The deepening crisis of capitalism

In the six months since the federal election we have seen an acceleration of the ruling class’s neo-liberal agenda. The continuing cuts and privatisations are rationalised by Turnbull’s three-word slogan, “Jobs and Growth”, but the effect seems to be quite the opposite.

In the September quarter last year, Australia’s GDP shrank by 0.5%, the biggest drop since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

The gap between rich and poor continues to widen, with the top 20% of households receiving half the nation’s income, while the bottom 20% gets just 4%. The generational wealth gap is widening too — Baby Boomers own 53% of the wealth in Australia. These figures point to a disappearing middle class.

While the average household income is $107,000, the top two million households earn more than double that — $260,000. That is 12 times more than the $22,000 earned by the bottom 20% of households.

The net wealth figures in each group reveal an even greater disparity. The top two million households are worth an average of $2.5 million, and own 62% of Australia’s private wealth — 71 times that of the lowest 20%.

Housing stress, defined as spending 30% or more of household income on rent, continues to worsen, particularly for low income earners. At a time when more than 100,000 people are homeless, crisis accommodation services are turning away more than half of all those seeking new accommodation and public housing stock has declined.

Attacks on workers

Each month last year, fewer people were recorded as being in full-time work while part-time work continues to rise. Business leaders focus on the elimination of penalty rates for the lowest paid in society, while the government attacks and blames unions.

The passing of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and registered organisations bills, heralds a more concerted attack on unions. The ABCC was meant to be an industry watch dog, to ensure the “rule of law prevails”: yet it seems likely to result in more workplace deaths.

The bill allows for compulsory interrogation of construction workers under threat of imprisonment. It also creates new prohibitions on the organising or taking of illegal industrial action and increases the fines to $34,000 for individuals and $170,000 for unions for participating in any illegal industrial action or picketing.

Perhaps the best illustration of the current attacks on the working class is the MP spending rorts versus the Centrelink debt recovery scheme. Former health minister Sussan Ley was rightly criticised for purchasing an $800,000 unit on a taxpayer funded trip to the Gold Coast in 2015. It has since been revealed that Ley spent more than $83,000 of public money on charted flights in the same year.

Since the revelations about Ley, the light has been shone on other MP’s spending habits, including Julie Bishop claiming $2000 to attend a polo match. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the saga was Bronwyn Bishop blaming socialism, drawing parallels between socialists and alcoholics and appearing to think socialism was “on the march”.

Centrelink debts

While MPs defend their “entitlements”, former Centrelink recipients have been targeted for debt collection as part of the robo-debt recovery scheme. Pensioners, families and the disabled have been targeted, as the government attempts to recover billions of dollars from the very poorest. Letters have been sent threatening bad credit ratings, legal action and debt collectors if recipients do not set up a payment scheme.

The Community and Public Sector Union, which represents Centrelink staff, has called for the debt recovery scheme to be suspended. They have serious concerns about Centrelink’s ability to cope in coming months as a perfect storm of the debt recovery scheme, students applying for benefits, harsh cuts to the old age pension and problems with Medicare processing converge.

From the first day of the year 330,000 pensioners lost entitlements thanks to cuts to the aged pension payments. For homeowners, the pension will be reduced for couples with more than $451,500, (singles $289,500), and eliminated for couples with more than $823,000 (singles $547,000).

The Greens, who supported the changes, want to reduce benefits to the rich and provide more support for the poor. However, this pension deal does not do this. The poorest pensioners get nothing extra, while rich retirees keep superannuation tax concessions.

Meanwhile companies in Australia continue to pay little no tax despite earning billions of dollars in profit. Energy and resources are the sectors with the highest level of non-payment. Fossil fuel companies such as Exxon Mobil Australia, Chevron Australia, Peabody Australia, and Whitehaven are among those that paid no tax for 2013-14

First Nations

First Nations peoples are under attack on multiple fronts. The incarceration rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is 13 times that of non-Indigenous people, and rising. Murders in custody continue to occur, as well as the abuse of Indigenous children and youth in detention which came to the attention of the public after the Four Corners report on the treatment of Dylan Voller and other boys at the Don Dale Youth Detention facility.

The Australian Youth Development Index report released for the first time in 2016, found that young Indigenous men have the highest rates of suicide in the world. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Stolen Generations report yet far more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are taken from their homes than ever before.

Once again the debate around January 26 has come to the forefront. Fremantle City Council made the decision in August to end the Australia Day fireworks displays out of respect for the Nyoongar people. But dropping January 26 as Australia Day, by itself, does not change the structural causes of Indigenous disadvantage or reverse the horrors of the past. Unless we can have an honest discussion about the past we will not be able to create a better future.

Climate change

2016 was not only the hottest year ever recorded, it was also the 40th consecutive year with a global temperature above the 20th century average. Climate scientists fear a large rift that continues to grow in length and depth in Antarctica will eventually lead to a massive iceberg breaking off into the ocean, which could lead to sea levels rising more than three metres, flooding major cities around the world.

In Australia we’ve seen huge king tides and “once in a life time storms” more than once in a life time. Queensland scientists have confirmed last year's mass coral bleaching event has resulted in the largest die-off of coral ever recorded in the Great Barrier Reef.

Rather than addressing these effects of climate change in any serious way, state and federal governments continue to invest in fossil fuels and mining. The worst example of this is Adani's $22 billion Carmichael mine, to be built in the Galilee Basin, west of Rockhampton. Once complete, it will be Australia's largest coal mine, with six open-cut pits and up to five underground mines.

Political parties

While the Liberals and Nationals may be unpopular, Labor’s “me-too” approach means it is stuck in a bipartisan, neoliberal race to the bottom on economic and social issues. Having accepted the economic framework that the ruling class is championing, Labor's rhetoric against corporate greed rings hollow as it joins in the attacks on welfare and the cruel treatment of refugees.

In the electoral sphere, the Greens have sought to occupy the space to the left of the ALP, however they face internal tensions between a radical wing and pressure from a new parliamentary leadership to project the party as “sensible” and “ready to govern”. This tension within The Greens has recently come to a head with the formation of Left Renewal which calls for The Greens to take a strictly anti-capitalist stance.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale condemned Left Renewal for calling on people to support actions organised by Warriors of Aboriginal Resistance to protest Australia Day. In a press release put out on The Greens website, he said: “We deserve a celebration that is not marred by a bloody history, so that all of us, including our First Peoples, can enjoy everything that makes us proud to be Australian.”

Socialist Alliance continues our non-sectarian approach to movement building and campaigns by a commitment to long term work in, for example, the refugee rights campaign and the Save Beeliar Wetlands/Stop Roe 8 campaign. We have also shown our ability to respond quickly when needed as issues arise, like the Moreland against Racism rally organised in Coburg last year, or the recent call for a protest in response to the Centrelink debt recovery scheme.

Whether it is long term campaigning or spur of the moment, we need to push for democratic and transparent organising and decision making to involve people in campaigns.

The deepening crisis of capitalism and the political polarisation that results from a system ruled by the rich can give rise to far right populist forces, but also can give rise to left wing alternatives. This makes the task of raising socialist solutions to the crisis of capitalism all the more urgent. 

[Sarah Hathway is a member of the Socialist Alliance. She gave this speech at the 12th national Socialist Alliance conference, held over January 20-22 at the Geelong Trades Hall.]