It didn’t take long. Just two weeks after declaring that “there are no blue teams or red teams ... there are no more unions or bosses”, prime minister Scott Morrison was back to his familiar pro-business script. Following a meeting of the national cabinet on 16 April, Morrison said he would launch a wave of “pro-growth” changes to help Australia dig itself out of the pandemic-induced economic crash.
The kind of growth Morrison envisages won’t involve boosting wages, improving job security or allowing the unemployed to have anything approaching a decent standard of living. “Our government”, he emphasised, “sees business at the centre of the economy”. Businesses, not unions. Bosses, not workers. On 22 April he was at it again – tweeting that he had “just got off the phone” with US president Donald Trump, with whom he discussed “the need to get our market-led and business centres [sic] economies up and running again”.
Those who, weeks earlier, were praising Morrison for supposedly abandoning “the most barnacled neoliberal economic and societal beliefs” (in the words of media commentator Mike Carlton) are having to rapidly recalibrate. The game is back on – a game for which, over the preceding decades, governments have rewritten the rules again and again, each time to the advantage of the “blue team” (aka the bosses).
In recent years the class struggle has been such a one-sided affair as to resemble not so much an ordinary game of cricket or football, but one of those “games” where hunters pay tens of thousands of dollars to be brought captive wild animals to shoot. For businesses, a steady stream of tax cuts, “red tape” reductions and subsidies paid from the public purse. For workers and unions, one of the world’s most punishing industrial relations regimes, in which workers’ ability to organise and fight for their interests has been ringed with a mountain of legal and bureaucratic restrictions.
The “no more unions or bosses” talk was an obvious fairytale. To the extent that it could momentarily appear to be true, it reflected the capitulation of the leaders of the trade union movement, who in the first weeks of the crisis appeared much more concerned with being part of some supposedly cooperative “national conversation” than with fighting for their members. The illusion of national unity that Labor and the union leaders contributed to, and which helped lift Morrison’s popularity to record levels, paved the way for the aggressive pro-business turn.
Morrison and his big business backers regard this crisis as an opportunity to ram through more of the kind of pro-business, anti-worker “reforms” they’ve been peddling for years. As Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott put it: “We must not waste a second of this new level of cooperation in our society to get important things done”.
For them, it’s not enough that workers have suffered years of flatlining wages, increasing job insecurity and skyrocketing costs for necessities like housing, energy, health care and education. It’s not enough that trade union membership is at record lows, that strikes are few and far between or that union leaders have proven themselves more than willing to abide by all the regulations and restrictions, and to jump through all the hoops to prove their credentials as “responsible” negotiating partners with business.
Australia’s ruling class has, in the years since the global financial crisis of 2008-09, experienced a massive surge in wealth. According to Oxfam, in the decade from 2007 to 2017, the total wealth of Australia’s billionaire class rose by almost 140 percent. Over the same period, average household wealth increased by just 12 percent. As of 2018, when the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures on household wealth were released, the average wealth of Australia’s richest 20 percent of households, $3.2 million, was more than 93 times that of the poorest 20 percent, just $35,200.
None of this is enough for them. The new narrative is that the government’s policies haven’t been pro-business enough. “Business as usual when it comes to the policy frameworks that we had prior to the election”, Morrison said, “will need to be reconsidered on the other side – to ensure that we can achieve the growth that will be necessary ... to get our economy back on track”.
The Coalition is looking to get some of the most extreme pro-business measures, which were downplayed prior to the election, back on the table. In an interview on ABC Radio National on 22 April, treasurer Josh Frydenberg said that again attempting to push through the viciously anti-union Ensuring Integrity Bill would be “first order of business to get through parliament”. He also flagged a renewed effort to cut the corporate tax rate on Australian big business, saying the current rate of 30 percent is “uncompetitively high”.
Economists predict that Australia’s budget deficit could increase to between $120 and $200 billion, with total debt up to $1 trillion. If the government succeeds in pushing through another round of tax cuts for the rich, it will try to make up the revenue shortfall by cutting funding to services.
Attacking unions and slashing corporate taxes is likely just the start. Morrison and his big business mates don’t want things to go back to how they were before the COVID-19 crisis. But while working class people might dream of a better, more equal and more sustainable economy and society, the ruling class envisions a world in which all the things people hated most about the neoliberal capitalism of the past few decades are made even worse – all in the name of profits.
Contrary to the impression given by the Labor Party “opposition” and many of our trade union leaders, we’re not, and never have been, “all in this together”. Morrison’s shift away from the “national unity” sham is proof of that.