“Rather than justice for all, we are evolving into a system of justice for those who can afford it. We have banks that are not only too big to fail, but too big to be held accountable.”
- Joseph E. Stiglitz
First published May 15
“Pay your staff, you dodgy bastard,” a nineteen year old Sydney FC fan bellows from the stand last Sunday night at the A-League Sydney Grand Final. He’s calling out 36 year old celebrity chef, George Calombaris, whose restaurant group underpaid by $2.6 million 162 of his 430 workers over six years, an oversight which has put Calombaris off-side with the Fair Work Ombudsman, the odd hospitality industry employee, if not an entire nation.
“Pay your staff …” resonates in a week of Fairfax sackings and news of widespread exploitation, underpayment or wage slavery in a range of workplaces and locations including our homes. Despite unpaid internships, the abolition of Sunday penalty rates, cash in hand underpayment, casualisation, the rise in part time work and the use of “contractors” most of us prefer that workers be paid what they are due. Even if we have a problem paying women.
It’s a national trait. Australians will speak up for justice, however, much it may suit government to invoke our law-abiding compliance as it goes about dog-whistling our supremacists with their demands that all migrants be assimilated into “multicultural” submission. To the government’s dismay, our values have a way of finding their own voice, just as its own actions, in its “full astern” budget this week, betray a colossal, cynical pragmatism.
The Coalition is up to its own dodgy bastardry. Its big-spending, high taxing budget, “rests on principles of fairness, security and opportunity” says Morrison who will say or do anything. It’s only about its own survival; a frantic attempt to arrest the PM’s diabolical unpopularity and to cut and run from its 2014 Abbott budget fiasco.
It’s an amazing backflip. The debt and deficit disaster? Never happened. The Malcolm Roberts-esque mantra that “we do not have a revenue problem”, maintained for three years, is suddenly dropped, along with Neoliberalism.
The expenditure problem has overnight become a virtue, provided it is “good debt” ie debt the government likes.
Now the government proposes to raise taxes from middle income earners in the form of a 2.5 % Medicare levy and it will get banks to pay a new tax although, once again it will persist with the fiction that this is a levy.
... the Treasurer keeps a straight face ...
Proving he has not lost his sense of irony, the Treasurer keeps a straight face as he claims Medicare is guaranteed. At least Peter Costello could smirk as he told us his new charter of budget honesty would banish all mendacity.
Above all, ScoMo screams, “this is an honest budget”. Unlike the last one?
It’s an honest budget all right, apart - that is - from the dishonest bits such as the Medicare guarantee. The process sounds OK. Any funds remaining from the increased Medicare levy - after paying for the National Insurance Disability Scheme (NDIS) - (already funded by Labor) will be paid into a Medicare Guarantee Fund …
“Proceeds from the Medicare levy will be paid into the fund. An additional contribution from income tax revenue will also be paid into the Medicare Guarantee Fund to make up the difference.” Provided it passes the Senate.
It’s OK - provided the government does not fund the costs of public hospitals. The costs of Medicare are re-defined solely as a combination of expenditure from the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) but minus the Commonwealth’s contribution to public hospitals.
Although Morrison claims greater transparency over Medicare funding, transparency is just another dodgy buzz-word. It will, as The Grattan Institute’s Stephen Duckett points out, be much harder to follow Medicare funding.
... the wild assumption that wages will increase ...
At the heart of the Morrison magic pudding is the wild assumption that wages will increase. On ABC Insiders Sunday he talks up wage growth to 3%. There are similarly unrealistic expectations placed upon commodity prices.
Surely it would have been more prudent just to have postponed the business tax cuts, handouts which in Thursday’s Question Time, after some embarrassing fumbling, he admits will be $65.4 billion over ten years.
But no. After years of pretending that we battled economic headwinds, suddenly the world economy is on the up. Good times are just around the corner - unless you are unemployed or indigent. The war on the poor continues.
Continued is the demonising of our unemployed as unworthy; dole bludgers, druggies and a burden on society. There will be drug tests, a failed US policy, and extra tests to check that you are single and a beaut three strikes and you’re out tolerance of slip ups in honouring your Centrelink obligations. Robo-debt could be put on to that.
It’s another echo of yet another failed US tough on crime policy and a clear sign that the government is posturing.
The all-new-tough-on-bludgers-crackdown will tackle what government claims are “around 40,000 people (who) appear to be wilfully and systematically gaming the welfare system with no intention of working”. Assuming, of course, that work is available - although work could be redefined on a very part-time basis. Technically, to keep unemployment statistics off the scale, you are employed on one hour’s paid employment per week.
The dole bludger bashing is a divisive, dishonest stunt. Morrison claims it will save $632m over 5 years. As Greg Jericho patiently points out in The Guardian, however, it’s less than 0.1% of total welfare expenditure.
Budget 2017 seeks to punish those out of work. It’s somehow their fault. It caricatures the jobless as too drunk or stoned to turn up to a job interview. It substitutes puritanical political posturing, a justification of denial and withholding for any genuine attempt to share resources fairly according to need. It also punishes by neglect.
The environment doesn’t get a look in ...
It neglects women. There is not one budget measure to address gender inequality; to promote equal pay. The environment doesn’t get a look in either. Nor does climate change. These matters are clearly all dealt with.
Work, on the other hand, is fetishised, idealised as inherently ennobling in a cruel parody of the harsh and often demeaning realities of the 2017 workplace where exploitation and expendability are defended as “flexibility”. Again the government reveals itself to be totally disconnected from the realities of the modern workplace.
Work is increasingly rare, unfair and insecure. Penny Vickers, a Brisbane night-fill worker, has just won a nine-month legal battle against a dodgy 2011 Enterprise Bargaining Agreement which saw her pay drop by $30 per week below the award wage. Abandoned by her union, amazingly, heroically, she successfully battles alone.
Fairfax, which blew the whistle on the injustice, is in her corner - yet to The Australian, to stand up for your rights is defiance, even if it delights in the case because it says the Fair Work Act 2009, a replacement for Howard’s Work Choices 2005 is a Labor Law and because it senses endless opportunities for union-bashing.
Forced to represent herself in the Fair Work Commission, Ms Vickers has taken on the power of Coles and the silks of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) a monster union, some 200,000 strong nationally.
Her win is a rare yet significant victory as workers battle to extract themselves from deals which the right-wing SDA has concluded with a range of major companies including Coles and Woolworths. The conservative SDA sets out to offer maximum industrial co-operation and minimal disruption to employers. Is it a fake union?
This EBA affects 77,000 workers yet under Section 193 of The Fair Work Act, if one worker can prove that he or she is not better off overall than under the award, the FWC cannot approve it. The FWC estimates that 56% of workers could be affected. Wages withheld amount to $77 million.
... $300 million in underpaid wages ...
Across other workplaces, there could be $300 million in underpaid wages every year. Yet it’s never just about the money.
“Pay your staff ... ” has a larrikin edge; an echo of the spirit of the fight for fair pay and conditions between the owners and the workers of the Shearers’ strike of 1891, a harshly suppressed yet nation-changing insurrection which, today, thanks to dodgy bastard John Howard would be classed as “an illegal industrial action”.
Nation-building irreverence, independence or wilful insubordination are unlikely, however, to feature in any Coalition government citizenship test. Increasingly, as Fairfax workers discover, again, to their cost, this week, the spirit of the age is not agility and innovation but rather servile docility and subservience to dodgy paymasters with corporate loyalties which put profits before people.
The madly accelerating gap between capital and labour that threatens our entire society is thrown into stark relief. 115 full-time workers lose their jobs while executives get a pay rise for their part in reducing costs.
Richard Ackland quotes business writer Michael West’s claim this week that four top executives at Fairfax “were secretly gifted $6.7 million in share options in a transaction which the company failed to disclose in its annual report. The sneaky pay deal involved half of a $13.4 million options package awarded by the board.”
$13 million would help journalists’ salaries or even defer the planned reduction of payments for contributions.
Yet it’s my way or the highway in an increasingly autocratic and pro-government Fairfax management culture. Mike Seccombe reminds us Paddy Manning was summarily dismissed in 2013 for criticising the “rubbishy” sponsored corporate editorial material and “PR-driven churnalism” increasingly evident in The Financial Review.
Former Liberal Party staffer James Chessell was appointed to run federal politics, business and world coverage in February, an event which a striking worker tells Seccombe is extraordinary.
... valued solely in terms of their profitability ...
Workplace agreements are built on the premise that master knows best not that old Aussie egalitarian nonsense that Jack’s as good as his master. The new breed of Fairfax master, moreover is a creature of the investor class. And for the investor the firms’ once great papers are now valued solely in terms of their profitability.
Reporters’ investigations and all the rest of their craft are now merely ways to drag traffic to Domain, Fairfax’s money-making real estate site. TPG offers to buy the business as it did with Myer in 2006.
The offer is rejected but is likely to resurface. As Ian Verrender warns, a successful bid will usher in a similar pattern of asset-stripping that has left Myer a shell of its former self. Relisted on the stock exchange and floated to investors at $4.10 in 2009, the company has declined in value ever since is now worth $1 per share
But Fairfax reporters stopped work, in part, to call attention to a matter of national security far graver than any trumped up terror threat. Our once robust national press is about to collapse. A pillar of democracy is in danger.
“It’s not just us. The Australian could have the plug pulled at any moment. The News Corp tabloids are struggling. The Guardian’s in a perilous financial position. It’s a looming national crisis.”
For Peter Dutton, however, it’s a real bonus. The Immigration Minister has yet to account for his utter refusal to produce any evidence for his outrageous slur that asylum-seekers on Manus Island were fired upon in retaliation for some unspecified sexual abuse. Nothing but good can come of the loss of Fairfax, in his opinion.
Speaking on Sydney’s (Fairfax-owned) 2GB on Thursday, in his regular sledging session, he puts the boot in.
... you can live without reading Fairfax ...
“I thought the productivity of Fairfax went up last week with the strike. I don’t think lives were affected one way or another,” he sneers. “I think people realise you can live without reading Fairfax newspapers. I think it’s a better way to lead your life - that would be my advice.”
Being held to account is something which does not sit well with Mr Dutton. Nor does it suit our banking oligopoly which are being asked to pay a new tax, a notion they claim which was foist upon them with no consultation. Consultation in this context means a chance to give the government its instructions. There will be hell to pay.
Already, Ian Narev, CEO of The Commonwealth bank who was paid 12.3 million last year, has told the Treasurer that the bank will have to pass on the new tax. Morrison is not budging - not at this stage anyway. He must know that our banks are the most profitable in the world. Their profits in 2016 were a staggering 3% of our total GDP.
Nor is ScoMo in any way discombobulated by the threat. The government will still get the money. In an interesting but equally predictable twist, the banksters are following the same script as the miners who successfully forced a backdown seven years ago for the Rudd Labor government. Bernard Keane says they are recycling the same lies.
The rest of the scenario is quite different. Back in Rudd’s day there was Tony Abbott to lead an opposition in a litany of lies about how the proposed super profits tax would ruin the miners and the entire country. And some Australians actually liked mining companies, apart from those who held shares in them.
Both these factors do not apply to the Big Four banks of our nation who contrive amongst themselves to run a ludicrously profitable monopoly - in between running governments and Prime Ministers. The banks, do, it is true have a Fairfax paper, The Financial Review on side and there has been the predictable bugling from Simon Breheny at the IPA, while for Paul Kelly at The Australian, politics is knocked off course by the populist drumbeat.
Putting to one side how many of these commentators may own bank shares, which despite the banks’ propaganda number a swag of institutional and foreign investors as opposed to the mainly Mum and Dad investor ploy - expect to hear more of how the process has been at fault and how investors will be driven elsewhere. There will be a lot of bumf about our need for a strong an profitable banking sector rather than four profiteering banks.
Expect to hear how the banks saved us from the GFC and not a word about how the Rudd government successfully protected the banks. Expect to hear less about the reality. How the government is collecting $6 billion over four from our big four banks while contracting to deliver them $7 billion in company tax cuts over a decade.
What is needed, however, is some cheeky teenager in the stands to shout:
“Pay your dues you dodgy bastards.”
*David Tyler (AKA Urban Wronski) was born in England, raised in New Zealand and an Australian resident since 1979. Urban Wronski grew up conflicted about his own national identity and continues to be deeply mistrustful of all nationalism, chauvinism, flags, politicians and everything else which divides and obscures our common humanity. He has always been enchanted by nature and by the extraordinary brilliance of ordinary men and women and the genius, the power and the poetry that is their vernacular. Wronski is now a fulltime freelance writer who lives with his partner and editor Shay and their chooks, near the Grampians in rural Victoria and he counts himself the luckiest man alive. A former teacher of all ages and stages, from Tertiary to Primary, for nearly forty years, he enjoyed contesting the corporatisation of schooling to follow his own natural instinct for undifferentiated affection, approval and compassion for the young.