Building a land fit for heroes

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Posted Wednesday, 16 March 2005

The Howard Government has set out on an extraordinary adventure which has the potential to tear apart the social fabric of this nation. Howard and his leading ministers have waged a clever and at times subtle campaign in the struggle to win the hearts and minds of the electorate. Individually, the items on their agenda are not too surprising, and are in line with some of the Government’s strategy to convert Australians to the true path of the Liberal Party’s particular amalgam of social conservatism and economic liberalism. Many members of the Coalition are avidly counting the number of sleeps till the Government has control of the Senate.

The main components of their agenda are:

  • an escalation of the number of Australian troops in Iraq;
  • a frontal assault on the trade union and arbitration systems;
  • a reinvigoration of the abortion and other conservative social issues debates;
  • the privatisation of Medicare;
  • an expanded imposition of “mutual obligation” to include single parents,
  • unemployed people and disability support pensioners;
  • the insistence that government funded agencies don’t criticise governments;
  • a destabilisation of Indigenous institutions and an extension of the obligations forced on Indigenous community members; and,
  • a continuing preoccupation with locking up asylum seekers in concentration camps.

The confusing jangle of reasons provided by ministers for each of these policies makes it difficult to understand they are connected and provides the illusion that each of them is a stand alone policy. Public mystification is increased by the proliferation of supporting statements by pseudo “experts” from well-funded right-wing think- tanks, a compliant media controlled by rich white conservative owners, a tamed ABC and a government willing to prevaricate, dissemble, distort and lie whenever the occasion requires.

The Labor Party is regularly wrong-footed on many of these issues because it:

  • invaded Iraq in 1991and maintained the sanctions against Iraq until it lost office;
  • lauded economic fundamentalism and started the deregulation of the labour market;
  • invented the mandatory detention policy for asylum seekers;
  • bleated about “welfare dependency” from 1987 till 1996;
  • started social security cutbacks;
  • toyed with Medicare co-charging;
  • cutback funds to welfare organisations which criticised its government; and,
  • announced, in 2004 , it would abolish the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) if it won office.

Some Labor members are as reactionary as members of the Coalition on abortion and other social policies (such as gay marriage). Howard, the master of the wedge, frequently gets shadow spokespersons coming and going and he will be able to continue doing this for as long as Labor refuses to resile from many of its past reactionary policies.

It is important to understand these Coalition policies are connected and to identify the potential longer term losses likely to accrue from their implementation. Short term winners can easily become long term losers in the policy stakes.

The Howard Government has used the bombings of the World Trade Centre and Bali to severely limit Australians’ civil liberties and has conned us into going along with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by asserting that it is all part of a so-called “war on terror”. Initially many citizens believed if Australian soldiers went overseas and killed people the nation would be safer. The use of military and paramilitary police to subdue civil populations here and overseas is the most extreme aspect of the present Government’s control activities.

The Government’s determination to revoke the requirement that smaller firms act fairly when dismissing workers may make some employers happy but such happiness might be short lived. There is a looming shortage of skilled labour due to the failure of government and business to adequately expand education or train the workforce. Employers who unfairly sack employees might find that other workers, whom they want to retain, leave in sympathy with their sacked comrades. It is true that arbitrarily sacking a worker might instil a fear in others that they too might be sacked unless they increase production. However, fear is a very poor motivator in the workplace and frequently leads to reduced productivity. Still the Government believes such changes will have a general disciplining influence upon the workforce.

Government attempts to demoralise and downsize the Arbitration Commission, to abolish State Arbitration systems, and to cut back on workplace health and safety agencies springs from a desire to have no opposition to its pro-employer stance. Attempts to crush the trade union movement derive from the same source.

The revitalisation of the abortion and other socially conservative debates might warm the cockles of the ideologically driven supporters of the Coalition. It may even result in a retreat to the mentality of the days of the back-yard abortions but as such it would amount to a pyrrhic victory. It comforts the misinformed and religious fundamentalists while simultaneously creating the situation of apparent compliance and actual resistance. Yet the Government believes this will move the population in the direction of its social conservatism.

Policies which undermine Medicare and promote private health insurance cover have been sold to the public in terms of shortened waiting lists for those who can afford to go private, thereby removing the pressure from public hospitals. This speedy access for the rich to elective medical services reduces Commonwealth funding to public hospitals in two ways. First, the Commonwealth-State Medicare funding is decreased in proportion to any rise in the percentage of privately insured patients. Second, the $3 billion Federal subsidy which is paid to private insurers could be spent sorting out public hospital waiting lists. The further we proceed down this “American health system” path the more likely it is that public health services will decline and we will find that gaining access to a public hospital will be near impossible for less-well-off people.

The number of social security breaches by recipients peaked in 2000-2001 when 386,946 breaches were made. Some of the poorest Australians, mainly unemployed recipients, had their social security payments reduced or cancelled resulting in increased homelessness and despair. Once the Government has control of the Senate after July this year, it will move to reduce by a third the number of disability support pensioners and will impose further obligations on lone parents. Many families will have their lives disrupted but this will provide the Howard Government with sufficient funds to give tax cuts to the rich. It is the moral equivalent of making a living stealing money out of blind men’s cups. And we are morally complicit by allowing the Government to do this.

Since the 1960s, governments have attempted to discourage criticism from welfare agencies by threatening to cut their funding. The Howard Government has honed such “don’t criticise the government” policies to an art form. This means that potential sources of social justice advocacy are silenced.

The Government and Opposition both declared they wanted to abolish ATSIC. The Opposition intended to replace ATSIC with an agency controlled by elected representatives in line with the spirit of the ATSIC Act. The Government selected a group of well-to-do Indigenous people to advise it four times a year. Former Social Justice Commissioner Bill Jonas deplored replacing a body elected in a national Indigenous poll with appointed advisors. He saw this as being in breach of Article 5 of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination which Australia has signed and ratified. It certainly increases Government control of Indigenous matters.

The Government is in the process of “mainstreaming” Aboriginal services as part of its stated policy of “practical reconciliation”. Indigenous people, the Human Rights Commission, the Aboriginal Medical and Legal Services and a host of anthropologists, welfare workers and scholars have pointed out that it was the past failure of mainstream agencies to service Indigenous people adequately which is the major reason for their current poor health and low socio-economic position. Mainstreaming services to Indigenous Australians without offering them a choice of Indigenous service agencies is cultural imperialism and simply a way to sanitise governmental neglect. It also removes a potential source of advocacy for Indigenous people. However, it does pander to the social conservatism of Coalition supporters.

The Howard Government’s commitment to incarcerating asylum seekers has driven it to argue in the High Court that people, like Peter Qasim, who has been in refugee concentration camps in excess of six years and who can’t be returned to Kashmir, should be confined indefinitely. The Government continues to detain children in such camps despite the fact that doing so risks causing permanent mental health problems. The preoccupation with incarcerating asylum seekers makes it difficult for Government’s ministers to explain the treatment meted out to Cornelia Rau in the punishment cells at Baxter.

Australians who want peace abroad and social justice at home need to draw the connections between each of these policies as part of the struggle to build a united opposition to the Howard juggernaut. We need to show how a diverse group of people is adversely affected, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, by such policies. We need to show how the social fabric of the nation is being destroyed and we need to build a coalition of resistance – to build into that resistance the idea that the struggle for one is the struggle for all. For too long:

We held our wallets to our chest
and said that I’m alright Jack
and to hell with all the rest.
[Eric Bogle]

If we can mobilise the 50 per cent of employees who are in casual, part-time or in precarious employment, the 3 per cent of the population who are Indigenous, the 25 per cent of workers who are trade unionists, the 40 per cent of families who receive family allowances, the 20 per cent who are in poverty, the 5 per cent who are officially recognised as unemployed, the 10 per cent who are recently arrived migrants and refugees, the 5 per cent with severe disabilities, the 5 per cent who are gay or lesbian, the 10 per cent who vote Green, the 38 per cent who vote Labor, the socially progressive, the environmentally conscious, and all the other decent people in this country we would have a majority and could in Eric Bogle’s words: “Build a land that’s fit for heroes and for you and me as well.”