Can people’s power stop Abbott’s cuts?

Not a week, nor even a day, goes by without a new outrage from the Tony Abbott government. One recent outrage was when Abbott declared that Australia was “unsettled” before the British invasion — taking us back to the days of terra nullius. This stand, alongside plans to quarantine how young people spend welfare payments while earmarking billions of dollars for unneeded (and technically dubious) fighter jets, indicates the character of the Abbott government. In particular, the government's budget has drawn ferocious opposition because it is a horror budget. Many budgets get labelled “horror budget” but this one actually is — the worst budget seen in living memory. It is a naked attack on ordinary people across the community. At the same time, it is a gift to the big end of town. If there was ever an example of a budget that deserved to be blocked completely, this is it. For that reason, it is important to acknowledge and congratulate Andrew Wilkie – the independent member for Denison in Tasmania – for laying out a progressive case for blocking the whole budget, including the supply bills. Clive Palmer, for populist rather than progressive reasons, also voted against the supply bills. This means that Andrew Wilkie and Clive Palmer are the only two politicians in Canberra who voted against the cuts to the ABC, the CSIRO, the Great Barrier Reef Authority and a lot more. It is a pity that Labor and the Greens did not vote similarly when the supply bills came before the Senate at the end of June. They have been compromised by their vote for the bulk of Abbott's budget. More importantly, the movement against the budget would be in a much stronger position today if it had been completely rejected by the Senate. Nevertheless, the fight is not over. There are two main avenues in front of us that can defeat the budget. Firstly, there are a number of budget measures that will need additional legislation over and above the supply bills before they can be implemented. The Greens have promised to vote against these measures. Labor and the Palmer United Party will vote against at least some of these measures as well. By this means, some major aspects of the budget can be defeated and the Abbott government can suffer political setbacks. Secondly, and more importantly, the other means we have to defeat this budget is people power in the streets. Of course, a strong community campaign can play a critical role in ensuring that opposition Senators maintain their backbone and actually vote against every single one of the budget measures that come before them. But the potential strength of a people’s power movement goes beyond simply pressuring government. This is especially clear in the case of the organised workers' movement. Australian unions retain considerable power as demonstrated by the Your Rights At Work campaign from 2005 to 2007. A well prepared and organised campaign of industrial action could save the jobs of 16,000 public sector workers facing the axe as a result of this budget for instance. Similarly, the funding cuts such as to the ABC and CSIRO (already passed through both houses of parliament) could be reversed by a grassroots union and community campaign. The Australian Council of Trade Unions should already be organising a national day of action – including strike action by affiliated unions – both as a show of strength and as a practical demonstration that we are not going to allow this budget to be implemented unchallenged. Unfortunately, the union leaderships show no inclination to organise such a campaign. Nevertheless, even that is not the end of the story. This is a budget of lies. There is no budget emergency and there is no need for the cuts contained within it. The government has no mandate for this budget package. The biggest lie of all is that there is no alternative. In fact there is an alternative plan. Instead of extorting money from pensioners, students and people who need to go to the doctor, the alternative is to the take the money from the super rich and the corporate executives. We need a sharply progressive taxation system that would ease the burden on the poorer half of society straight away and increase taxes on the very wealthy. The mining and banking industries should be brought under public ownership, or at least be heavily taxed, to fund social and environmental programs. This is all possible if community action – in the trade unions, in social movements and in the community more broadly – can shift the balance of forces in society. What seems impossible today can become possible tomorrow. An impressive start has been made with the March in March and subsequent national demonstrations against the Abbott government and the budget. This shows what is possible. The next step is to defeat the budget. Get active with the Socialist Alliance if you want to help make this happen. [Alex Bainbridge is a national co-convener of the Socialist Alliance. This article is based on a speech delivered at the March Australia budget protest on July 6 in Perth.]