23 March 2023

John Falzon in the Jesuits’ Eureka Street: “Poverty is, above all else, a power relation. Typified by income inadequacy and housing deprivation, it is a means of deliberate disempowerment, a structural and historical violence done to people, not an individual state passively or accidentally experienced by people. Nor is poverty a choice by those who are forced to experience it, as per former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s argument that poverty in Britain was ‘not material but behavioural’. Poverty is a choice, a political choice though, not a personal one. And poverty is material. But it is also more. That it is primarily a power relation is evidenced in the poverty experienced on the basis of gendered violence, unequal (or absent) bargaining power, colonisation, ableism, queerphobia, ageism and exclusion from secure work, adequate income security, or housing. It is also evidenced by the shame and humiliation that is often carefully manufactured and imposed. … If we want to prevent poverty we need both: a more equitable distribution of income, especially for those who are on income support payments or low or insecure wages; and the building and buttressing of a safe, democratic and respectful socio-economic space.”

21 March 2023

Ross Gittins on the Productivity Commission’s latest neoliberal manifesto: “The report is quick to explain that improving productivity does not mean getting people to work harder. Perfectly true. It’s supposed to mean making workers more productive by giving them better training and better machines to work with. Except that when you see the commission recommending a move to ‘modern, fit-for-purpose labour market regulation’ — including, no doubt, getting rid of weekend penalty pay rates — you realise the commission has learnt nothing from the failure of John Howard’s Work Choices, nor from the failure of the reduction in Sunday penalty payments to lead to any increase in weekend employment, as had been confidently predicted. So, what the commission is really advocating is that the balance of power in wage bargaining be shifted further in favour of employers and away from workers and their unions. Which probably would lead to people working harder for little or no increase in pay. … What’s conspicuously absent from all the bemoaning of the slowdown in our rate of productivity improvement, is any acknowledgement that there’s also been a huge fall in the rate of the flow-through to real wages of what improvement we are achieving. Until that’s fixed — until the capitalist system goes back to keeping its promise that the workers will get their fair share of the benefits of capitalism — Australia’s households have no rational reason to give a stuff about what’s happening to productivity.”

(No wonder the ACTU and ACOSS want to abolish the Productivity Commission.)

20 March 2023

Alison Pennington’s new book, Gen F’ed, is a good summary of how the ‘fair go’ has been withdrawn from young Australians, and an argument that we need to organise (not just rally) to restore it: “One core reason that movements reliant on protests lose steam is they aren’t emerging from, or translating into, ongoing associations between people — organisation. Organisations are structures that people affiliate to, or become members of, which coordinate and cohere their combined campaign efforts over time. The most impactful organisations throughout history have involved large numbers of people not just participating in political activities, but also practising democratic decision-making — whether they be movements, political parties or unions. Big protests are powerful when they represent organisation. For instance, the Vietnam Moratorium protests involved hundreds of different campaign groups who debated the merits of the nation going to war, developed a stance together, and mobilised at massive central rallies. Today’s infrequent protests are more likely to involve thousands of separate individuals or friendship groups congregating in one place. Rally organisers circulate placards among the crowd to create the illusion of an organised voice. This isn’t real power. Big rallies that are unsupported by real organisation can also cause lasting damage to the people’s belief in their democratic power when their demands are not immediately realised. For instance, without stronger anti-war organisations across society, Prime Minister John Howard’s decision to march the country to war in Iraq in 2003, despite national protests, permanently altered Australians’ belief in their capacity to influence the political decision-making process. Post-rally demoralisation is already setting in for young people. After diligently researching, deeply feeling, and seeking a common community, many turn out for rallies only to return home and ask, ‘What next?’ When they pull blanks, social media platforms are all they have. People need somewhere to brush the gravel from the graze and plough on together, stronger. When they push for political change and don’t achieve their aims, organisations and institutions should catch their fall, and help them return, with more effective tactics in the future.”

28 February 2023

Don Watson reflects on why Jacinda Ardern was beloved around the world: “Whatever drove her to resign — exhaustion, policy failures, far-right lunacy, misogyny — for a while, Ardern reminded us that kindness has a central place in politics because it has an essential place in human lives. Perhaps it was an illusion, a being in which we wanted to believe, like a mermaid on a rock. But Ardern did seem to lack all vanity and affectation, bombast, cunning, brutishness or any of the other qualities we associate with power. Her authority, while it lasted, derived from a kind of charismatic decency. And from our need to see and feel sympathy. She said that a leader could be ‘kind’ and still be strong. She spoke of empathy, which is a perfectly good word, but it is the less fashionable sympathy that we offer people in misery and strife, and it is sympathy that makes us choke. Ardern radiated human sympathy, and at critical moments in her country’s history she gave it concrete expression.” This seems right, given how she was honoured in a well-received mural here in Melbourne.

Watson then considers the lack of sympathy in a current Australian controversy: “[T]o take sympathy out of the political system, which means also taking out consideration of circumstances, is much like taking it from the justice system. It reduces the capacity for moral judgement. … It was in pursuit of efficiency dividends that the designers of robodebt decided sympathy could go to hell and hundreds of thousands of blighted lives with it. That the scheme known as robodebt was illegal is almost immaterial: it is much more telling that the people who conceived and operated it, including ministers and prime ministers, suspected (does anyone think they didn’t know?) it was illegal, but reckoned it better not to check. Better, because ‘cracking down on welfare cheats’ was going down well in ‘key’ electorates. … Robodebt is where the notion of ‘legitimate authority’ comes unstuck — less because the system was illegal than because it was cynical, punitive, heartless and political.”

Tim Dunlop: “As many economists are currently noting, the Reserve’s response to inflation is predicated on increasing interest rates to curb wages, even though wage growth is not causing inflation.” (He cites this recent paper by the Australia Institute.) “This is the insidiousness of neoliberalism writ large: it institutionalises and normalises policy that, in a truly democratic system would not be allowed to stand. It gives cover to the various elites who benefit from its presumptions and removes from citizens the right to challenge policies that lead to deeply undemocratic — unequal — outcomes. … Every time you hear the Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, invoke the title ‘the independent Reserve Bank’ remember that what he is really doing is underlining the undemocratic nature of that institution, hiding behind its alleged independence to normalise policy that is harmful to working people. ‘Independent’ in this context is just another word for anti-democratic. It is a way of removing control of the economy from social-political forums like the parliament that, in a democracy, are meant to be about the pursuit of equality amongst citizens, and instead creating the exact opposite: a more unequal society where wealth is channelled relentlessly upward.”

22 February 2023

Squads of police in NSW are now turning up at activists’ homes after midnight to drag them away and intimidate them against protesting: “However, according to the fact sheet, the charge relates to their presence outside the RBA building. Police allege that after leaving the Commonwealth Bank the group ‘continued to chant, shout and scream’ as they marched through Martin Place to the entrance of the RBA. … ‘Upon the front sliding doors to the Reserve Bank of Australia being shut and locked the group have remained immediately in the forecourt out the front of the premises front doors,’ the document reads. Police said that while the protesters remained ‘outside the bank’ the area was ‘still deemed to form part of the curtilage of the Reserve Bank of Australia. Any form or protesting activities carried out in this area without approval is considered unlawful and a trespass on the Reserve Bank of Australia grounds,’ the document states. Kuehlmann told the Guardian the group had been outside the building for a ‘maximum 10 minutes’ and that the group had ‘walked to the door’ of the bank before a security guard ‘pushed us back’. But police alleged the protest resulted in the RBA ‘having to temporarily stop any form of access into the premises’, which, they said, ‘significantly interfered with the conduct and business of the Reserve Bank of Australia’.” The police cautioned Kuehlmann at the time, but did not arrest her — instead, they sent five armed cops to bang on her door in the middle of the night and arrest her as her housemates and neighbours watched. They then released her with bail conditions that would prevent her protesting in future. This, I suspect, is why they arrested her in the first place — not because she had done anything to justify being arrested, but because police now routinely use bail conditions as a tactic to undermine freedom of assembly in Australia.

You’ve probably seen the significant media coverage of engineered stone this week: “A common building material is being likened to the ‘new asbestos’ despite being used in kitchens across the country, putting more than 275,000 Aussie tradies at risk of cancer and lung disease. Engineered stone countertops, which are riddled with deadly silica, are causing silicosis — an incurable work-related lung disease. More than 70 cases are before Australian courts. Workers, many on oxygen tanks or needing lung transplants, insist they were never warned about how dangerous the material they worked with could be. … Engineered stone contains up to 95 per cent crystalline silica, the dust of which is highly toxic. When inhaled in large quantities, it can cause a host of deadly illnesses, including silicosis, auto-immune diseases, lung cancer, kidney disease and pulmonary infections. Marble, by contrast, contains just two per cent silica. Granite contains between 10 and 50 per cent. A study from Curtin University estimated more than 275,000 workers, mostly tradies, were exposed to high levels of the carcinogenic dust. Up to 103,000 of them would be diagnosed with silicosis, the study predicted.” A piecemeal health and safety approach has failed to change the lax safety culture in the industry, and workers and their families are paying the price. It’s time to ban engineered stone.

Cosentino, which accounts for over 20% of stone benchtops in Australia, was found guilty in Spain of criminal negligence for failing to warn of the known danger posed by its products that contained 95% silica. After the recent media coverage, they are now demanding: “The immediate solution is everyone buys products that are less than 40 per cent silica.” Of course, they have not stopped selling the products they want banned — they know it’s dangerous, but won’t stop selling it unless they are forced to.

13 February 2023

ABC Business Editor Ian Verrender: “What if you woke up one morning only to be told the very essence of everything you believed in was wrong? And what if those beliefs — and the decisions you made based upon them — underpinned the living standards of millions of people, here and around the world? That’s the reality dawning on a generation of economists who suddenly have been beset with doubts about one of the great tenets of modern economic theory: the relationship between jobs, wages and inflation. … Known as the Phillips Curve — after New Zealand economist William Phillips who first formulated it in 1958 — it maintains that as more people find work, pressure builds on wages, which then leads to higher prices and ultimately entrenches inflation. … Given their primary remit is to control inflation, it’s been the credo to which all central banks have subscribed. Until now. For whatever reason, the relationship between unemployment and inflation has become less clear across the developed world. … [T]he primary problem is that the world has changed dramatically since it first became popular as workers’ rights have been eroded. They no longer have the same kind of bargaining power they once had. In Australia, you can’t just walk off the job in protest at your pay and conditions in the way workers in the 1970s did. You need [FWC] approval to take industrial action. That’s obliterated the number of disputes and strikes… Even now, wages growth is running at way below inflation, meaning most workers are taking a real wages cut while simultaneously being whacked by the most punishing round of interest rate hikes in history. … But … the RBA remains fixated on the notion that if jobs numbers remain strong, inflation could become entrenched, which has only hardened its resolve to keep pushing rates higher. Eventually, they’ll get there. Higher interest rates at some stage will curb spending, cut profits and result in mass layoffs. It could well be recession we didn’t have to have.”

10 February 2023

A good column from a coalition of human rights and migrant rights organisations: “Since 1996, when the Howard government introduced the temporary employer-sponsored sub-class 457 visa, two key trends have come to dominate immigration policy. The first is the endless proliferation of temporary visas with no direct pathways to permanent residency. As the Human Rights Law Centre and Migrant Workers Centre pointed out in joint submissions to the review, it is increasingly common for people to spend more than 10 years on temporary visas searching for an opportunity to permanently migrate. … The second trend is the dependence of permanent pathways upon decisions made by employers. Temporary migrants must rely on the goodwill of their employers at various points in the immigration maze: to obtain certification of their skills, to accrue the points necessary in the cut-throat process of skilled migration, or to sponsor them for a limited range of employment-based visas. The reliance of migrant workers on their employers for immigration outcomes robs them of bargaining power at work. It becomes unthinkable to refuse extra hours or cashback requests, demand fair pay or decent conditions at work if losing your job means losing your visa and a future in Australia. The migration system offers no protection to temporary migrants, extending them a standing invitation to ‘go home’ if things get tough. It is time Australia confronts and addresses the systemic exploitation of migrant workers. This requires a fundamental shift that puts the rights of migrants at the heart of the migration system.”

7 February 2023

In 2014, Daniel Andrews promised to make Victoria “The Education State” and turn our cars into mobile billboards by putting the slogan on number plates. Two terms later, it’s clear he is just gaslighting us: “[F]ederal and state funding per student in Victorian non-government schools grew 31 per cent over the 10 years to 2021. Funding per student in Victorian state schools grew by 27.1 per cent over the same period. … [A]t $17,174 per student, Victorian students are the second-lowest funded in the country, only ahead of South Australian students. Victoria’s public schools received $20,047 per student in government funding in 2020-21, while non-government schools attracted $12,087 per student. … The Andrews government has committed to fund non-government schools fully in 2023, but has yet to commit to fully funding state schools. It has agreed to increase its share of the student resourcing standard — an estimate of how much public funding a school requires to meet educational needs — to 75 per cent by 2029, while the Commonwealth funds 20 per cent. There is no agreement on the remaining 5 per cent.” Fully funding private schools today, but only committing to 95% funding for public schools in 2029! There’s a lot of blather about how to improve educational outcomes, but if we don’t stop pissing away hundreds of millions of dollars on overfunded private schools, and redirect that money to students who actually need it, we have no chance.