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Issue 33, December 1998

Second-term Howard faces rising anger

AFTER ONE OF Australia's most uneventful elections, the ruling Liberal/National Party coalition government, with just 48.6% of the two party preferred vote, was narrowly re-elected - their majority slashed from 27 seats to 12. One Nation leader, the racist and nationalist Pauline Hanson, lost her seat, with One Nation winning only one senate position in Queensland.

John Howard's government gambled on a harsh economic programme. Their Goods and Services Tax (GST) proposal was their main campaign policy - disguised as a fairer tax to eliminate business tax evasion. The coalition's victory does not mean voters back Howard and the GST. Instead, the traditional rural and middle class voted against the lack of alternative offered by the Blairite Australian Labor Party. Indeed, the coalition couldn't have even tried such a campaign without the right-wing policies of Labor, led by Kim Beazley.

Labor offered a repeat of the Hawke/Keating governments of 1983-1996. And workers remember the Accord, under which Labor made deals with the trade unions and employers to hold down wages below inflation. It was a complete betrayal of workers' interests and led to a massive transfer of wealth from workers to the rich.

Labor promised to repeal the harshest elements of the Workplace Relations Act, which had provided the legal framework for the attack on the Maritime Union of Australia, but not all of Howard's anti-worker legislation.

One Nation was hit hard. Decisively, the coalition parties and Labor preferenced them last. (If voters don't number all the candidates in order of preference, then preferences are allocated according to prearranged party lists). But One Nation received around A$3m in electoral funding for still polling 8.4% of the national vote. These funds go straight into the coffers of David Etteridge, David Oldfield and Pauline Hanson, the directors of One Nation's company structure, One Nation Ltd. They will be waiting in the wings to further capitalise on the failure of the establishment parties.

Howard will be governing as Australian capitalism enters a period of mounting crisis. South East Asia's economic turmoil is biting into commodity prices, the basis of Australia's economy. In August, for example, bulk freight rates for coal, of which Australia is a major producer, crashed from US$22,000 for 150,000-deadweight tonne vessel in early 1995 to just US$6,000. Howard is certain to lump the full burden of a drop in profits onto the working class. The coalition could also face fierce opposition to its GST in the Senate where the Democrats, who hold the balance of power, threaten to oppose it.

  Other major attacks include the sale of Telstra, the telecommunications giant, a second tranche of industrial relations attacks, and cuts in social welfare, etc. This is likely to take place as factories and mines are closing as a result of the global economic crisis, throwing thousands of workers onto the dole.

This has the potential to create a huge upswing in workers' struggle. The combativity and confidence of the advanced layers of the Australian working class have not diminished despite a lull in the struggle under Labor. The fact that during the Maritime Union dispute in April thousands of workers stopped the largest mobilisation of police, bosses, media, and Federal and State governments since the Vietnam war protests, has demonstrated to workers that we can win.

The present trade union leadership on the other hand, in the main, has proved incapable of providing a lead. This was shown by the sellout of the Maritime dispute where the ACTU leadership refused to mobilise for national stoppages, and the Maritime Union leadership struck a deal which included around 650 redundancies.

Yet the government's proposed cuts and attacks, and the looming economic recession, will plough the field for workers' action. The triumphalism of capitalism has been shattered with the looming global economic crisis. This will provide fertile ground for socialist ideas. The Militant Socialist Organisation, the Australian section of the CWI, will intervene by explaining that the only way workers in Australia and around the world will win decent living conditions and wages is to totally transform society along socialist lines.

Neil Gray

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