Sunday, 8 June 2008

Rudd, Poverty and the Rise of the Underclass

In a good article in today's Sydney Morning Herald, Kerry-Anne Walsh hits upon the worst-kept secret at the heart of Australian society and the economic "boom" of the past decade. Despite all the talk of economic growth, behind all the bluster and blow about interest rates, the rhetoric about "working families" and cutting fuel excise, there is the reality of a growing impoverished underclass in Australia. As Walsh writes:

“THERE is something terribly wrong in a rich country of only 21 million people when 2 million were driven last financial year to seek help from social services.”

Her article is a response to the contents of the annual Australian Community Sector Survey (ACCS), released on Friday. The ACCS found a 6.3% increase in the number of people assisted by community service agencies in the year 2006-7, as well as a 24% increase in those turned away from the services they needed and were eligible for. The survey also found:

There is more, though not in that report. At least ten percent of the population is undeniably living in poverty (a figure which is more likely double that in reality). Over 39 percent of those over 65 years old live below the poverty line, as do most students. And the numbers are worse for aboriginal Australia.

As if this weren't enough, well over 100,000 people in Australia are homeless (including at least 36,000 youth), when there are in Sydney alone – over 122,211 buildings being kept empty, artificially and deliberately out of public reach in order to fulfill the whims of the market.

Another estimated 300,000 households are under severe mortgage stress, with Australian households owing an average 160 percent of their disposable income. Renters face the unenviable situation of rents that have risen by over 80 percent since 1996. And let’s not talk about how many private properties ministers in the NSW government own!

Then, of course, we have to deal with interest rates, food prices, (we are now promised in NSW) public transport costs and other basics costs of living all increasing – not to mention the environmental crisis, and the effects it will have. And the devil-may-care capitalist banditry of the privatisation-happy NSW government under Iemma and Costa, and their co-thinkers around the country.

Walsh correctly points to the idiocy of bragging in these circumstances about a $22 billion dollar surplus, but – all things considered – her blows against the government fall a bit soft. She rightly takes them up on the spin-cycle nature of politics, and calls upon them to do better. But is it likely that this mob of charlatans will?

Rudd and Co. continue to manage the capitalist system here exactly the way big business wants it, providing little more than the necessary rhetoric - circuses but no bread - to placate a population still exhaling a massive sigh of relief after the Howard Years. A call to arms Walsh’s article was not – but it should be.

While the Rudd government continues to throw around fluffy words, ideas and phrases - talking of working people "tightening belts", pretending to act on climate change, calling for job cuts to prevent interest rate increases, and promising mealy-mouthed (and economically irrational) actions like setting up “FuelWatch” or cutting the tax on fuel - the reality is quite simple, and not just a little dire.

It's the kind of situation that makes you want to update "History will absolve me", and storm, say, Puckapunyal military barracks a la Fidel Castro.

Quite obviously failing that, we need a political alternative with some backbone, and a willingness to call it how it is. To, as Walsh puts it, “move above such tasteless proposals that a government should forgo $2 billion a year in petrol taxes to give a Vegemite sandwich in relief to those who can actually afford to run a car.”

In a society that tolerates wealthy parasites like former Macquarie Bank CEO Alan Moss giving themselves $60 million golden handshakes, this kind of change isn’t going to happen if we sit and wait on the mainstream parties to step up to the plate, and it’s not going to happen without a fight.

Of course, Socialist Alliance recognises the need for urgent action, as do numerous others - individuals and groups alike. But it's one thing to have policy and pithy responses: link 1; link 2; link 3; link 4; link 5; and it's another to find ways to implement it. We still need a stronger, more united, left to make this possible - both red, and green, and perhaps other colours too. If the left can't see past it's organisational and programmatic shibboleths, and start working together in the face of these facts (not to mention the climate crisis) then it is condemning itself to irrelevance. Unfortunately, that struggle for left unity remains the one of the biggest - and most important - challenges we face today.

Finally, in case you missed it, the 7:30 Report's Clark and Dawe have nicely captured the nonsense of Rudd's economic conservatism with regards to the (or any) budget surplus. The transcript can be found here: Clarke and Dawe and a tale of two economies.

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