Sheldon: What Makes A Decent Society?

What is the Australian economy for? What does a good economy look like? Who should it reward?

WORKING LIFE, by Tony Sheldon, TWU National Secretary, 8 December 2014

We can be in no doubt that Australians believe the economy is neither good nor rewarding them. What we have is not a market economy but a market society. The market is not working for us we are working for the market.

How did this happen? It occurs when the super elite is given special treatment, special access to the halls of power and where their policies are taken on almost word for word.

We see it in the abolishing of the mining tax, in the cutting of corporate tax and in the multinationals paying less tax proportionately than the lowest paid members of our society.

It happens when a word in the ear of the right minister means the Australian Securities and Investments Commission gets a $120 million cut and is less able to fight fraud and corruption.

All around, our good society is under attack

I want Tony Abbott to explain how any of these measures benefits ordinary workers, because I simply can’t see it.

What I see it does do is strangle the voice of the community. Because the government then says the community must dip into their pockets to pay for the hole in the Budget after making all of these concessions to the super rich.

So it wants to make families on the margins pay to visit the doctor and wants to saddle the next generation with huge debts if they dare to aspire to university education.

Australians have fought long and hard for a society which is fair and equal. Why should we see it torn down so Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey can play best friends with the likes of Gina Rinehart?

All around, our good society is under attack.

This government has said it wants to cut red tape to facilitate business.

Sounds good – but we now know that just means making things cheaper for the super rich at the expense of the rest of the community.

We can see this in the way basic rights for clothing outworkers in Australia are being put into question because of an attack on the laws protecting them and an end to funding for the body which oversees those laws.

How will vulnerable, low-paid textile workers working in backroom sweatshops in our suburbs be protected if this body is disbanded? Who does this move benefit really?

We also see it in the way the road safety watchdog – which is close to the heart of my members – has also been under attack and effectively placed on notice that it too faces the scrapheap.

Show me who in Australia will benefit from this? Because it certainly won’t be the truck drivers who it serves to ensure they are not put under pressure to speed, skip breaks or overload their vehicles to meet unrealistic deadlines.

It won’t serve the families of the truck drivers who will undoubtedly be killed on our roads if the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal is terminated. And it won’t be other road users who have so often got caught up in the carnage that happens when drivers are put under pressure.

But we know it will serve the likes of retail giants like Coles, the economic employer of thousands of truck drivers, through enforcing sweated supply chains. According to the National Transport Commission practices by the retail industry affecting road transport “can play a direct and significant role in causing hazardous practices”. The Commission adds: “There is solid survey evidence linking payment levels and systems to crashes, speeding, driving while fatigued and drug use”.

If this is the cold hard evidence of an independent body why is the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal being attacked?

No matter what some economists say, you simply can’t build a good society on the back of bad jobs.

We are back to the point about special treatment for the super elite because this is the same company which has given the Liberal Party $2.1 million in political donations? A little word in the government’s ear and the pesky road safety watchdog is dismantled.

Greg Medcraft, the chairman of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, said it right last week when he vowed to “smother the greed” in the banks who try to swindle the system. But how can he do this when his resources are being cut back?

All around our good society is being smothered.

The attack on giving people extra pay who are away from their families working Sundays and bank holidays serves to simply erode the economic dignity of our nation.

The flooding of our jobs market with 11% of people on working visas serves to undermine our hard fought working conditions and to exploit vulnerable workers from overseas. We know this now thanks to the Freedom of Information documents obtained this week by the Transport Workers Union which show that one-in-five workers on a 457 working visa are not being paid properly or not being employed to do the job they were brought into the country to do. You can dress that up any way you want but most people would call it exploitation. Yet the government insists the visa scheme is working fine.

So how do we fix this situation? How do we make our market work for us?

We believe the money people earn in their jobs should matter. We believe the quality of their jobs should matter. Because when it comes down to it, it isn’t the tax and transfer system that lifts people up, it is their jobs.

No matter what some economists say, you simply can’t build a good society on the back of bad jobs.

We have to start lifting our aspirations for our quality of life. We had higher aspirations in the past.

Former TWU Secretary Harry Quinn used to tell a story: when he was a young organiser, one of his members turned up one day the proud owner of a new car. This was a time when owning a car was unusual for a working class person. Harry gathered some members around and proclaimed the purchase as a great triumph. This, he told them, is what being a member of the middle class is all about, and that every union member should be able to aspire to own a car and a house and enjoy the things middle class people take for granted.

Harry was defining the middle class society: a society of rising living standards and aspirations for everyone. It’s a society our government doesn’t believe in any longer. We hear daily that today’s young Australians will be worse off than their parents with less stable jobs, lower pay and growing unemployment.

Harry Quinn’s union member could only aspire to something his parents could never aspire to because he was paid a decent wage.

You can’t create a middle class society by paying sweatshop wages.

Yet the evidence shows we are in an income recession, with Australian wages rising below the rate of inflation – meaning of course we are going backwards.

Cutting wages further and taking more money out of people’s pockets will only make our problems worse by forcing the economy into stagnation. This will guarantee falling living standards and a worse future for all.

This is why we need to take back our economic freedom and hold our companies to account.

We must stand up and call out this type of greed.

The safe rates legislation has worked in my members’ industry to bring economic dignity back and to hold the economic elite to account. I want to see similar laws extended to all workers so that so that supply chains throughout Australian are scrutinised and that no one gets squeezed.

Making the retail giants sacrifice some of their obscene super profits and pay their employees properly will help us rebuild our good society.

So too will looking at how workplace relations are regulated to ensure seeking efficiencies is not used as an excuse for ripping off employees.

The time has come for people who care about creating a society and economy which can everyone benefit to speak out. If we don’t the recent analysis of the likes of Rupert Murdoch will take precedence after he decried the “greater inequality” in society but said they way to fix it was with lower corporate taxes, less banking regulation and labor market reforms that suit the super elite.

We must stand up and call out this type of greed feeding off our society and off the backs of our labour.

The Australian people do not want a race to the bottom. They do not want the sort of economy that the Abbott Government is trying to impose on them. That’s why the Abbott Government is so unpopular.

And just last week, in Victoria, the Coalition got a taste of what it can expect at the next election if it doesn’t stop trying to rig our economy against ordinary Australians and undermine the basis of a good society in Australia.

This is an edited version of a speech given by Tony Sheldon on Friday in Sydney to a forum held as part of Per Capita‘s series Reform Agenda series.

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