archive: March 2019

18 March 2019

A new report from the Grattan Institute highlights the gap between general health care and dental health care in Australia: people of all ages and income levels are more likely to skip or delay dental treatment, and the most significant factor is the out-of-pocket cost. The report puts forward a plan for dental care to be brought into line with Medicare: “There’s no compelling medical, economic, legal or logical reason to treat the mouth so differently from the rest of the body. But it would be impractical to move to a universal scheme overnight. … So, the Commonwealth should announce a roadmap to a universal scheme, including plans to expand the dental health workforce, followed by incremental steps towards a universal scheme.” They estimate the total cost at $5.6 billion, which seems like a big number but is actually only about a 3% increase in the health budget. Universal public dental care is well within our grasp, and Grattan puts forward a credible step-by-step plan for achieving it within a decade.

17 March 2019

Australia’s discussion about the Christchurch massacre must begin with an acknowledgement that the monster who perpetrated it is ours. Not in the formal sense that he was an Australian citizen, but in the more important sense that his genocidal ideology was fostered here — as Bill Shorten rightly put it, “You cannot disown what crawls out of your swamp.” Jason Wilson notes how mainstream the murderer’s views, if not his actions, have been in Australia: “the decades-long drumbeat of xenophobia and Muslim-hate… has issued from some of the most powerful institutions in the country. This is the environment in which Muslims, refugees and immigrants have come to be understood as enemies of Australia. It may be an environment that has nurtured white supremacist terror.” This must change. Vigilante eggings and public shaming of racists show the right attitude — there must be real and immediate consequences for those who engage in hate speech, against Muslims or any other group in our community.

Over a million young people around the world took part in the Student Strike for Climate on Friday, with large crowds in cities and regional centres across Australia. We have a lot to learn from these young leaders. While they are disillusioned with the performance of our political class, they are not disengaged or disinterested. On the contrary, these protests were an expression of hope — these kids know they are the future, and they are ready to take the reins. This is a crucial moment for our political future: previous student strikes against Hansonism and the invasion of Iraq were ignored and led to widespread cynicism, and we must ensure that does not happen again. We must respond to the leadership of our young people and show them that collective action is the best way to achieve progressive change.

14 March 2019

US economist Gene Sperling calls for economic dignity to be placed at the centre of economic debates: “in the absence of that more clear focus on an economic fixed star, it becomes too easy to start to see the economic targets, political strategies, and specific policy postures as if they were the end goals in themselves—as opposed to means to arrive at a higher end goal for lifting up human fulfillment.” This is a concept that was a core part of Australian workplace law in the early years of our nation, but it has been eroded by economic rationalism over recent decades. In 1907, the landmark Harvester decision held that the basic wage in Australia should be sufficient to meet “the normal needs of the average employee, regarded as a human being living in a civilised community”; that is, enough for a worker to provide their family with “proper food and water, and such shelter and rest as they need… and clothing, and a condition of frugal comfort estimated by current human standards”. It is the restoration of this principle that underpins the ACTU’s call (lately adopted by Labor) for a shift from setting a “minimum wage” to a “living wage”. It must also underpin our social security system. Bringing humanity and economic dignity back to our economic debates should be a priority.

13 March 2019

A landmark High Court decision has cleared the way for Aboriginal people to seek billions of dollars in compensation for the loss of their land to colonialism. The Court ordered the Northern Territory to pay $2.53 million to the Ngaliwurru and Nungali Peoples for the loss of their land around Timber Creek. More importantly, it rejected the NT’s argument that cultural loss and spiritual hurt caused by the extinguishment of native title rights should not be compensated. The effect of the decision is likely to take many years to be fully realised, as each Indigenous community must make a separate claim, and complex issues (such as how the impact of mining leases should be quantified) are yet to be resolved. (If you are interested in the legal technicalities, Kate Galloway has a good summary in this Twitter thread.)

12 March 2019

Crikey’s Bernard Keane: “Wage stagnation in Australia, as in other economies, is an act of class war. It’s a war started by powerful corporations and enabled by their political and media allies. Wages are stagnant because our industrial relations playing field is tilted in favour of employers. … The result … is likely to be a permanent downward shift in wage expectations by workers — which is exactly what corporations want. Should wages growth eventually reach 3% some time in 2020, or 2021, workers will be told that happy days are here again. In fact, compared to the years before 2013, 3% wages growth — which is likely to represent just 0.5-0.75 percentage points of growth after inflation — is pitiful. A permanent cut in wages growth will be locked in, to the benefit of corporations and shareholders. … Wage stagnation is a slow, grinding war of attrition, being waged by companies against workers. And companies are winning.”

10 March 2019

An undercover investigation by the ABC has revealed an Alice Springs hotel has a policy of segregating Indigenous guests in inferior rooms: “Undercover recordings of the Aboriginal guests checking in captured the group being assigned to room 86, which was one of the community rooms referred to in the leaked email. … Inside room 86, the ABC found stained sheets and towels, as well as clothing belonging to former guests. There was broken glass and rubbish in the patio area, dried liquids on the windows and walls, a stale smell in the air and exposed wires around the skirting of the room. The room assigned to the non-Aboriginal group had none of the issues that were found in room 86.” Although the claims were first raised by a whistleblower, the Racial Discrimination Commission said it was powerless to act unless a complaint was made by a guest. This strict requirement for legal standing is often a barrier in social justice litigation, but it can be changed by statute if governments are serious about tackling the issues — for instance, by giving relevant community organisations the right to make a claim on behalf of a hypothetical complainant.

8 March 2019

On International Women’s Day, the ILO has published a disturbing report that finds “Work-related gender gaps have not seen any meaningful improvement for 20 years”. One of the key issues is the “imbalanced division of work within the household between men and women is one of the most resilient features of gender inequality. … [I]t is estimated that the gender gap in time spent in unpaid care work would not be closed until 2228; in other words, closing the gap would take 209 years.” The report says this trajectory can be averted if deliberate efforts to shift the caring burden are made, and there is evidence that paid paternity leave can have a lasting impact: “Research suggests a positive correlation between men’s take-up of paternity leave and their time spent in caring for their children even after the end of the entitlement, and also positive effects in increasing their daily share of household chores every day. In addition, mandatory paternity leave can also generate an increase in women’s wages. A Swedish study found that, for every month of leave taken by men in the first year of the child’s life, the woman’s long-term salary was 6.7 per cent higher.” Governments must look for opportunities to shift the burden of caring within the home, in order to eliminate gender gaps in the workplace.

7 March 2019

Exploitation of workers in Australia is now at such a crisis point that even the Coalition Government has been forced to accept that criminalising wage theft is necessary. It has accepted in principle all recommendations of the Migrant Worker Taskforce, including criminalising “clear, deliberate and systemic” wage theft. Other suggestions include banning advertising jobs for below legal minimum wages, introducing banning orders to remove bad bosses from the economy, and extending liability to head contractors and franchisors. These have been core demands from the union movement for years. At the heart of the problem, though, is the Fair Work Ombudsman: “A major area of consideration relates to the adequacy of the enforcement response of the relevant agencies, primarily the Fair Work Ombudsman… It is confusingly styled as an ombudsman. The term normally covers dispute resolution schemes, not regulatory schemes… In our view, the FWO could more strongly support the enforcement and litigation objectives (rather than the mediation objectives) of the Act.” In a nutshell: “We are of the view, given the scale and entrenched nature of the problem, that there needs to be a much stronger enforcement response than has been evident to date.”

Tanya Plibersek promised Labor will make abortion services available through public hospitals, which will address two significant problems. One is that Tasmanian women are currently forced to pay for high cost private services or fly to Victoria. The other is that SA and NSW still have outdated criminal laws in place, significantly restricting women’s access to abortion. A 2017 attempt to decriminalise abortion in NSW failed, but there seems to be broad support for a new conscience vote on the issue this year, and SA’s parliament is waiting for a report from the Law Reform Institute before considering a Greens bill.