Australia: National protests against budget cuts

Thousands of people took part in rallies over the weekend to oppose the Abbott government’s budget, the majority of which was passed by Labor, Liberal and Greens politicians in June. The remainder, including far-reaching austerity measures such as raising the pension age to 70, cutting young people off welfare for six months at a time and copayments for GP visits, is now the subject of political horse-trading in the Senate.

The rallies had the lowest attendance of the three “March Australia” events held this year, due in large part to the dead-end protest-politics animating the organisers. From the start, the aim of the “March Australia” rallies, and their supporters in the unions and pseudo-left organisations, has been to deflect opposition to the austerity budget behind the re-election of a Labor government backed by the Greens.

Members and supporters of the Socialist Equality Party distributed the SEP statement, Australian budget protests: A political balance sheet” in Sydney, Melbourne, Newcastle and Brisbane. The statement called for an independent movement of workers and youth against the entire political establishment to fight for a workers’ government and socialist policies.

According to the organisers, rallies took place in 31 locations across the country, including in Canberra, Perth and regional centres, involving some 40,000 people. However, the turn-out in Sydney and Melbourne was about 3,000, compared with 10,000 in Sydney and roughly 7,000 in Melbourne for the “March in May” after the budget was announced. Several hundred people took part in Newcastle and Brisbane.

Opposition among working people to the budget’s attacks on social services and living standards has only hardened over the past three months. The sense of injustice over budget measures targeted against the poorest and most vulnerable layers of the population has been compounded by rising unemployment and an avalanche of job losses that have deepened the social divide. However, as the rallies last weekend made clear, this opposition finds no outlet within official political channels.

Speakers included representatives of various identity politics organisations, trade unions and elements of the left-liberal milieu centred on publications such the New Matilda web site and ABC TV’s “The Drum.”

All the speakers in Sydney, Melbourne and Newcastle carefully framed their comments to promote the re-election of Labor without directly stating it. No opposition or even mention was made of the Abbott government’s commitment to the US led military actions in Iraq, or the fact Labor and the Greens quietly passed the government’s appropriation bills, which include an $80 billion cut to healthcare and education, while increasing the defence budget by 20 percent.

This was no accident. Those that were chosen to speak represent a layer of the upper middle class, including leading trade union bureaucrats, academics and professionals who have no fundamental disagreement with the government’s agenda of war and austerity.

In opening the rally in Sydney, entertainment web site Junkee assistant editor Alex McKinnon said the main reason he opposed the Abbott government was because it was “incompetent.” McKinnon “thanked” various government ministers because it meant that “we have learnt to value people who know what they are doing like never before.” In a transparent reference to the previous Gillard Labor-Greens minority government, he declared: “We never realised how good we had it.”

McKinnon statements reflect the hostility and indifference of an entire social layer to the living conditions of the working class. Gillard’s government initiated the cuts now being brought forward by Abbott. This included slashing payments to single parents, extending welfare quarantining from remote Aboriginal settlements to working class suburbs, initiating the “competitive market” for university education coupled with billions cut from funding, and integrating the Australian military and intelligence apparatus into the US war machine, including the establishment of new US bases.

Speaking in Melbourne, Julian Burnside, a barrister and refugee advocate, said: “There’s one thing you can do. When the next election comes around remember the crime, remember the cruelty, remember the lies and broken promises and kick them out.”

In closing the Newcastle rally, organiser Leigh Shears referred to the bi-elections in October in the state seat of Newcastle and Charlestown declaring it an opportunity “to get politically involved” and for “the Hunter to lead the way in the build up to the state elections in March next year.”

Trade union representatives attempted to whitewash their own role in implementing pro-business measures under both Labor and Liberal governments. Australian Nurses and Midwifery Federation president Coral Levett, who spoke in Sydney, cynically denounced cuts to healthcare by the Abbott government stating, “Imagine if profit is the main driver for healthcare?”

In reality the privatisation of healthcare is well underway. The government’s budget appropriation bills, which Levett did not mention, include almost $3 billion worth of funding cuts to healthcare, which will likely result in the closure of 1,200 beds and the axing of $300 million in concessions to pensioners and the elderly. This comes on top of decades of pro-market reforms by Coalition and Labor governments that have resulted in the number of public hospital beds nationally falling from 2.66 per 1,000 people in 2008 to 2.60 in 2012. At every step the unions have worked to ensure these cuts are implemented, holding token protests and strikes to wear down workers while engaging in negotiations with management.

The protest organisers are engaged in a similar process in relation to the anti-budget opposition. Having called national rallies on three occasions to let off steam, they are winding back the protests and appealing for support for Labor and the Greens. Any new Labor government will only deepen the assault on the working class, in line with the demands of the financial and corporate elite.