Embattled Australian government prepares for protests


Australia’s unions have called a national day of action on Wednesday, 4 March, in response to austerity measures that are threatening the working conditions and wages of millions of Australians.

Rallies will be held in all major Australian cities, with the largest event expected to take place in the city of Melbourne.

Unions announced the protests at the end of January in response to clumsy attempts by the government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott to weaken labour rights and dismantle core elements of the welfare state as part of an austerity drive.

The immediate catalyst for the rallies is a looming review of the Australian workplace system by the pro-market Productivity Commission. Potential recommendations include cuts to the minimum wage and the weekend and night “penalty rates” which hundreds of thousands of low-paid workers rely on.

But for Prime Minister Abbott, who survived a recent leadership challenge but leads the country with one of the lowest approval ratings in Australian history (29 per cent), the protests couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Prime Minister Abbott’s conservative Liberal-National party were elected with a thumping majority in September 2013 over the Labor Party, which had held office since 2007.

But after just 18 months in power, the Abbott government has embarked on a rampant neo-liberal agenda of deep cuts to public spending and services, changes to the pension and retirement age, a crackdown on eligibility for unemployment assistance, higher charges for healthcare and tertiary education, privatisation and job cuts.

Ironically, Australia’s government has begun pursuing these austerity policies at the same time as Europe has been backtracking from the same failed approach that has resulted in stagnant growth, high unemployment and falling living standards.

The public odium now attached to Prime Minister Abbott and his policies is so strong that it has contaminated Liberal-National governments in the states of Victoria and Queensland, who have both lost power in elections since November.

The Queensland election was a huge shock as the conservative government which has held office there since 2012 enjoyed a massive parliamentary majority of 78 seats to seven.

Queensland had served as a dry run for the same policies Abbott has attempted to roll-out nationally.

Within days of the Queensland vote, Abbott himself was fighting to keep his leadership from internal critics who blamed him for the debacle.

At the end of March an election will be held in Australia’s largest – and Abbott’s home – state of New South Wales, where the Liberals hold government with a comfortable majority. But even there party officials fear the ‘Abbott factor’ will have a negative impact.


How did it get so bad so quickly?

The roots of Abbott’s current plight lie in his 2013 success.

Never popular with a public who mistrusted his combative style and ideological conservatism, Abbott was nevertheless able to win government almost by default from a chaotic Labor that had been mortally wounded by years of infighting and division.

Abbott went to the 2013 election with a near-empty cupboard of policies apart from a more aggressive approach towards asylum seekers and refugees, the abolition of Australia’s world-leading emissions trading scheme, and a vague promise to tackle structural problems in the Commonwealth Budget.

That is why the sense of public betrayal was so visceral after the Abbott government’s first Budget in May last year unveiled dozens of cuts and new costs with no warning.

Treasurer Joe Hockey set the tone in his Budget speech when he divided the nation into “lifters and leaners”, instantly alienating the millions of people who rely on public health, education, community services and welfare support.

None of the changes proposed in the Budget were more symbolic than the plan to introduce an AUS$7 (approximately US$5.50) “co-payment” for a visit to the doctor.

Australians were outraged at what they viewed as an unwinding of the universal healthcare system, Medicare, established in 1975 by the government of Gough Whitlam.

Commentators have remarked that Abbott’s Budget – and indeed his entire approach to government – offends Australians’ notion of “the fair go”, a belief in basic egalitarianism.

This is reinforced by a national survey conducted by the peak labour body, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, late last year.

The survey, which had more than 43,000 respondents, found a clear majority (74 per cent) of people felt the nation was heading in the wrong direction, with 28 per cent struggling to get by on their household income.

Much of the Abbott government’s Budget agenda has since been held up by a hostile Senate, and increasingly it appears unlikely that changes to Medicare and tertiary education fees will ever become law.


4 March

With so much focus on the fall-out from the 2014-15 Budget, the workplace system has slipped attention.

But quietly, the government has been pursuing an employer wish list devised before the 2013 election.

For the past year, a royal commission into trade union governance has been draining union resources and energy, occasionally sparking headlines with sensational but usually unproven allegations which have damaged the public image of Australia’s unions.

A raft of bills are before the Senate to widen the use of individual contracts, undermine collective bargaining and restrict rights to take industrial action and be represented by unions.

The Productivity Commission inquiry delivers on another promise to employer groups that the government would put the workplace system on trial in its first term, and take significant changes to the next election due in 2016.

Business and employer groups have been preparing for this review for more than a year and high on their list of demands are cutting the minimum wage, changes to penalty rates, weakening unfair dismissal protections, and marginalising unions and collective bargaining.

Several issues papers released by the Productivity Commission in January confirmed the worst fears of unions, who have rapidly mobilised for the day of action.

But the reality is that a government that is so politically wounded is unlikely to risk further alienating voters by adopting policies that would cut their take-home pay – nor would the Senate support them.

Already Employment Minister Eric Abetz has attempted to calm fears by ruling out any major cuts to penalty rates and the minimum wage, even if the Productivity Commission recommends them, but the union-led rallies are going ahead anyway to capitalise on the political momentum against the government.

With the catchcry of “Fight for Our Rights”, unions will not only protest against any attacks on workplace rights, but will also defend public health and education, community services and the universal retirement system.

ACTU President Ged Kearney says the day of protest will be the start of a national campaign in defence of Australian living standards which will continue until the next federal election in 2017.

“The union movement’s strength has always come from people standing together and standing up for what is right – that is at the heart of all our campaigning,” she says.