Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam came to power with a rich vision of an Australia shaking off it’s old “British Empire” image and engaging in the Asia region. His vision for change in this country held many internal shake ups as well. The provision of basic medical services free for all Australians, the connection of pensions to average weekly male earnings, abolition of university fees, launching community health centres, successfully pushing for equal pay for women performing the same types of work as men, the institution of “no fault” divorce and many other achievements.
A look at the LNP’s first budget shows the signs of wanting to create long-term change in our society as well.
The medical co-payment, which kick in on 1 July 2015, is a step towards dismantling the fundamental promise of free basic medical services for all Australians. The medical insurance industry has applied concerted pressure on governments over the last 30 years to keep the Government funded health care at a minimal level so as to ensure the steady growth of their business. They were afforded some assistance in this under the Howard Government with a measure that increased the Medicare Levy component of taxation for those without private health cover. Inherent in the IPA fed Abbott vision is the complete dismantling of Government funded health care. It sees the complete privatisation of the health sector as a benefit to the country. It is then, perhaps, odd that the US Government has introduced a system of Government supported health insurance into a country where all health care has been in private hands for a very long time, because there was an increasing number of people not being treated for health problems because they could not afford it. The long-term consequences for the fabric of our social system would be profound.
The change of the method of indexation for pensions, which will begin on 1 July 2017, after the end of the first, and maybe only, term of this Government, moves away from the concept underpinning Whitlam’s decision that pensions should reflect not just what is required to meet increases in the cost of living but also a standard of life for which the worker has struggled to provide for themselves and others through the payment of taxation, all their working life. Abbott’s choice, coupled with extending the age at which one qualifies for the pension by a further five years, slaps down the idea that a worker is worthy of their pay and that their contribution to the lifestyle enjoyed by their fellow Australians, through taxation, is of any value once they stop working. It straight out insulting. The budget announced a three year freeze on eligibility thresholds and no alternative adjustment mechanism until indexation commences in 2017. I believe, in such circumstances, pensions will free-fall against the current levels of wages, with no safety net of any kind, until 1/07/2015.
We have seen a return of University fees since Whitlam, but in a regulated fashion through Government support, linked to conditions which lessened the financial burden on students. The budget will see the de-regulation of the Universities’ capacity to determine their fees and the changes to the HECS model will disproportionately increase the burden on graduates. The driver behind Whitlam’s initiative was to increase the level of qualified people in Australia to expand and improve our capacity as a nation of researchers and inventors, as innovators and achievers. We have become world leaders in many fields because of this far-sighted policy. The Abbott vision on the other hand is to make Universities into more potent revenue raising machines to take the burden off Government to fund advances in Australia, They are happy to share the profits future scientist, engineers, surgeons and so on make but won’t fund the necessary education. They have promised a Medical Future Fund, allegedly paid for trough some of the medical co-payment, though I doubt there will be direct Government funding for research, but rather partnerships with private enterprise. Some may see that as a good and worthy path to follow, but I have concerns that the “returns” to Australia, and I don’t just mean financial, will be lessened. That is to say, a new drug, engineering process or such is developed in Australia in partnership with an overseas corporation. The production of the new invention then moves offshore to a country where labour prices are cheaper. The nation loses jobs in the production areas. In a nation where there is a shrinking manufacturing sector and, therefore, a shrinking skills base and increasing unemployment, the Australia of 20 years time may not have a “class” of skilled workers and the only jobs available to young Australians who can’t afford university will be unskilled jobs.
Community health services have been a vital part of maintaining and raising the overall level of health in our society for decades, They take the pressure off hospitals and their broad disbursement increases the contact with the people who need it most. Most community health services provide a range of forms of assistance attending to the variety of needs, from new mothers, mentally ill people and respite for their carers, children’s health and indigenous health, among other things. The genesis of the vision was the need for centres in neighbourhoods, regional and larger rural centres where access to hospitals was difficult and often costly. The LNP mantra denies that the Government should have responsibility for such services. This is echoed a state level as well. Funding has been cut at a federal level to the States and the States have closed or have flagged they will dramatically reduce funding levels for such services. At present, many community services receive assistance from community-minded organisations such as Rotary, LIONS, and so on. The Government is cost shifting to such organisations and if they don’t have the capacity to make up the difference, and most can’t, the service will close. Another rent in the fabric of our society as part of Abbott’s future vision of Australia.
The last matter on which I wish to touch is equality of pay between the sexes and against our current standards of living. At present, the minimum wage is determined by a statutory body, equal pay for equal work is enshrined in statute as well. The creation of a “living wage” dates to the “Harvester Judgement” of 1907. Justice Higgins, the judge on the case, decided that the test of a fair and reasonable wage was ‘the normal needs of the average employee regarded as a human being living in a civilized community’. He also said that the pay of the employee should not be dependent on the profits of the employer. The concept of equal work for equal pay came into the industrial scene in Australia in 1960, but it remained a concept only for some time, and did not specify it as applying to women. When Whitlam came to power he, through his Minister, applied pressure for the case to be re-opened and a determination made. In 1972 it was decided that women would be awarded with entirely equal pay. That is, 100 per cent of the male wage. The decision of the Arbitration Commission said that women who were performing the same work as men should get the same award rate of pay. It meant that you could no longer have lower female rates for the same job. This decision only covered women working under federal awards, about 40% of women workers. Since then the fight to extend this to other awards, State awards and so on has continued to be fought, largely successfully.
Abbott’s vision, shared by all his Neo-Liberal or Neo-Conservative (you chose you preferred tag) colleagues is that the cost of labour should be determined by the free market. In other words, no Government intervention as to what is a fair and reasonable wage, nor any need for women to be paid equally, no award system to guarantee conditions and, in all likelihood, no Government regulations regarding workplace health and safety. It prefers a future where Gina Rinehart’s $2.00 per day could be the norm. It would be a “No work, No pay” system with no sick leave, no annual leave and no long service leave.
Yes, Tony Abbott, backed by his corporate friends and his IPA advisors, has a very different view of Australia in the future. One I find totally abhorrent.