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Letters from a Labor Activist: November/December 2016

Letters to ‘The Age’ and ‘The Herald-Sun’ from a Labor Activist (November/December 2016); Everything from ‘Public Debt Shibboleths’ to Privatisation, Defending Democracy, the Right Protest, Education for Politically Literate and Active Citizenship, and more.

By Dr Tristan Ewins

Is there a public debt crisis? Or is the Crisis one of Private Debt?

(Debt Letter One: Unpublished) Regularly we are warned of the ‘immense threat’ of government debt. But it’s best, here, to use the measure of ‘net debt’ which also includes revenue from government assets (instead of ‘gross debt’ – which does not). For example, with the privatisation of assets like the Commonwealth Bank gross debt fell, but net debt worsened significantly. Australian Government net debt was recently measured around 18 per cent of GDP: approximately $285 billion in an economy around AUS $1.6 billion. But HOUSEHOLD debt – ie: the debt owed by Australian individuals and families – is over 100% of GDP – over $2 TRILLIION. Private debt is clearly the bigger threat. The Liberals try and offset private debt with public austerity – in health, education, welfare, infrastructure. But these areas are often more crucial to our well-being than private consumption. So arguably we need a BIGGER social investment in these areas as opposed to cuts. We need a more balanced approach ; containing debt long term – without gutting public services and infrastructure, or destroying jobs and growth. And now is a good time to invest in potential income bearing (and other) government assets – on account of low interest rates. A big investment in public housing could also make housing more affordable – making significant inroads into private household debt. We also need an industry policy to achieve full employment – and full time jobs for those who want them. That could offset an ageing population without resort to measures like raising the age of retirement.


(Debt Letter Two: Published) Bruce Hambour (Herald-Sun Letters, November 2016) writes that debt is getting so out of control that welfare must be cut to rein it in. But why start by cutting the payments for some of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged Australians when there are other options? Why not drop massive corporate tax cuts, and other tax cuts for the well off? Why not cut back Superannuation Tax Concessions – mainly beneficial to the well-off – whom taxpayers are effectively subsidising by tens of billions every year? Also public sector debt is actually negligible compared with private debt (approx. 30% of GDP compared with 200% of GDP). The housing bubble hasn’t helped; and what’s needed are big investments in public and social housing (to increase supply), and in infrastructure and services (to ensure quality of life). Also Conservatives attempt to play the working poor of against the vulnerable welfare-dependent (divide and conquer). That’s better fixed by raising the minimum wage, and improving the social wage for the working poor.

Herald-Sun Op-Ed Describes Labor Left Opposition to Privatisation as “Extremist”

(Published) James Campbell (Herald-Sun, 24/11) depicts Labor Left opposition to privatization as ‘extremist’. But what grounds are there for this opinion? Most Australians did (and still do) oppose privatization of important government assets. And the longest-serving Australian Liberal Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, presided over a relatively larger public sector (and more steeply progressive income taxes) than Labor governments of the 80s and 90s. The ‘extreme’ tag is a flippant way of dismissing an argument without having to engage or justify your position. ‘Natural public monopolies’ (eg: in water, communications, energy) would reduce costs for the broader economy. And Medibank Private’s recent privatization saw private health insurance costs rise as the newly-privatizated corporation arguably began abusing its market power. The Commonwealth Bank can also make profits close to $10 billion now. That means our net government debt position is much worse now because of its privatization. Since its privatization there have also been problems with fees, and the quality of services for regions and financially disadvantaged customers.

Herald-Sun letter calls for ‘Technocracy’ in place of Democracy

(Unpublished) Simon Hammond (Herald-Sun, 26/11) claims democracy is to blame for weak and indecisive government. Instead he suggests a kind of ‘government of experts’ (a technocracy). But the problem is not democracy; it is particular practices such as poll and focus-group driven politics; and ‘gotcha’ politics’ which neglect the substance of policy choices. Another problem is the major parties all aiming for ‘the centre ground’; not standing up for their beliefs (‘Convergence politics’). That means weaker pluralism. That is, less choice. In fact we need a stronger democracy. A free multi-party system is meant to ensure scrutiny of public policy and social issues; but often media neglect the substance; and politicians respond by playing to shallow agendas. We need to transform our society; which could be achieved partly through educational curricula for active and politically literate citizenship; which is ideologically inclusive and encourages students to think about – and stand up for – their values and interests.

Responding to Andrew Bolt on the causes of the Trump Victory

(Unpublished) Andrew Bolt calls the Trump election victory “a revolt against the Left’s arrogance” (Herald-Sun, 10/11). But reality is more complex than this. A neo-liberal consensus – a particular INTERPRETATION of ‘globalisation’ – has prevailed around much of the world, facilitated by BOTH the parties of the Right and of the ostensible Centre-Left. Working class people who had lost their identity, as well as their economic and social security with the destruction of their jobs – gravitated towards a promise to restore America’s industrial base. Trump’s old school protectionism might not be the answer, but Nordic-style, targeted industry policy might serve better. Policies which promote high value-added manufacturing alongside Research and Development, and promotion of information and communications technology industrial development. The US Left needs to actively court the working class – including white males – with policies that offer the respect and security which could be key to building a broad electoral bloc, and rolling back Trump’s support base.

Why Scott Morrisson and the Liberals are Wrong on Company Tax Cuts

(To both the Herald-Sun and The Age; Unpublished) Today (28/11) it was distressing to see Treasurer Scott Morrison in Question Time defending massive cuts to Company Tax. He referred to Trump’s objective of a 15% corporate rate, and suggested Australia needs to be ‘competitive’. But the United States had enjoyed a maximum corporate rate of 35% for many years under both Republican and Democrat Administrations. Elsewhere, the reality is that high quality social services, education, infrastructure are ‘pull factors’ for investment as well. And this needs to be paid for somehow. The Conservative approach is ‘corporate welfare’. That is: the corporate rate is cut – but workers, pensioners, families ‘pay the price’ one way another. Through unfair ‘replacement taxes’ like the GST, or through a neglect of services and infrastructure which is arguably bad for investment anyway. We need international agreement to stop ‘the race to the bottom’ in corporate taxation. Without this the economy will suffer anyway – as ‘corporate welfare’ takes income away from the very workers whose consumption supports the domestic economy.

Feminist Revolution must take account of class ; must be based on Mutual Respect and Empathy

(Unpublished) Trish Thompson (‘The Age’, letters; 30/11) reminds us of “the privileges of being a white heterosexual male”. But she makes no mention of social class. That determines our quality of life; where our kids go to school; often the quality of our diet and health care; whether we can pay the bills and put a roof over our heads; what else we can enjoy outside of work. Other factors include whether or not our work is fulfilling; and what economic (and hence political) power we have. Why is class usually forgotten today ; or otherwise relegated to a subordinate position? Age, body image and disability are also relatively neglected. We are in the midst of what might be called a feminist revolution. What’s at stake is whether or not that revolution is broadened in pursuit of genuine mutual solidarity and liberation. Or whether there is a kind of ‘turning of the tables’. Many men are reacting against discourse they see as inferring ‘masculinity’ and male sexuality are ‘essentially bad’. Without mutual respect and empathy there will be a reaction and the feminist revolution might fail.

Working Class Men don’t have ‘a lot to gain’ from Deindustrialisation and the Consequence is Unemployment and Poverty

(Unpublished) Jacqueline Maley (‘The Age’, 3/12/16) writes as if men have more to gain than lose through deindustrialisation. The reality, though, is that older skilled manufacturing workers will not find replacement work making use of their skill sets. And service industry jobs are unlikely to make up for the 50,000 jobs lost in the car industry and supporting industries. The notion that when men take up service industry jobs that these will rise in stature is questionable. The balance of trade is another associated concern. It is a function of capitalism more so than patriarchy that ‘unprofitable’ service jobs are devalued. For example, a better deal for both aged care workers AND residents might ‘eat into corporate profits’ – directly (eg: through higher corporate tax) or indirectly (with a reduction in private consumption power with higher income or consumption taxes). That said we do need to ‘valorise’ caring (often ‘feminised’) professions. We need a re-regulation of the most-highly-exploited end of the labour market. To reform the tax mix and extend the social wage. Resistance to the extension and improvement of social services is most likely to come from capitalists and their advocates in the so-called ‘political class’ rather than from working class men.

We Must be unambiguous on the Right to Protest ; and stand against even more regressive User-Pays in Tertiary Education

(Part-Published) David Penberthy (Herald-Sun 4/12/16) condemns the protestors who disrupted parliament the other day as ‘ratbags’. He goes on to support user-pays in Higher Education, arguing ‘Why should blue collar workers pay for someone’s Law degree?” In response; democracies must defend liberal and democratic rights, including speech, association and assembly. But arguably a mature democracy – which feels secure in itself – accepts there will be occasions where differences of principle become so steep that accommodation must be made for civil disobedience as well. Such flexibility helps define us as a genuinely liberal democracy. Furthermore: Penberthy’s defence of user pays in Higher Education ignores the fact that were a greater portion of education costs shouldered through income and corporate taxes – then roughly people and interests would pay in proportion to the financial benefit gained. And if we wanted to reform the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) to make it fairer, then we might raise repayment thresholds. There are many former students on less than the average wage who are forced to repay loans that bear no relation to their actual incomes. Repayment thresholds have fallen relative to the average wage: and that is unfair.

Why Political Literacy, and encouraging Active Citizenship must Have Their Place in Educational Curricula ‘in a strong democracy’

(Unpublished) There is a developing view (Herald-Sun Editorial, ‘Teach don’t Preach’ , 7/12/16) that ‘politics should be kept out of the classroom’; and that means not only that teachers ‘should not be advocating causes’ – but also that there should be a ‘back to basics’ movement emphasising science and maths. The problem with this is that education needs to be for life – and while maths and science have their place, education for politically literate and active citizenship can strengthen our democracy and empower our citizenry to work for their beliefs, rights and interests. To achieve bipartisanship – there needs to be a reformed National Curriculum – which exposes students to the ideas of BOTH the Democratic Left and the Democratic Right, while also imparting an understanding of other ideologies. As the saying goes ‘man does not live by bread alone’. An active and informed democracy should have bipartisan support across the Democratic Right and the Democratic Left.

(Unpublished) Greg Byrne (Herald-Sun, 10/12/16) refers to education about “gender, ethnicity and class” as “nonsense” that has nothing to do with finding jobs. But the Humanities and Social Sciences involve research and writing skills; the construction of detailed arguments, and evaluating complex information. Also humanity ‘does not live by bread alone’ (ie: the labour market and work). A stronger democracy (based on understanding and participation) rests on citizens’ political literacy (understanding political ideologies, values, movements, processes) and on their powers of expression. The Humanities and Social Sciences drive us to ask fundamental questions about the human condition; about ethics; and thinking critically about democracy, economy and society. In a strong democracy we must be empowered to make informed choices as citizens – regardless of whether we perceive ourselves as being of “the Right” or “The Left”. That means imagining alternatives to current social and economic arrangements in pursuit of ‘The Good Society’. Here, assessing the balance of wealth, power and opportunity in society is a legitimate question.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.



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  1. wam

    It is always exciting to start with an oxymoron. It gets the smile lines creasing.
    Then the ‘bold’ puts us into our Lord’s ‘truth’.

    There is a massive debt crisis in Australia that has nothing to do with labor activity and everything to do with labor’s acquiescence.

    By Jan 2014 the advertising for VET/TAFE fee help was in my mail box and forwarded to little billy and torpid tanya but studiously ignored and, as I no longer get automated replies, I guess I am spam. Every possible avenue to rip off the government was taken by every vice chancellor, tertiary director and vet/tafe provider in Australia and from the sub-continent. Teaching/nursing in particular were enrolling students with no prerequisites, inadequate ATAR scores(thousands without a score at all and functionally illiterate and enumerate).
    Most of the students enrolled by institutions who ‘knew’ had no realistic chance of a job.
    My daughter is a prime example of a graduate who, at 45, has just finished paying her HECS.
    Like many married women, her husband has been HECS free for 10-15 years.
    Consider a marriage break up 10 years ago when the children were starting primary school? Do you think the divorce would consider HECS? Labor has no concept of compound interest because it hasn’t been in school for 30 years but pyne has and he has mooted grabbing cash on the death of debtors.
    labor is short on everything labour and the personal debt from centrelink driven certificates will make $100000 degree a drop in the debt ocean of the lowest paid and poorest educated Australians. Some will get conned by $80000 institutes and have half a million debt before their children have left school.

  2. townsvilleblog

    Such a shame that an activist has to do the replying when Labor has so many parliamentarians who should be making a noise on all these issues and more, for example Roy Morgan Research has found that there are 1,101,000 people unemployed in Australia looking for 167,000 jobs, with a further 1,002,000 people who are under-employed not earning enough to support themselves or their families yet I’ve not heard a peep from Labor’s Shadow Employment Minister, or the Shadow Treasurer or indeed the Opposition Leader, far too bust with Christmas preparations perhaps? These people deserve a voice, they deserve the Labor Party and The Greens to be jumping up and down on a daily basis about the plight of these poor people, where are the politicians?

  3. Jexpat

    Regarding the perennial call for ‘Technocracy’ in place of Democracy, I’m all for Plato’s Republic, provided that I get to be one of The Guardians.

  4. wam

    spot on townsvillian
    how much did the committee cost that recommended f*ckall after 18 months or longer. 10 members 5 libs a nat 3 labs and a loonie.
    Where the %@^@^%^^ is billy???

  5. Bronte ALLAN

    Coming from South Australia, I do not agree with anything Bruce Hambour writes about, on a regular basis in the Adelaide Advertiser. he is just another (very) right-wing supporter! As for the majority of the other letters mentioned above, I do not necessarily agree with any or all of them, but do always want to take the “anti-liberal” side of politics. Certainly have to wonder why (it seems) no one from the Labor side seems to have any relevant or whatever comments to make regarding the huge discrepancy on the unemployed & persons seeking employment discussions.

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