Why Australia doesn’t have a Bernie Sanders

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Gerard May compares Australia's economic position with "The Great Recession" facing the U.S. and finds that we lack a social advocate like Bernie Sanders because young Australian voters have not known such struggle — yet.  

A BURNING QUESTION in Australian politics is why doesn’t Australia have a Jeremy Corbyn, an Alexis Tsipras or a Bernie Sanders?

There’s a simple answer. While other countries fell into the global recession, Australia maintained strong economic growth, low government debt and a triple-A credit rating.

I arrived in New York City 18 months ago. You can't put into words how the recession affected people and how it continues to do so. When I’ve asked New Yorkers about it I’ve got everything from, “I still haven’t recovered”, to a nonverbal reply with a shake of the head.

They don’t call it the Global Financial Crisis here. They call it The Great Recession.

It’s still affecting many.

Since the recession most workers have failed to see improvements in their paychecks. In fact, taking into account cost-of-living increases since the recession officially ended in 2009, wages have declined for most U.S. workers. With real wage declines mostly greater for the lowest-paid.

Studies have shown that approximately 42 per cent of the U.S. work force makes less than $15 per hour.

There is a real mood for change in the States.

Two years ago, a movement to increase wages began in New York and has grown into a national movement, becoming known as “Fight for 15”. The movement calls for a minimum wage of $15, a little more than twice the current federal minimum wage and attracts workers such as home-care assistants, Walmart workers, child-care aides, airport workers, adjunct professors and other low-wage employees. On 15 April 2015, workers in Atlanta, Boston, New York, Los Angeles and more than 200 other cities across the U.S., walked out on their jobs or joined protests.

More recently ‘Fight For 15’ has turned into ‘Fast For 15’. Walmart and other workers are now protesting by hunger striking at various locations, including at the Brooklyn headquarters of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, recently.

Economics are desperate for people.

On the 2016 presidential campaign trail Bernie Sanders is selling out arenas of young voters.

According to John Wagner from the Washington Post, Sanders supporters grew up in the recession, watched their parents struggle and became anxious about their futures. They are graduating from college with huge debts and gnawing uncertainty about landing jobs and affording homes. They have little faith in government and other institutions they thought they could depend on.

The latest in a series of polls of young voters conducted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics shows the economy is at the head of a list of issues they are most concerned about. Among those currently in college, 73 per cent said they think it will be very difficult or somewhat difficult for students in their class to find permanent jobs after graduation. Only 25 per cent of voters ages 18 to 29 expressed trust in the federal government.

It took more than luck for Australia to have avoided a similar predicament.

This is what Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner in economics, wrote two years ago about Australia:

Most countries would envy Australia's economy. During the global recession, Kevin Rudd's government implemented one of the strongest Keynesian stimulus packages in the world. That package was delivered early, with cash grants that could be spent quickly followed by longer-term investments that buoyed confidence and activity over time. In many other countries, stimulus was too small and arrived too late, after jobs and confidence were already lost. In Australia the stimulus helped avoid a recession and saved up to 200,000 jobs. And new research shows that stimulus may have also actually reduced government debt over time.

Yes, fundamental change needs to take place in Australia’s political system. However, a sober reminder that before Bernie Sanders became a force on the national political scene in the United States — some very bad things happened first. Which is why Australians should be cautious for what they wish for.

Gerard May is an Australian freelance writer living in New York City. You can follow Gerard May on Twitter @GerardMay5.

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