The Guardian 1 June, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Back to masters and servants?

While the Howard and Costello government pontificates about "human rights" in other countries at the drop of a hat, they happily abandon all humanity in their dealings with the most defenceless people here in Australia.

Refugees are still incarcerated; such token efforts as are being made to relieve their plight are made only as a result of mounting public pressure and widespread campaigns. They certainly do not stem from any belief that refugees have rights.

Nor, apparently, do the poor, the disabled, the battlers, the hard-up or the unemployed. They are the most vulnerable part of our population, but they are all going to be walloped by the federal government’s harsh new approach to welfare.

Treating people in need of government assistance as bludgers and berating them for not starting their own businesses merely demonstrates how callous and inhumane are these champions of "human rights" in reality.

It also demonstrates how contemptuous they are of poor people in general. Costello and Co really can’t be bothered with Australia’s poor people. They’d like them to just go away.

They cannot maintain the high profits demanded by big business and at the same time create full-time jobs for all, so they abandon the jobless to a life of part-time work and dependence on charities. They are all heart, aren’t they?

They begrudge giving any money from the government’s coffers to the unemployed — or to the disabled and the ill and in fact to anybody who is not making profits for their corporate mates. So they are going to stop giving it.

They put a well-paid "spin doctor" on to the task of prettying up this cruel attack on the helpless so that those not directly attacked will think it a reasonable program. As a result we have incredibly glib statements to the effect that disabled pensioners whose pensions are being cut are really being "helped to return to the workforce".

The Howard government is of course a past-master at spin-doctoring. Dismembering Medicare was, apparently, about giving us all plenty of "choice"; eliminating compulsory student unionism at universities is not about crippling these troublesome hotbeds of activism but, once again, about helping students to exercise "choice".

The ruling class’ mastery of spin doctoring really comes into its own when it’s combined with their control of the mass media. This ensures that essentially only one (distorted) version of the truth appears across all media. Is it any wonder some people are taken in?

When it comes to workers, the government’s attitude is just as callous and inhumane. In preparing to fight the Howard government’s Industrial Relations legislation, with its intention not just of "curbing" but of destroying trade unions completely, the union movement has realised that union members find it hard to credit the devastating effect of the government’s "reforms" if allowed to proceed.

They are so used to taking basic working conditions and trade union rights for granted that it is hard to believe there could be a powerful group in the country intent on wiping out those rights and deliberately destroying those conditions and with them people’s lives.

But in pursuit of greater profits, capitalists will destroy anything that gets in their way, and workers’ rights are not exactly high on the list of things that matter to them.

Unions and other working class organisations are faced with the urgent task of educating their delegates, members and all workers and the community as to the implications of the legislation, in effect a crash course in just how brutal and uncaring capitalism can be.

One of the difficulties facing the trade union movement and also the Communist Party of Australia is to convince workers and the community of what lengths this government and its ruling class backers are prepared to go to.

There is still a tendency to take for granted many of the working conditions and wage rates in Australia which were won over more than 150 years of struggle by the working class. The Australian working class has never experienced the sharpness of struggles such as those of French, Greek or Turkish workers under fascism. Australia has by and large experienced rapid growth and prosperity such that the ruling class has not turned to such methods.

Would Howard and the ruling class be so dastardly as to force workers back to a master-servant relationship? Or is this an "extremist" idea as some in the movement suggest?

Look at all the factories the ruling class have closed in developed industrialised countries and moved to less developed countries because they thought the wages being paid were too high, the environmental safeguards too expensive, the occupational health and safety regulations too "onerous".

They move jobs and even workers around the globe to where they can find the lowest wages, where they can ignore health and safety, not be bothered with things like paid holidays or sick leave and sack non-compliant workers.

And where they cannot move jobs, they never let up in trying to drive wages and conditions down and even import workers.

Every improvement in working conditions was wrung from the employers by struggle. The ruling class just as relentlessly struggles to reverse those gains, whenever and wherever possible.

During the Great Depression they took advantage of the times whenever they could to force workers to work just for their keep, with no wages at all.

Employers are interested in one thing only: increasing profits. And today, with the rate of profit falling and the latest technology at their disposal, they are more intent than ever on doing away with what they see as costly workers’ "perks".

The employer class really does want to return us all to the master-servant relationship of the 19th century, before trade unions appeared and spoiled everything.

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