'A wages crisis': The Coalition Government is shirking its duty

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Cartoon by Mark David/@mdavidcartoons

With wages stagnating and the cost of living continuing to balloon, the Government remains silent in the face of this crisis, writes William Olson.

THE WAGES OF average Australian workers have not had a significant increase in eight years, according to many economic experts, shadow government ministers and union officials alike. 

These Australians – the same ones who are victims of the growing inequality over that time – have witnessed the cost-of-living increase markedly

Meanwhile, wage stagnation is approaching record proportions.

Not being able to stretch one’s pay packet to cover basic living essentials as efficiently as one used to represents a very reasonable observation. At the same time, it’s also a very highly-charged and mighty impassioned plea to wish for more money to take home, whether the result comes from higher wages or lower taxes.

Coalition ministers keep tooting their own horns about delivering lower taxes to the general public, regardless of whether their promises see the light of day or not. Alas, they barely discuss the wages factor of the equation – and when key ministers such as Mathias Cormann admit that low wage growth has been an intentional tactic by the Coalition to spur the economy, that does little more than to add petrol to the fire raging among a public thirsting for a better means to keep up with the costs of living.

The truth is that, no matter how things have played out in the last eight years, those responsible for making wages grow are also not assuming responsibility – or taking the blame – for not making it happen.

In addition to Cormann’s pre-election confessions, we have Government ministers mostly standing silent in the relationship between the wage theft crisis and small business survival; powerful and influential pro-business lobby groups that stand in opposition to one another of markedly increasing wages; and the open exploitation of younger workers on “scam internships” paying as little as $4 per hour.

The Labor Party and union groups such as the ACTU – while jointly being proponents for establishing a living wage for workers in lower-paid industries – agree that lifting wages puts money in the pockets of those who need it most, thereby stimulating the Australian economy.

While advocating for the establishment of a living wage prior to last May’s Federal Election, the ACTU – whose “Change The Rules” campaign from 2017 also carried the slogan “Australia Needs A Pay Rise” – had pushed for a 6% pay increase to be phased in over two years.  However, the Fair Work Commission has only issued smaller incremental pay rises annually at the start of each financial year on July 1 over the last couple of years.

The latest of those pay rises that were actually issued amounted to a mere $21.60 per week to the national minimum wage. While campaigning for Labor at the last Federal Election, Bill Shorten’s living wage plan would have garnered workers an added $43 per week.

The concept of a living wage in a western industrialised country like Australia may seem like a progressive step to some, but the progressives themselves claim it is long overdue, especially after eight years of stagnant wage growth.

“Australia should be proud to have been the first nation to establish a living wage, but we need to act now to renew that promise for every worker,” ACTU President Michelle O’Neil said in May, just days out from the Federal Election.

"The minimum wage should not just be enough to stop you starving, it should be enough to provide for a decent life for all full-time workers,” she added.

However, the detractors – namely those in power who can help bring about legislation that can ultimately jumpstart an economy that some experts claim is lagging – keep justifying not giving the wage increases that they need on their domestic fronts.

“If you think about where is wage growth going to come from, it’s got to come from a growing economy. The money has to be there,” then-Treasurer Scott Morrison said last year before he was vaulted into the Prime Minister’s seat.  

The current treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, said the following last month:

“There are signs of improvement, but ultimately the best way to get higher wages growth is through a strong economy with rising productivity."

Nevertheless, he failed to provide any solutions.

And the public is within its right to see it as being hypocritical when Federal politicians in Canberra won and accepted a 2% pay rise as of July 1 – the very same day low-wage earners had their penalty rates cut.

The ages-old adage of “the rot starts at the top” sums up the feeling among the public that there’s not much to inspire confidence in reversing a process and thereby inspiring an economy that would deal with rising cost-of-living levels.

And then there’s the wrinkle that is Newstart, the welfare allowance which hasn’t been increased since 1994. It currently has a campaign attached to it via the trending hashtag #RaiseTheRate across multiple social media platforms. 

While welfare recipients would like to see the Department of Human Services increase Newstart, only an act of Parliamentary legislation can make that happen.

Can one connect the campaign to raise Newstart to the drive to increase wages in Australia? Certainly they can be linked – and the call to arms grows stronger when Morrison defiantly cries out, point-blank, that Newstart will not see an increase as long as he is Prime Minister.

“The best form of welfare is a job,” Morrison and his Coalition Cabinet colleagues like to bellow whenever subjects such as wage increases, raising NewStart, or even discussions about unemployment are brought up.

But those on lower wages possess only so much patience, especially with this Government. Greater leadership in the matter needs to be shown, more than just the usual cheap, hackneyed slogans Morrison and his team are offering.

Or else the public with scream back at Morrison’s trademark slogan of “How good is Australia!”, with a collective reply of, “not that great at all!"

William Olson was a freelance journalist from 1990-2004 and hospitality professional since late 2004. 

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