The forthcoming Federal election and the ongoing attacks on unions and workers

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Malcolm Turnbull's decision to try to bully the Senate into bringing back the ABCC is about putting developer's profits before workers' rights, conditions, safety and lives, writes John Passant.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has outmanoeuvred the too-clever-by-half Greens.

He has got the Governor-General to prorogue and recall the Parliament for 18 April to debate the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) bill. Turnbull has also moved the Budget forward a week to 3 May, allowing time for a debate on its likely softly softly anti-worker content and passage of supply bills for him to call a double dissolution on or before 11 May, the last day he can do so under the Constitution.

If the Senate rejects the ABCC legislation, or fails to pass it, Turnbull will use that and the previous rejection of the Bill some time ago, as the grounds for going to the Governor-General to call a double dissolution election on 2 July.

The Government has made it clear that the crossbench Senators can avoid a double dissolution (and keep their bums on Senate seats for a few more years) by voting for the ABCC bill. However, the Government already has a trigger for a double dissolution — the previously twice rejected Bill. Can Senators trust the snake oil salesman in charge?

In any event, some Senators, like Jacqui Lambie, might fancy their chances in a double dissolution election since the quota to get elected is almost halved. They need only to win 7.69% (1/(12+1)) of the vote, compared to a normal half-Senate election where the quota is 14.28% (1/(6+1)). Others, like Palmer United Party Senator Dio Wang, are doomed either way.

Senators who normally vote with the Government, like the conservative Family First’s Bob Day and the free market extremist from the Liberal Democrats, David Leyonhjelm, are extremely angry with the Turnbull Government over its Senate reforms. Those "reforms" aim to silence the voices of many of the three million Australians who do not vote for the major parties in the Senate and concentrate the votes in the major parties. They will see it more likely that the Liberals and Nationals have close to a majority in the Senate.

The Greens think the voting changes will deliver them the balance of power in the Senate. This fits in and reinforces their overall strategy of Parliament, rather than the people, in struggle as the focus and locus of change. It also fits in and reinforces the move by the Greens leader Richard Di Natale to be more accommodating of the Turnbull Government and to negotiate with them on some contentious legislation.

The Greens and the Labor Party will oppose the ABCC bill. They are right to do so. For a start, there are some horrendous anti-human provisions in the bill.

It seeks, for example, to reverse the onus of proof so that unions have to prove they did not undertake the alleged criminal activity. It also removes the right of an accused person to silence. Failure to answer questions will itself be criminalised, with six months in gaol the result.

Some years ago, the Howard Government set up the ABCC and CFMEU member Ark Tribe refused to answer questions. He was charged and could potentially have been gaoled for the crime of attending a lunch time union meeting to discuss safety on site and not answering questions about it. Those charging him got their administrative procedures wrong, and thankfully Ark got off on a technicality.

They won’t make the same mistake this time round. If this ABCC Bill goes through there will be a number of unionists gaoled for the crime of not talking to an anti-union tribunal of inquisition about union matters.

Turnbull has claimed that the ABCC is at the centre of his Government’s economic reform package. While the Government mouths nonsense about the ABCC bill improving productivity in the building industry, the bill is really about neutering the building unions, in particular the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy union (CFMEU). The CFMEU is one of the few unions in Australia prepared to stand up for and mobilise its members to win wage increases, defend jobs and make workplaces safe. These activities cut into the profit of the big building companies and the ABCC is about making it even more profitable for tax avoiding building companies to screw more profits out of their workers at the expense of workers’ lives.

When the ABCC was last set up, deaths on building sites increased markedly. The CFMEU says that

‘... the number of deaths [went] up: from 3.14 per 100,000 workers in 2004 – before the ABCC started – to 4.8 per 100,000 workers in 2007 and 4.27 in 2008.’

The reason for the increase in deaths is simple. It is the unions, not the employers, who want safe worksites. The bosses’ only concern is profits. The ABCC is a classic case of putting profits before people. If the ABCC is reintroduced there will be an increase in deaths and serious injuries on building sites. All so the rich tax avoiding building magnates can make even more profits.

It is not just the building industry that will feel the impact of the ABCC. The ABCC sends a message to all unions and unionists. Don’t fight for better wages and conditions, for jobs or for safety. If you do we will come down hard on you. With the CFMEU and other building unions under control, other unions and unionists will be even more unlikely to fight the boss. It is, as the public sector union campaign for decent pay rises shows, already incredibly difficult to win pay increases and retain conditions without a real industrial campaign.

For most workers, however, the election won’t be about the ABCC. As a senior CFMEU official said to me recently, most people don’t know anything about the ABCC and won’t change their vote on it. This ABCC election trigger is about Malcom Turnbull showing the rest of the ruling class he does rule for them and will do so after the election with gusto. It won’t just be building unions under attack. It will be all workers, their unions, government spending on the poor and working class and this will be given cover by demonising the various "others" in society, such as asylum seekers.

The election won’t be about the ABCC. It will be about the lives of workers. This means it will be about jobs, and pay, and social spending that benefits workers and the poor.

Unemployment remains around 6%, according to official ABCC figures. The latest figures showed a drop to 5.8% but that seems, in the main, to have been because the participation rate fell. People simply gave up looking for work. This is not surprising, given the number of people officially looking for work is about seven times the number of jobs vacant.

As well as the 6% or thereabouts who are unemployed, according to Roy Morgan 8.8% of the workforce are looking to work more hours. Roy Morgan also put the real unemployment rate, based on their surveys, in February 2016, at 10%. In other words, almost one fifth of the workforce is unemployed or underemployed.

On top of that real wages have been stagnating.

As the Australian Bureau of Statistics says of the last year wages growth of 2.2%:

‘Wage growth through the year is now the lowest on record since the series was first published in September quarter 1998.’

Perhaps part of the explanation for that is that strikes are at very low historical levels. The more the trade union bureaucracy capitulates to the bosses, the more the bosses want and take.

The ruling class wants a company tax cut and given the resistance to any increase in the goods and services tax this will be paid for out of cuts to social welfare and other spending like health and education and transport that benefit the working class. The Government will try to sell this company tax cuts in terms of trickle down. If only the tax avoiders paid even less tax all would be right for Australian capitalism.

Because of the forthcoming election, my guess is that the Government will save its more brutal attacks on spending for after the double dissolution on 2 July. However, there will be cuts, for example to some medical services such as pathology, due to come into effect on 1 July. School kids dental serves are in the Government's cross hairs too.

Growing inequality is a reflection of underlying declines in the global economy, and now Australian profit rates, and the transfer of wealth and income from labour to capital as a consequence. That has been an ongoing process that began with the election of the Hawke Labor Government in 1983 and its, in particular, industrial relations "reforms" and goal of bringing unions inside the tent, made that shift easier.

With growing inequality and austerity has come growing anger, inchoate in Australia, but finding leftwing political expression in places like the UK and U.S. in the form of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders.

There looks little prospect in Australia for the rise of a Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders as an expression of the anger with austerity and inequality – neoliberalism if you like – within the major parties. Labor has been the key party for the ruling class in introducing neoliberal policies in Australia and restraining the labour movement. Tony Turnbull is the logical expression of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, as are Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese.

Given the underlying inchoate anger, the Turnbull Government will look at distractions from their anti-working class agenda and, in some cases, Labor will join them. One target is unions and the lies about criminal activity. Another is demonising refugees and asylum seekers. A third distraction for sections of society will be gays and lesbians, as the Turnbull Government’s nudge nudge wink wink vilification in the form of a plebiscite on equal marriage and its defunding of Safe Schools show. And, of course, the eternal other in Australian capitalism is Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders and while there are words of inclusiveness, the reality is that the Government and Labor will continue to run a system that destroys their lives.

Can the working class break out of the double helix of Labor and Liberal neoliberalism? Open class struggle will break out at some stage. The examples of the explosions of class anger on the streets, in the workplaces and through established and alternative left parties in Europe gives some hope. Workers in struggle are the short term solution to the problems of capitalism. Workers in struggle are the long term solution to the problem that is capitalism.

This story was originally published under the title, 'The forthcoming Australian election and the ongoing attacks on unions and workers' on John Passant's website en Passant on 22 March 2016 and has been republished with permission. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnPassant.

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