In much the same way as WorkChoices threatened to completely unbalance industrial relations, the Government’s budget agenda is an attempt to unbalance our society from the prevailing consensus for the redistributive responsibility of government.
Certainly the Abbott approach differs from WorkChoices is in its scope. While in its fourth term the Howard Government focused its conservative zeal predominantly on industrial relations, the proposals that are now on the table threaten to impact our broader social fabric through changes to universal healthcare, the scope of welfare entitlements and affordability in the tertiary sector to name but a few.
Fortunately, this assault on social democratic norms is being met by the public and the Senate with the resistance that it deserves.
While Labor should not seek to emulate the previous Opposition’s overall strategy, the scale of the Abbott Government’s reactionary project nevertheless demands a vigorous response. One of the successes of the Coalition in opposition was its ability to constantly maintain pressure on Labor across its six years in power by creating a sense of crisis by mobilising its core constituency. It is therefore worth considering a broad-based grassroots campaign, inspired by the fight against Workchoices, which seeks to engage the disparate groups that stand to lose from the Coalition’s regressive policies.
As with Workchoices, there is the potential for the union movement, led by the ACTU, to take on a central role here. While not all the Government’s proposals are going to affect their members, Treasury has forecast that low to middle income workers and their families, who constitute the core of union membership in Australia, will be affected disproportionately by the 2014 budget. Of course, such campaigns are expensive and resource-intensive. They should only be embarked upon in instances where the battle at hand has the potential to radically alter the fabric of Australian society.
We may just be facing one of those moments in time right now.
First, as we near the first anniversary of the 2013 Federal Election, it is abundantly clear that the Government is seeking to dismantle the reforms of its predecessor in a way that is without precedent in Australian political history. Yes, because the Government has opened up battles on so many fronts, it also poses a challenge for the Opposition. Schemes such as indexing the pension to inflation rather than wages growth and reducing youth unemployment benefits, aimed as they are at marginalised groups, do not necessarily mobilise opponents in the same way that WorkChoices did.
But, this does not mean that people feel any less passionately about the issues involved. Rather, it reflects the reality that there is currently not the same organising framework as that offered by the unions in the Your Rights at Work campaign.
Second, like Workchoices, none of this was explained before the last election. Of course, there was the elevation of politics of negativity to an art-form and the rejection of everything from the proposal to impose maximum bets on poker machines to the Mining Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) and, most famously, the price on carbon.
But their promises of maintaining the Gonski funding model for education and bi-partisan support for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) were loud and long; there pledge of no cuts to health and education seemed to indicate that the Coalition has embraced a more egalitarian approach and shrugged off the worst excesses of the WorkChoices era.
I’ll admit I didn’t see it coming. While I am sure that many were not fooled by the Coalition’s “small-target” policy in Opposition, or their soothing words about governing for all Australians, I genuinely believed that a new found pragmatism had pervaded the shadow cabinet. The subsequent decision to strip $80 billion from these sectors indicates that this was wishful thinking. Indeed, if anyone was in any doubt regarding the ascendency of the right wing of the Coalition Party Room, the 2014 Budget has clarified
The Abbott Government has embarked on such a blatantly ideological agenda that we have been pushed onto the defensive, fighting to protect hard-won reforms rather than taking pause to envision how they might be built-upon to achieve a fairer and more just society. This is hard – but the 2007 experience shows that with the will, we can win.
IMAGE SOURCE: Flickr, Mark Phillips, ACTU, used with permission.