Turnbull's war against the fair go

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(Screen Shot via House Question Time)

Penalty rate cuts encapsulate the Turnbull Government's war against the fair go for workers and must be defeated, says John Passant.

THE TURNBULL Government is a weak government.

It is beset by "deplorable" infighting, has recently had a major desertion with more potentially on the way and seems to lack a clear vision for Australian capitalism.

I say seems to because in fact Turnbull and his coterie do have a vision for Australia. They want to support neoliberalism by making workers pay the cost so bosses can reap the benefits.

The consequences of 34 years of neoliberal consensus today are: record low wage rises; falling real wages in the December quarter; cuts to penalty rates; unpaid overtime worth $110 billion a year; cuts to basic services like health and education; and attacks on pensioners, disabled people, Centrelink "clients" and social welfare.

On and on the list of attacks or would-be attacks goes, often drowned out by scare campaigns – othering – around asylum seekers and refugees, Aboriginal people, Muslims, Asians, "African gangs", migrants, "dole bludgers", terrorists, or, in One Nation’s case, all of the above. It is almost a case of fill in your favourite target of prejudice to distract attention away from the fundamental shift in wealth and power from labour to capital that has accelerated over the last 30 years or so.

Then there are the attacks on organised labour. The biggie, so far, is the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). That is all about stopping the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and other building unions, resisting attacks on their pay, conditions and safety. It is also a message to other unions not to step out of line.

The problem for Turnbull and co is not that they lack a vision — contested as it may be in its details by those on the right and by the centrist Labor Party. The problem is that they cannot implement it to the horrific extent they would like. This is not primarily because of parliamentary opposition, it is because of widespread anger and electoral resistance to the attacks.

The 2014 Budget is a good example. Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey – two has-beens – introduced a horror Budget nine months after getting elected to government that attacked families, pensioners, the poor, students, Aboriginal people and health and education spending — to name a few.

A big majority of voters rejected that budget and the government never recovered. The 30 polls in a row in which voters put the Abbott Government behind the Labor Opposition was the key reason Malcolm Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott leadership in September 2015.

Did Turnbull learn any lessons from this? No. As I pointed out a few months ago here on IA, the salesman might have changed but the shit sandwich remains the same. Thus, the Omnibus Savings Bill the Turnbull Government wants to pass to strip billions from the poor and workers is, as Lenore Taylor in The Guardian says, a "recooked" version of welfare cuts from the 2014 Budget.

And surprise, surprise, the Turnbull Government has been behind in the polls ever since the close-run July 2016 election. The latest poll has Labor leading on a two-party preferred basis by 55 per cent to 45 per cent. Let me offer a few words of warning, however. Labor was leading by this much in September 2015 when Tony Abbott was about to be rolled as PM.

The ALP still lost the election, in part because people remembered their austerity in government and because Turnbull’s gold rat tooth bedazzled some people. Turnbull was seemingly not Abbott. However, you can’t polish a turd.

And therein lies Turnbull’s problem — whether Dutton (seriously?), Bishop (possibly), Morrison (unlikely) or Shorten (if the labour movement mobilises) succeeds Turnbull as prime minister, they will be faced with how to introduce neoliberal policies and not lose government.

It is this eternal contradiction between capitalist economic "necessity" and working class opposition, expressed in Australia through the polls and once every few years through the voting booth.

What is missing in Australia – unlike some other countries – is the rise of a left that fights to defend workers’ living standards, minorities, unions, public services and so on. Labor gives verbal life to many of these issues (not refugees) but has failed in opposition and in government to build and lead a mass movement to implement change. Neither do the majority of Greens politicians give societal expression to this opposition.

In the U.S., Bernie Sanders talked about democratic socialism. In the UK, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, is a proud socialist. In Greece, Syriza rose to power on mass protests and strikes, a perceived socialist programme and a heritage in socialist politics, only to implement austerity. Such is the role of social democracy. In Spain, the left-wing Podemos has risen on the back of mass protests.

And in Australia? While even Wayne Swan is beginning to get the message, we have as yet no socialist or fight back talk. There is no Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders in the Labor Party.

Shorten has rightly opposed the penalty rates decision – the first cut in wages since the Great Depression – to differentiate Labor from the wage slashing Liberals and Nationals.

While everything Turnbull says about Shorten being hypocritical on this issue may be true, that misses the point politically. Hundreds of thousands of workers will soon have their wages cut and millions of workers fear they are next.

Turnbull's talk about hypocrisy and "independent umpires" won’t address those fears. They merely reinforce the reality that Turnbull, the $200-million man with previous investments in the Cayman Islands, supports cutting wages for the benefit of his rich class.

In capital cities around Australia on 9 March, unions have called protests against the war on workers, and to defend jobs and penalty rates. This has the potential to become like the WorkChoices campaign, which saw hundreds of thousands on the streets to show our opposition to John Howard’s industrial relations free for all. The message then was to wait one or two years and vote Labor.

The same message won’t work now. For those about to have their penalty rates cut from 1 July, two years is too far away.

These wage cuts need to be defeated before they come into operation on 1 July, or whatever shonky date the clearly under pressure Turnbull and his shaky government come up with. Now is the time for leadership from unions. We need more than just protests on 9 March — welcome as they are. The construction workers’ strike in Melbourne from 10.30 am on 9 March shows the way forward.

Union members could organise with their own unions to make 9 March a strike day in defence of penalty rates and against other attacks on unions, like the ABCC.We could all challenge the government and its independent umpires to prosecute us for defending wages.and walk out on "illegal" strikes. Union members could organise with their own unions to make 9 March a strike day in defence of penalty rates and against other attacks on unions like the ABCC.

These could be the first in a series of strikes against the one-sided class war waged against workers for the last three decades. Let’s really fight where we are strongest — where we work. It’s time. Strike to defend wages and jobs.

The message is clear. If you don’t fight, you lose.

Details of CFMEU planned demonstrations (and strikes) around Australia on 9 March are available here.

John is a former Assistant Commissioner of Taxation. Read more by John on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassant.

Signed copies of John Passant’s first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016) are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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