labour is a liberal right so too is freedom of association.

The Liberal Party is also now endeavouring to have mass-based progressive lobby group ‘GetUp!’ considered a branch of the ALP and the Greens ; and hence to restrict its rights to campaign in the lead up to elections, and on election day.  With a membership base of over a million Australians ‘GetUp!’ is obviously much broader than the ALP or Greens, and has organisational independence.  But these days the Liberal Party is simply interested in shutting down all opposition in a display of crude power politics.  This is the opposite of liberalism ; even if defined narrowly as ‘classical liberalism’.  True, the Liberals abrogated liberalism when they attempted to ban the Communist Party under Menzies as well. ('Doc' Evatt's defense of the liberal rights of Communists was an important victory for Labor at the time)  But the Communists never had over a million members: mums, dads, students, retirees. People who want a political voice: but many of whom are not ready to join a Party.

 Another example of Liberals abrogating liberal principles regards their treatment of charities and other organisations who must fear their tax-deductibility status being withdrawn if they criticise the government.   ‘Political’ speech is seen as compromising the work of charities by the Liberal-National Coalition ; but in fact this is just another rejection of real free speech: sacrificed on the altar of brute power politics.  Despite a decision by the High Court upholding the right of civic organisations like charities to engage in political advocacy, the Liberals and Nationals are still looking for ways to shut-down resistance.  Arguments have been made to ‘withdraw support’ for organisations ‘out of step’ with majority opinion. (whatever that is) 

The other side of this involves calls on the Left to tax churches ; which may include lay organisations at the grassroots level.  While the Liberal Party has largely abandoned liberalism in practice, the Left could do worse than to integrate liberal and socialist principles.

Finally we must consider the treatment of refugees and the unemployed by callous governments of the Australian Right-Wing. Open-ended incarceration with the effect of breaking the spirit and the will to live of those affected has no place in any account of liberal human rights. 

Meanwhile, ‘Work for the Dole’ comprises a form of labour conscription, and we must consider the real power relationships underlying these arrangements – as opposed to the fantasies of Hayek and Rand who only see ‘individuals freely entering into voluntary economic relationships’.  Sophisticated liberals deal with ‘the world as it is’ and not merely as it is supposed to be in the theories of the economic hard right.  In reality, both major parties are supportive of a policy of a “non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment”. (ie:  unemployment of approximately 5% with the point of containing inflation and wage pressures)  The point of this is exactly to restrict workers’ bargaining power at a time when the unemployed are vilified, wages are stagnant, and there is restricted consumer demand in the broader economy.  (in turn impacting on growth)

 In times past liberals would be capable of recognising the real-world imbalances of power in economic relationships: and hence support rights for trade unions, and a decent welfare safety net without punitive, unfair and unrealistic mutual obligation provisions.  

While some Conservative figures like Barnaby Joyce are finally recognising the threadbare and punitive nature of ‘Newstart’ unemployment insurance in Australia, Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is determined to keep existing policies as a wedge against Labor.  While 'Robodebt' policies drive innocent people to desperation and suicide, the hope of decent bipartisanship has been cruelly crushed.  An ugly sentiment against the welfare-dependent and job seekers has been whipped up in the monopoly mass media in Australia for decades.  But the Liberals have all-too-readily seized upon the consequent public sentiment ; and have exploited it.

While progressives should always prefer a Labor Government to a Liberal Government in Australia, it is to be hoped that genuine liberals like John Hewson - who have not been ideologically captured by the Institute of Public Affairs – improve their fortunes in internal debates.  While this author is opposed to Blairite ‘Third Ways’ it would nonetheless be a relief to have bipartisanship on issues of basic human liberty and decency.   While the Liberals increasingly embrace Hayek and Rand on the economy, on social liberty they are effectively against libertarianism. (eg: on the rights of organised labour)

In Australia the nominal party of liberalism is anything but liberal. Even in the narrow sense of classical liberalism they fail to uphold core principles.  Labor could reconceive of itself as a liberal Party ; and occupy that space abandoned by the Liberal Party.  But for social democrats and democratic socialists that is not the answer if it means abrogating our own historic principles, and the rights and interests we defend.  But a more libertarian position on liberal rights on the Australian Left would apply significant pressure to the parties of the Australian Right.  To a some degree this is already happening.  It is a trend that needs to be developed further. 

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Mostly Unpublished Progressive Letters ; May to August 2019 - PLS Have a Read and Discuss

Herald-Sun Letters (mostly unpublished)  May-July 2019

Be Wary of Conservative Double Standards on Free Speech

“Kevin Donnelly (14/5) again makes a case for his version of freedom of speech.  Of course there are problems with free speech as an ‘absolute’.  We cannot allow Holocaust Denial to lead to a culture of forgetting ; or worse – to prepare the ground for future atrocities. But every time you dilute free speech as an absolute you also contribute to a growing wedge with increasing ramifications.  Even as a Christian I recognise that much scripture is at odds with modern thinking , and its expression can be hurtful to various groups.  At the same time faith is central to millions of peoples’ lives ; and criminalisation will lead to repression and polarisation. (Labor is not suggesting any such thing) But Donnelly needs to be more consistent.  ‘Free speech’ means religious doctrines are open to criticism. ‘Free speech’ also means charities and NGOs are not blackmailed to hold their tongues in criticism of government. (as the Howard Government attempted)  It means an organisation with hundreds of thousands of members like GetUp! should not find itself ‘in the crosshairs of government’ – with the intention of silencing it at elections.  By all means campaign for freedom of speech – but be consistent.”

Social Insurance and Infrastructure

“A.Jensen (Your Say 30/5) attacks Labor for making social (public) investments ; and condemns NBN and NDIS as ‘unfunded’.  To begin with, Labor identified a series of tax loopholes (mainly for the wealthy) which could have been closed ; saving tens of billions. But the Liberals ran a scare campaign, including the threat of some totally non-existent ‘death tax.’ Public investments often make sense ; and without them we run the risk of becoming a US-style society with enormous classes of working poor and destitute. Welfare and social insurance provide a safety net without which the unemployed, the mentally ill, the aged and so on  - would find themselves homeless and desperate.  Indeed, we need more money for public housing. NDIS has the potential to greatly improve the lives of some of our most vulnerable Australians.  The NBN, also, was to be the information infrastructure on which the industries of the future arose. But the Coalition went for the cheaper option. Now we have cost blow-outs and inferior technology.   Public investment in infrastructure and services,  and collective consumption (eg: the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme) is often in all our interests ; providing a ‘better deal’ ; leaving us all better off at the end of the day. “

Women’s Progress Welcome ; But Men are not ‘Essentially Bad’

“There has been welcome progress towards gender equality in recent years ; with emphasis on women’s sport ; equal representation in parliament ; debate about women’s disadvantage in the labour market, and attempts by the ALP to subsidise child care wages to rectify this in part.  But as Alan Barron (Your Say 3/6) appears to recognise, there has been another side to this story whereby ‘maleness’ appears to be ascribed  a ‘bad essence’.  Messages to the effect ‘girls can do anything’ are positive ; but boys must not feel ‘left out’ ; as if less is expected of them.  And as if ‘maleness’ is ‘toxic’. Women must be encouraged to assert themselves: to assert that “no means no” ; and men must be educated to respect this.  And men and women must take special care to be certain of consent where a couple are under the influence of alcohol. But should we eliminate all spontaneity?  Also the cause of gender equality has advanced in leaps and bounds.  But what about class-based inequality?   The struggle for gender equality needs to be but the first step in a much broader fight for equality.”

The Reality behind ‘Class Warfare’ Rhetoric

“The Herald-Sun (YS 4/6) talks about an end to “retrograde” “class warfare” from the ALP. But why is it not ‘class warfare’ when the Conservatives cut Health, Education, Welfare, public infrastructure and Social Insurance to pay for tax credits and tax cuts for the wealthy?  And gradually there is a vicious cycle of bracket creep and tax cuts for the well-off which is leading in the direction of ‘flat tax’.  Under which low and middle income earners would suffer. The fact is that under the Conservatives there is a constant state of class war ; which is gradually destroying our egalitarian traditions and leading us along the path of the US model: underclass, and great swathes of utterly destitute.  Mixed economies with strong welfare states can be strong economies as the Nordics (Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark) have shown.  The Herald-Sun may call it ‘class warfare’ ; but if the ALP gives up on distributive justice for workers and the disadvantaged it is giving up its core reason for being. What we need is a responsible media that stops throwing around loaded language to convince people to vote against their interests out of fear , and provides a balanced analysis instead.”

Labor and Workers must reject ‘Aspirational’ Ideology

“Lou Coppola (Your Say 10/6) condemns a ‘non-Aspirational’ Left which “denigrates” Australia. All countries have events in their histories they may now be less than proud of. But a strong democracy is capable of recognising both the good and the bad ; putting things right ; and then moving forward – our heads a bit higher.  For Australia’s part seminal moments include the granting of the suffrage for men and women ; granting indigenous people the vote, and then the Keating Government observing Land Rights ; and the establishment of Medicare as a more fair and efficient alternative to a US style private health system. This does not mean there’s not room to improve with a Treaty and further extension of universal health care into areas like dental and prosthetics. Meanwhile:  ‘aspirational’ Ideology around personal enrichment is a ploy for working class Australians to turn against their own interests for the sake of a pipe dream.  Most working class Australians see through it ; but even if the Conservatives can convince a minority it can be electorally influential.  Labor needs to confront this Ideology and maintain that tax cuts for the rich and austerity are not in the interests of workers.”

What’s at stake with the  CFMMEU and ‘Ensuring Integrity’

“(14/6)  “The John Setka affair is being exploited as a pretext to push through hard-right-wing anti union laws that are undemocratic and overrun citizens’ liberal rights.  The proposed laws would not only see the prosecution of leaders ; but the dissolution of unions themselves, leaving workers defenceless.   So much for freedom of association!   (and what happens to workers' collectively-held assets via their unions?) Without collective organisation in unions, workers have no defence of their rights and interests but government.  And government definitely cannot always be relied upon.  Without unions and without a right to withdraw labour workers are reduced to a condition somewhat similar to slavery.  Whether in defence of wages and working conditions ; or the promotion of safety ; or political industrial action to protest against unjust laws : industrial liberties must be preserved if a society is to honestly call itself liberal and democratic.  The areas which are the responsibility of the CFMMEU are also highly sensitive to the power of the broader labour movement to defend workers interests’ ; and if it ever comes to it – to defend democracy itself.  The CFMMEU’s strength also provides the opportunity to assist industrially weaker unions.  If necessary the broad labour movement must be willing to take action to render the ‘Ensuring Integrity ‘ legislation ‘the dead letter of the law’.  The case of Clarrie O’Shea in 1969 is instructive here.

Theophanous should rethink Call for Rightward Shift

“Theo Theophanous (17/6) urges Labor to ‘move to the Centre’. But the ‘Centre’ is relative, and with the Conservatives dictating the terms, it usually means shifting Right. He advocates passing the Coalition’s tax legislation in full ; avoiding ‘tax and spend’ policies.  With a Recession probably looming, that would mean redistribution to the wealthy, and massive austerity down the track ; making aged care reform impossible. Without social wage and social insurance expansion ; without progressive tax ; Labor is no longer a Social Democratic Party. Labor’s problems were confusion re: policy complexity; and scare campaigns (eg: the ‘Death Tax’) which cut through ; supported by a $60 million campaign by Clive Palmer which redirected preferences. That, and high unemployment in Queensland, with the misassumption Adani would create many jobs. Labor must be ‘progressively gradualist’, arguing for moderate increased progressive taxes in the vicinity of 1% to 1.5% of GDP.  (in addition to rescinding regressive Liberal Tax Cuts) It must be clear these do no hurt lower to middle income earners ; and that voters get ‘value for money’ in health, education, infrastructure, social insurance. If we accept the Coalition’s terms of reference in tax we let the Conservatives impose a ‘policy straight-jacket’ preventing social wage and social insurance expansion indefinitely.”

Need to Reforge Working Class as a “Class for Itself”

“Jeff Kennett argues that with widespread deindustrialisation and the existence of some very high wage jobs that ‘the working class no longer exists’. The working class has always included wage labourers exploited by business ; but has been widely reinterpreted to include public sector workers such as nurses and teachers.  The most important aspect of being ‘working class’ is not whether one is ‘blue collar’ or ‘white collar’, but that workers must sell their labour in order to survive.  What is true is that consciousness of class is falling ; partly due to a fragmentation of class identity with deindustrialisation.  But the reality is that ‘as a class in itself’ the working class still exists. And the challenge for the labour movement is to restore a sense of shared identity and interest amidst diversity. So the working class arises as 'a class for itself' in the broad sense. As for the prosperity Kennett alludes to ; the median wage is about approximately $53,000.  Which means half of all workers earn $53,000/year or less.

Left must not Shrink Back from the True Reality of ‘Class Warfare’

“There’s an old saying on the Left:  “they only call it class warfare when we fight back”. To its discredit Labor during the election said little about the massive austerity that would necessarily follow those tax cuts. (the Coalition said nothing about this)  Labor proposed a traditional centre-left platform: closing tax loopholes to deliver a modest windfall which would have enabled cancer and dental care, subsidised child care, money for TAFE and more. This is labelled ‘class warfare’.  But when the Coalition restructures the tax system so workers on lower and middle incomes pay proportionately much more of the burden (moving towards a ‘flat tax’) this is lauded as ‘reform’. And also when it abolishes Penalty Rates.  Labor needs the focus and resolve to emphasise the coming austerity (on hospitals, schools, aged care, infrastructure) all through this term of government.  And so (in government) withdraw ‘phase 3’ which delivers $95 billion to the wealthy over only the first five years.  Politics is a continual ‘tug of war’ between labour, capital and citizens.   If we refuse to fight back for fear of the ‘class warfare’ label we have lost before we even begin.  That’s the point of it.”

Unemployed must be Treated with Decency

“A recent Herald-Sun article was Opinion dressed up as reporting. (A.Galloway, Insult to Taxpayers, Payments to Bludgers Withheld ; 31/7)   The object of the article was to inspire ‘outrage’ that job-seekers had missed appointments for possible jobs)  But as the article itself concedes, mutual obligation is very severe when it comes to Newstart, and the people in question had their payments suspended.   Also, Newstart payments are only approximately $40 a day ; imposing harsh conditions of poverty ; and are hardly a ‘lifestyle choice’.  Those on Newstart are hard pressed to feed themselves and put a roof over their head, let alone pay for smart clothes, a computer and so on – necessary in the modern world to search for work.  For many: disabled, older unemployed, regional unemployed – the search for work is almost hopeless. And yet we persist with promoting this loathing for the unemployed.  The real point of this regime is to create a ‘whip of hunger and utter destitution’ so jobseekers are forced to take any job no matter the pay and conditions.  This ‘reserve army of labour’ provides employers with ‘the whip hand’ and helps drive down wages and conditions for hundreds of thousands of other jobseekers.”

‘The Age’ Letters May to July 2019  (Mostly unpublished)

Democracy and the ‘Fair Go’ at Stake as Labor considers its Options

“(26/5) If Labor abandons distributive justice it more or less abandons its reason for being.  Labor needs to commission research from a multiplicity of sources to minimise the chances for error. Then it needs to actively campaign in order to restore support for a traditional social democratic redistributive agenda; which restores progressivity to the tax system with a focus on corporations and the top 10%.  And also full indexation of the bottom few tax brackets. Issues like superannuation tax concessions remain crucial for the Budget and distributive justice ; costing tens of billions annually.  Labor also needs to explain how the mix of bracket creep and regressively-structured tax cuts make the income tax system more and more unfair.  Labor needs a deep and broad policy agenda.  But Morisson’s victory shows how a narrow and negative message can ‘cut through’.  As well as the shallow but effective construction of the ‘ScoMo’ ‘everyman’ persona.  But is democracy viable any longer when the ‘Power Resources’ of the Right are overwhelming ; where a billionaire can buy an election ; where the Murdoch monopoly mass print media has so little effective competition ; and the Government is canvassing legislation to ban GetUp! From campaigning?”

Why the Anti-Union Stance at ‘The Drum’?

“The other night watching ‘The Drum’ on the ABC I was appalled to see a virtual consensus that anti-union laws enabling the deregistration of unions who take unprotected industrial action could be justified. The line of argument seemed to be that since corporations should be accountable if breaking the law, so too should unions.  But what this all really begs is the question of whether or not workers should have a right to withdraw their labour – full stop. This issue is now much bigger than John Setka and whatever indiscretions he has made.  The proposed laws could be a weapon with which to break the labour movement in this country.  As Sally McManus argued some time ago now – laws are not necessarily right.  Sometimes civil disobedience is justified – including industrial action.  If unions cannot take industrial action workers’ options are very limited to defend their interests. We cannot let John Setka be used as a cover for union-busting legislation which will weaken workers conditions, rights, strength and liberties in this country.”

‘The Age’ Shifts Right on Tax Debate

“The Age (22/6) argues that middle and high income earners will pay some of the highest income taxes in the world without the Conservatives’ $160 billion tax cut plan.  But ‘The Age’ has been unclear what it means by ‘middle income’ in the past.  In fact the Median (ie: middle) income is approximately $53,000/year.   $120,000/year is actually a very high income compared with most.  Also the gap between Australian and OECD average tax rates is almost 7 percentage points.  (or approaching $119 billion/year)  The Coalition’s tax cuts would mean massive austerity (worse in a recession) ; and maybe some of the gap would be made up by raising the GST (as in many European countries with their VATs) and a negative distributive outcome for genuine low and middle income earners.  Raising the top threshold of the 32.5% tax bracket from $120,000 to $200,000 would very significantly ‘flatten’ the overall system.  Some other countries may also have inheritance taxes, wealth taxes, strong land taxes ; but Australia has always depended highly on income tax.   The trend is towards less equality. But we don’t HAVE to follow the trend.  And there was a time I expected better from ‘The Age’.”

Welcome Consideration on Civics Education in Victoria: But Stronger Action Necessary

“It was good to read that the Victorian State Government is set to emphasise Civics education (17/7), partly in response to the voices of students themselves.  This must include processes, parties and institutions: but it must be about more than this as well.  Education for active and critical citizenship must explore interests, values and pathways to civic activism.  That includes “ideological literacy”: an appreciation of the political spectrum from far left to centre, and to the far right. As well as libertarian and authoritarian influences.  Importantly: there need to be nuanced understandings. Political categories like ‘social democracy’, ‘liberalism’, ‘democratic socialism’, ‘conservatism’ have historically meant different things to different people.  Opportunities for activism include parties, representative democracy, and social movements. The aim is not to indoctrinate: but rather this calls upon the professionalism of teachers to impart knowledge, wisdom and understanding in an inclusive way. Students should go out into the world ready to participate as active and informed citizens ; always ready to widen their horizons and make informed political decisions and interventions.  This is about empowerment ; and that empowerment is good for democracy.”