Australian political situation report (October 2009 DSP National Committee plenum)

The DSP and Socialist Alliance are fighting against capitalism’s destructive environmental practices, its drive for profit at the expense of working people, its attacks on the rights of Indigenous Australians, its attacks on the civil liberties of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, and its attacks, via the so-called anti-terror laws, on minorities such as the Tamils and Somalis.

The capitalist class is fighting to increase its profit margins by reducing wages and conditions, and trying to forestall any threat to their profits from pro-environmental measures the capitalist parties are forced to introduce as a result of mass pressure.

The general line of this report, presented by Rachel Evans on behalf of the DSP National, Executive was adopted by the DSP National Committee on October 3, 2009.

This report will assess the balance of class forces over the last period. How is the working class faring in the battle lines? What is the real state of resistance to the capitalist attacks?

The DSP, through the Socialist Alliance, is seeking to lead struggles to advance our class. How has our project of building both a more united socialist project and the social movements fared since our last meeting in June?

This report will lead into the party building report by Peter Boyle, which will go into the specifics around building a united socialist project – the Socialist Alliance.

This report will examine the three crises facing capital in Australia: the economic crisis, the crisis of political legitimacy, and the environmental crisis. It will touch on, but not go into any detail, on the social movements as they will be detailed in the specific 10-20 minute reports given on, Indigenous, union, women’s rights, queer and the environment movements. These sub reports will propose specific campaign objectives.

We are waging a battle for the hearts and minds of working people in the context of a relative collapse of the social movements. This is the backdrop to the small areas of resistance we are seeing. This is not to underplay the outbreaks that we see now. From little things, big things grow. The big question for us right now is can we can help forge a stronger organisation, as well as movements of resistance, in today’s Australia.

1. Economic crisis: Australia in recovery?

The ruling elite want to force workers to carry the burden of the economic crisis. The capitalist parties have to manage this implementation. Howard and Bush were severe neo-liberal players. They were also highly unpopular.

Capital has been forced to accept a softer face for its rule in Kevin Rudd and Barack Obama. Howard was also forced out on the back of a massive campaign against him – the anti-Work Choices campaign. Workers had had enough of Howard. In the February issue of Monthly magazine, Rudd positioned himself as a reformer against “extreme capitalism” and laid the blame for the current global financial crisis on neo-liberalism.

However, while seemingly lashing out against neo-liberalism, Rudd and the state Labor governments continue to implement neo-liberal austerity.

The Rudd government’s stimulus packages splashed gifts to large capital: there were effective subsidies to construction companies; and subsidies to retail via cash handouts to parents, pensioners and workers. But the “Harvey Norman” stimulus payments to working people – small as they were – did buy the Rudd government comparative favour compared to the US. In the US, the stimulus all went to the banks.

Well, have we been stimulated enough?

Has Australia bypassed this crisis? Bourgeois commentators are quick to argue that Australia has escaped the recession. Their aim is to return confidence in the market and to encourage working people to spend and increase debt. The latest retail figures show a slight success.

Certain economic indicators are pointing to a slow renewal of growth, but this doesn’t mean that the economic crisis — in Australia or elsewhere — is over. National accounts figures for the June quarter show a small growth of 0.6% in the economy, although this is partly down to government stimulus spending – retail sales figures and the extra tax offset for capital purchases.

Even with the government’s two stimulus packages, worth $52 billion, the “average person” has lost $33,500 since December 2007, according to the July 16 Age. “Australian households have lost a total of $602 billion in the five quarters since the economic crisis took hold”, it said.

 

Unemployment

Has the capitalist elite managed to get working people to pay for the crisis?

ACTU research in August showed workers are feeling the pain. “More than 7000 full-time workers lost their jobs each week in August alone”, it said. “There is a crisis of more than 880,000 Australians – 7.8% of the workforce – desperately searching for more hours of work to bolster their family incomes. There are still almost 700,000 Australians out of work. Combine the jobless and underemployment, and we have more than 1.5 million Australians – 13.6% of the workforce – suffering the impact of the economic downturn.”

The most recent unemployment figures for August show that full-time employment decreased by 30,800 to 7,553,800 while part-time employment increased by 3,800 to 3,209,800.

Official unemployment remained at 5.8%, only because participation rate fell: people were discouraged from looking for work.

The ANZ job ads series for August shows a small increase (4.1%) in jobs advertised over July, but job ads are still 48.1% lower than August 2008. What this shows is that the number of new jobs is not keeping pace with the natural growth in the workforce, let alone providing enough jobs to soak up any unemployed.

Predictions are that unemployment will increase and peak in 2010.

 

A China-led recovery is not certain

The bourgeois economists say the Australian economy will be saved by China’s economic growth. However, China’s economy and growth is fragile while Europe and the US remain mired in downturn. The capitalist success of China’s economy has been founded on its export of cheap manufactured items to the US and European markets. The International Monetary Fund has cautioned those expecting a China-led recovery. In its July 8 World Economic Outlook Update, it warned “the recent acceleration in growth is likely to peter out unless there is a recovery in advanced economies”.

 

Housing crisis

Part of the growth in Australia has been the result of the doubling and tripling of the first home buyers grant, and the very low interest rates. This has encouraged a mini-boom in house purchasing and building at the low end of the market. On August 4, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released figures showed housing prices across Australia’s capital cities rose by 4.2% over the three months ending in June.

The additional problem created by the grant is that first-home buyers are creating a boom where investors are selling rental properties in the outer-suburbs, meaning fewer dwellings for renters. This sends up prices and sends down vacancies, making it even tougher for low-income people.

Some 105,000 people are homeless, and one in two people are turned away each night from overstretched services.

Interest rates are set to go up which will add pressure to working class families. National Australia Bank (NAB) expects the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) to increase official interest rates once or twice before the end of the year, and its says it will lead a 25 basis-point increase in interest rates in November and December, as well as a further increase of this size in February 2010.

Combined with the September 30 reduction of the first home owners grant to $10,500 for established homes and $14,000 for new homes until December 31, before returning to its original $7,000 next year, this could result in a fall in house prices, an increase in negative equity and greater mortgage stress.

This could lead to a rise in housing foreclosures. Families and others may not be able to afford the mortgage which could lead to a massive crash in prices and a new round of recession.

Massive public housing investment is not on the cards.

 

Rich get richer

While the recession has hit profits, it has not stopped some large firms from increasing their profits. The big four banks stand to make $15.8 billion profit this year. Telstra made $4 billion profit for the financial year 2008-09.

But while we are beginning to be asked to tighten our belts, the average basic pay of chief executives surveyed in the top 100 was $1.54 million this year.

Conversely, recent ABS figures show total earnings for an averagely-paid worker was a modest $48,000 a year, or $920 per week. Under pressure, Rudd is talking of capping executive pay. But we may just see another report from Rudd regarding this!

 

Attacks on working class

In addition to the ravages of the recession the federal government is continuing the attacks on unions and workers that Howard began.

The global financial crisis (GFC) is being used by employers to pressure unions to exercise wage restraint and convince workers into taking “down days” – a four day week with the loss in pay.

There has been a wage freeze for federal award-wage workers on low incomes. The Fair Pay Commission decided in July that there would be no increase in minimum pay ($543.78 p/w) because of the GFC.

Occupational Health Safety changes federally are attacks on working people. The ALP is using fact that OHS laws vary considerably around country to water down the best in its process of “harmonisation” – one set of laws in Australia. This harmonisation could result in some states improving their laws, but in Victoria and NSW, the OHS laws will go backwards and put workers’ lives at risk.

John Howard’s attack on the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the setting up of a secret police force to monitor building workers – the Australian Building and Construction Commission – remains largely untouched under Rudd.

Following on with Howard’s Work Choices; Rudd’s “Work Choice Lite” includes strict limitations on the right to organise, bargain and strike. The ALP’s aim is to make unions redundant as representatives of and bargaining agents for workers.

 

Working class response

From the 1983 Accord to the 1993 Industrial Reform Act, to Howard’s Work Choices and now Rudd’s Work Choices Lite, the ruling class has worked hard to reduce workers and unions’ combativeness. In large part, they have been very successful.

An article in the ABS publication Australian Social Trends revealed the number of industrial disputes across Australia declining markedly over the past 20 years.

In 1987, there were 1,519 industrial disputes, compared with 135 in 2007. The context for these figures is the bi-partisan class collaborationist policies which begin in earnest with the 1983 and 1986 Prices and Incomes Accord (or Accords).

All states and territories experienced a reduction in the number of working days lost per thousand employees over the period 1987 to 2007, although the size of the decrease varied across the states. The largest decreases were in New South Wales, from 363 working days lost per thousand in 1987 to two in 2007, Western Australia (from 210 to 3) and Tasmania (from 183 to 1).

In 2007, Victoria had the highest number of working days lost per thousand employees (15), followed by South Australia (5).

One of the results of this lack of working class combativity is a reduction in conditions for working people. A survey, compiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in November 2007, found more than half of Australia's employees have no say in their start and finish time. One example of this is a comrade who works in the computer programming industry being requested to forgo all his weekends for the month of October.

 

Union responses

However, workers have not been completely silent nor unions completely muzzled under Rudd.

Unions have been more combative during Rudd’s second year compared to his first. For the year ending June 2009, there were 192 disputes, 26 more than in the year ended June 2008.

Union leaderships have started to criticise Rudd’s Fair Work Act (FWA) with Victorian Electrical Trades Union (ETU) most outspoken. The union is also discussing disaffiliating from the ALP.

Conversely, a lot of intra-ALP factionalising and lobbying has hampered a strong EBA campaign in the Victorian AMWU. The ACTU tried to muzzle dissent at the ALP conference by arguing against a march to the conference site, and instead promoting a “counter conference” (where former ACTU boss Greg Combet was heckled). We have also seen the creation of the cross-factional “Manufacturing Alliance” between the AMWU and the national AWU.

There have also been struggles against the flexibility clause which the Fair Work Act mandates for all collective agreements. This allows AWAs in by the back door.

Margarita W will give more detail on the state of the unions and our work in the report on unions.

 

Increased pain for workers

Rudd has already said the May 2010 budget will bring pain. “This recovery will be worse than the recession”, he said, and we are yet to see if there will be a pre-budget election.

Growth in government spending will be limited to just 2% meaning cuts to services to repay the debt when the economy turns around.

What does all this mean? Essentially, that the Australian economy remains fragile, that there is a likelihood of higher unemployment, housing foreclosures and that working people will be forced to pay for a decrease in capitalists’ profits.

Additionally, internationally, there is a strong possibility that the world economy will take another nose dive, driven by the US$2.5 trillion in toxic assets which remains unaccounted for and the fact that numerous US banks are looking likely to fail.

 

 

 2. Political legitimacy

 

Howard’s confrontational neo-liberal agenda led to widespread resistance, and a crisis of legitimacy for this brand of bourgeois rule. At the height of the anti-Howard campaign, some 600,000 people come out on the streets against Work Choices. Rudd and Obama are certainly seen as the gentler hands of corporate domination.

But while Obama’s popularity is declining, after almost two years, Rudd is still very popular. Rudd is the most popular leader since Hawke: he’s at 64% - a six-month high. With $900 here and $1500 there is no wonder Rudd has bought favour.

But Rudd’s “honeymoon” is also an “anti-Howard honeymoon”, and state ALP governments are increasingly unpopular.

Approval ratings for the Greens have risen, and the party won their first lower house seat from the ALP in Fremantle, WA.

The ruling class is implementing more neo-liberal measures, particularly the mass privatisation of state assets, through state ALP governments – which are increasingly on the nose. This situation is most advanced in NSW, where Liberal opposition leader Barry O’Farrell leads ALP Premier Nathan Rees as preferred premier 50% to 33%. The NSW ALP has succeeded in privatising the lotteries, but has so far failed to privatise the ferries, electricity generation and there is still a fight over the prisons. Labor has also failed to get its school league tables legislation through the Legislative Council.


The Greens

The Greens are the left electoral alternative to the ALP, and have made steady gains. The Greens’ gained 1.17 million votes for its Senators in 2007. They are now Australia’s third political force, with more than 100 local government representatives, 15 state parliamentarians and five Senators.

2009 Morgan face-to-face polls showed that the Green’s support rose from 7.1% in 2007 to 8.0% in 2008 to 8.3% in 2009. The Greens are still seen as the political wing of the protest movement, particularly the environment movement.

High support for the Greens indicates a left break from the two pro-capitalist parties. Greens politics is to the left of the ALP on almost every policy.

But it’s not enough for the Greens to grow. We have an ecological crisis that will not be fixed by more Greens in parliament. Ultimately, the Greens believe that they can resolve the problems caused by capitalism by reforming the system rather than breaking with it. This is why the Greens see their main work as being in parliament, and the party is primarily geared to getting more Greens in councils, state parliament and the Senate rather than helping resource and build the extra-parliamentary protest movements.

The Greens have a “proscription” clause, introduced in 1992, to keep the left – then mainly ourselves – out of the party and therefore from winning people to a more radical perspective within it.

Nevertheless, we should continue to seek to work as closely as possible with the Greens around concrete projects and campaigns. A good example of this was working with the left-wing Greens in the Resistance-organised tour of retired coal miner (and Greens’ member) Graham Brown.

And while we disagree with many of the Greens’ positions, such as their “Buy Australian” push, their retreat from a once strong position advocating the regulated distribution of marijuana and ecstasy, and their support for Australian troops to the Solomon Islands, we can and do work well with Greens members, candidates and some MPs in various anti-privatisation campaigns, the climate movement and during the Fremantle bi-election and council campaigns.

Our experience with the Greens contesting the Fremantle by-election and council campaign has been important. The Greens in the Yarra local council in Melbourne voted for rate hikes and it was left to the Socialist Party to initiate the recycling program. However, the Greens are a broad church and in other councils the Greens have played a better role.

In federal parliament, the Greens have consistently taken positions to the left of Labor: they did not support the sell-off of Telstra, and they have maintained their opposition to the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

The ACT Greens have refused to take ministerial positions in an ALP-led government, thereby allowing themselves the room to be a more decisive opposition. Greens politicians in NSW – John Kaye, in particular – has been active in the campaign against power privatisation. Other NSW Greens politicians have been active in other extra-parliamentary campaigns.

The next federal election is likely to deliver a Greens balance of power in the Senate, and this will open up the political space to the left.

 

3. Environment crisis

The September 28th British Meteorological Department report has warned that global warming could result in a rise of 4°Celsius by the year 2060. Climate scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a study in May that said a 5°C increase in temperatures means runaway global warming and the end of life on the planet as we know it.

Given this risk to human survival, campaigning against global warming is a strategically important area of work for us. Capitalism’s inherent drive for private profits and the private ownership of production mean we have to change the system to save the planet. The report is affirming that the climate change movement is a movement priority for the DSP, Resistance and the Socialist Alliance.

Australia's role

In a September 9 report, the Britain-based risk analysts Maplecroft confirmed that Australia is the world’s worst polluter per capita. Australia’s energy use was also one of the most unsustainable in the industrialised world according to the Maplecroft report.

It is clear that global warming has well and truly reached Australia, as shown by forest fires in NSW in the last week of winter.

So far the ALP’s response is to seek to introduce a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) – an emissions trading system – which is designed to protect the profits of the biggest polluters. It won’t help cut emissions to safe levels, but it locks Australia into a reduction of just 5% by 2020 – much of which is to be achieved by offsets such as buying forests in Third World countries to “offset” growing pollution in Australia.

Fortunately, the scheme did not get passed by the Senate in August. But the ALP wants to get it through before the Copenhagan meeting in December. This impossibly bad scheme hands out $2.2 billion to Australia’s biggest polluters in free carbon permits. The big polluters have already received an estimated $9 billion annually in subsidies.

By contrast, the Rudd government has budgeted just $500 million dollars for the research and development of renewable energy. The ALP is supporting the construction of 12 new coal mines in NSW, and 30 new coal mines in Queensland. The federal government will re-present the CPRS to the Senate in November and if it doesn’t get up, it will have the trigger for an early election.

The climate movement is growing: there are more than 150 Climate Action Groups across the country, 11,000 people marched at the June rallies, the climate camps gathered 500 people in Melbourne, 50 in South Australia, and NSW is yet to have its climate camp protest. There are the 350ppm actions planned for October 24, the Copenhagan actions in November, and Walk Against Warming in December.

Socialist Alliance comrades have been central to winning the demand “100% renewables by 2020” during the January Climate Summit, and have been working hard to ensure that the movement is democratic and inclusive.

Ewan S will present a balance sheet of our work in the movement in the sub-report on the environment.

 

i. Racism, nationalism, war and terror

The colonisation of Australia involved stealing Indigenous land and murdering Indigenous people – justified with racist and nationalist ideology.

Third World migrants and refugees are Australian capital’s super exploited labour force and readily available scapegoats for the two capitalist parties’ various distract and deflect tactics. Given the Australian ruling class’ sycophantic support for US imperialism, racism is a central backdrop of the so-called anti-terror laws. It is also the key ideological weapon the government uses to try and get support for their brutal wars in the Middle East.

 Aboriginal rights, refugees and ‘terror’ laws

Attacks on Aboriginal people include the extension of the income quarantining for Indigenous Australia, and the demand to hand over leases on land to receive resources. This is an excuse for the federal government to implement a major land-grab.

Yet, the government has not built any new houses as part of its Intervention policy. In response there has been a walk-off of one settlement in the NT – the Ampalawatja community – and its campaign that we have been supporting.

On refugee rights, while mandatory detention remains, the strength of the refugee rights movement did force some concessions from the Rudd government, such the repeal of the law making asylum seekers pay for their detention.

But Christmas Island remains a prison where people arriving here “illegally” by boat are mandatorily detained. There are 677 detainees locked up in the Christmas Island jail. Seven boats of asylum seekers arrived in September – a record high since 2001. The government is also seeking to deport the first group of Tamils back to a precarious and dangerous situation in Sri Lanka.

While Australian capital seeks to keep out poor refugees, it does want skilled migrants. There are no 457 visa limitations, although there has been a reduction of the quota in skilled migration. The 457 visas create a second tier of under-paid workers and downward pressure on wages. This racist policy is strong within the labour movement.

Refugee rights groups have largely folded, although groups in Brisbane, Melbourne are the exceptions. We need to be on alert for openings, and ensure that Green Left Weekly continues to campaign for refugee and asylum seeker rights.

There is also an added anti-refugee and migration sentiment coming from the environment movement. The view that “over population” is the cause of global warming is strong within the Greens and sections of the climate change movement. This position is insular, and by extension racist, and we need to engage with those who hold it and present our class-based views.

Australian imperialism’s war drive has increased, along with its ideological justification. The May budget Defence White Paper implemented the “largest single defence project in Australia’s history”, committing $300 billion over the next 20 years to bolstering Australia’s imperialist grip in the region. Rudd sent an extra 450 troops to Afghanistan this year, and allocated an extra $1.3 billion for the war in Afghanistan.

A UMR Research poll on September 28 found that 41% supported Australian troops being involved in Afghanistan, and 51% opposed sending more troops to Afghanistan. It also found just 26% in favour of Australia becoming more involved. This reflects international opinion.

We are active in some anti-war committees and coalitions, but we also need to be prepared to jump in and initiate actions as the report by Pip H on our anti-war work earlier today indicated.

The rise of racism is clear from the ongoing attacks on Indians. Indians seem more emboldened to report the attacks than the Arabic community, but we can assume rates of racially-motivated hate crimes rising. The courageous rallies by Indian students as well as the NUS national day of action against discrimination against overseas students were supported by Socialist Alliance and Resistance.

On August 4, Rudd used the “anti-terror” laws against the Somali community, arresting five young men. On August 12, he announced a new round of changes to these racist laws. These changes include removing the need for search warrants and imposing penalties against those causing “psychological harm” – yet more attacks on our civil liberties.

Under a climate of harsher “anti-terror” laws, an increase in the arrival of refugee boats, increased control over Indigenous land and communities, and Australia’s support for the wars in the Middle East, we must continue to seek the openings to help build the anti-racist and anti-war movements.

Where we don’t have the comrade resources, Green Left Weekly articles, stalls and distribution becomes even more vital.

ii. Same-sex marriage

Along with Howard’s promotion of neo-liberal ideas – individualism and competition, the Christian right became more organised. As a result, it was easy for Howard and the ALP to ban same-sex marriage in August 2004 and civil unions in June 2006.

The lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and intersex community, and their allies, mobilised in response. The DSP and Socialist Alliance members have played a key role. Our work has culminated in the largest rally in LGBTI Australian history in August 1, 2009. The Christian right counter organised, with Christian right breakfasts at Parliament House (along with ALP ministers attending), and more conferences of the Australian Christian Lobby with Rudd to attend, to come.

Farida I’s report on the same-sex marriage campaign will take up the projections for our work in this arena.

 iii. Women’s rights

The struggle for abortion rights has become central following the charging of the Cairns couple for having procured an abortion. There is also an attack on a woman’s right to choose through denying the right to home births.

As the economic crisis deepens, women’s jobs and pay are also under threat. In May 2009, the Australian Bureau of Statistics calculated that the gap was 17.4% — meaning that on average women earn only 83 cents for every dollar men earn. In some industry sectors, the gap can be as large as 30%. Women workers in Victoria comprise two-thirds of casual workers, three-quarters of whom are also part-time.

Jess M’s report on our work here will give more detail.

 

 

Conclusion

 

In Australia, the many contradictions which provide opportunities for growth for the socialist movement.

As the economic recovery is being touted as being worse than the recession itself, we should be on the look out to assist the fight backs as the Rudd gloss starts to wear.

There has been limited resistance by unions to Fair Work Australia, OHS changes and the ABCC, but this could change and we have to continue to seek out opportunities to promote the struggle for workers’ rights.

Tim G’s position as secretary at the Geelong Trades Hall Council has allowed us to take a lead in the struggle against the ABCC in Victoria. What else can we do to help push the movements forward?

On the environment front we have opportunities to promote socialist solutions to the challenge of climate change.

There are a range of democratic rights still to be won: abortion, same-sex marriage and land rights are all outstanding justice issues around which layers of new activists are mobilising.

Looking beyond Rudd’s popularity, the ALP state governments are increasingly on the nose. The rise in support for the Greens means a bigger hearing for progressive ideas. As these contradictions unfold, they provide the basis for us and the socialist movement to campaign and grow in 2010.

 

Proposals from sub-reports:

 

Environment work

  • Work to establish a democratic network of Climate Action Groups

  • Copenhagan action in Canberra, November

  • National Walk Against Warming rallies, December 12

  • Climate Summit 2010, late January.

Women’s rights work

  • Suggest that Socialist Alliance re-discusses and redrafts A Gender Agenda with focus on women’s pay

  • Continue to support the pro-choice campaigns, particularly in Queensland

  • Where resources are available, participate in Reclaim the Night Collectives and International Women’s Day rallies, 2010

Same-sex marriage rights work

  • National day of action November 28, and national hook-up of SA and Resistance members beforehand

  • Better use of Socialist Alliance national members’ newsletter

Indigenous, anti-racism work

  • Support the Ampiltiwatja speaking tour and help facilitate union support

  • Publicise the needs of the camp, such as promoting their website, raising motions for funding from unions, forums, etc.

  • Promote Terry T’s new book on the history of the Aboriginal movement and the Communist Party of Australia

  • Support the Stop the Intervention NDA proposed for February 13, 2010 (planned as a simultaneous rally rather than a convergence).

  • Assess resources to join the activist committees and look for openings to promote opposition to the NR intervention.

Anti-war and anti-racism work
  • Participate in anti-war collectives and Palestine solidarity committees where resources permit

  • Support anti-racist, anti-terror laws initiatives where they arise

  • Continue the good coverage of these issues in Green Left Weekly

Trade union work

  • Support and call for actions around Ark Tribe and abolition of the ABCC

  • Circulate statement of defiance

  • Introduce/adapt Geelong Trades Hall Council motion on OHS/Harmonisation laws to union meetings

  • Encourage comrades into political useful work where we can do useful union work

  • Develop and strengthen our national, state coordination and sectoral coordination

  • Initiate cross-union meetings to deal with intra-union conflict

  • Hold regular joint meetings of comrades in union and environment work

  • Continue to develop a green jobs pamphlet

  • Focus on getting GLW subscriptions to more unions and unionists

  • Participate in and/or help set up union environment/climate change committees

  • Investigate union/climate change conferences for 2010.

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