Victoria has the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates in the country and a premier who has managed to maintain a left veneer despite his neoliberal and law and order agendas, which have resulted in the privatisation of vital services such as aged and disability care and an increasing imprisonment rate for Aboriginal people.
The Andrews government has come under pressure from the federal Coalition government and right-wing media pushing a pro-business agenda. Victoria’s previous restrictions had come close to eliminating the virus, but Andrews buckled and prematurely reopened the economy.
It’s true that there are plenty of hypocrites from the right who, despite pushing for a dangerous reopening prior to the second wave, now criticise Andrews from the right. We should have no truck with these people. But the left can’t give Andrews a free pass just because he is being attacked from the right. The Labor Party has just as much muck and blood on its hands as the Liberal Party right now. Labor members on local councils, alongside both Liberal and Greens councillors, have privatised aged care services. The Andrews government privatised disability services. And just eight days after pledging to support low-paid and insecure workers, Anthony Albanese argued not only that JobKeeper should be cut, but also that many workers receiving the payments were undeserving.
The number of infections climbed and climbed before Andrews finally offered a support payment to those testing positive to COVID-19. Even then, it was days after the revelation that 90 percent of people were not self-isolating after first developing symptoms. The $300 payment to workers unable to access other forms of paid leave was welcome but long overdue and inadequate. No worker should be forced to use their annual or sick leave to take time off to ensure the health and safety of others. Governments and employers should provide paid time off.
Most of us looked on in horror and scrambled to find ways to help when, without warning or preparation, Victoria Police laid siege to the public housing towers. Many of those suddenly under guard were refugees with serious trauma from authoritarian governments and the inhuman mandatory detention regime of Australia. With no plans or preparations, public housing residents were forced to go days without food or necessary supplies. Family members and volunteers were initially blocked by police when they attempted to get necessities into the towers. It’s not just that the siege was done in a way that showed no respect for the rights of the poor – the long-term neglect of public housing was also exposed.
Labor’s planning minister, Richard Wynne, denied permission to have public health information disseminated in the public housing towers in the languages spoken by the residents. And there was inadequate protective equipment and cleaning to help prevent an outbreak in the first place. Long before this, Labor has been hell bent on selling public housing for the sham of “social housing”. Planning documents show that most of the public housing estates Labor is knocking down will be turned into private complexes, with just a fraction of the land set aside to construct new “social” housing.
Many larger homes accommodating families will be replaced with one- and two-bedroom units. The government is also giving no guarantees that new “social” housing will be managed publicly. Instead, indications are that it will be managed by non-government housing associations that aren’t required to give tenants the same protections they have in public housing.
The other scandal is that the government’s mismanagement of quarantine hotels is responsible for the spread of this deadly virus. Unions have been highlighting the problems of outsourcing and privatisation for years. But who did the government put in charge of this vital public health service? Dodgy security subcontractors. Whistleblowers have reported the lack of safety protocols, proper infection control training and access to safety equipment. Not only were workers’ lives put at risk by a government more focused on money than public health, but the entire community was put at risk.
Due to their low pay, job insecurity and the fact that we’re in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, workers were not only under pressure to work while unwell but were also working multiple jobs, which led to the further spread of the virus. Andrews and the media have attempted to turn these vulnerable workers, some of whom have bravely come forward to blow the whistle, into the villains of the story.
Refusing to call out the crimes of the Labor Party puts workers in more danger. Sadly, this is the case with the trade union movement, which is supposed to be our defence against the barbarities of capitalism. The unwillingness of most union leaders to criticise Andrews publicly or stand up to the priorities of business weakens our fight.
Trade unions should be seizing on this moment to fight for safety, job security, pandemic pay, bringing public services back into public hands and more. They should have backed teacher unionists crying out for the closing of schools. But rank-and-file teachers had to go it alone with no support from their union. We had the ridiculous situation in which the principals’ association – the bosses’ union – was calling for school closures while the workers’ union was against it. This is where the politics of standing with Daniel Andrews and the Labor Party leads.
And look at what’s going on in the aged care facilities. Long before the second wave hit, we had evidence of the dangers of potentially fatal outbreaks in aged care facilities. But decades of funding neglect and privatisation from both Labor and Liberal state, federal and local governments ensured that this vulnerable population was being cared for by overworked, insecure and low-paid workers. Like the security guards, many workers in aged care work several jobs at different facilities. That’s been a key way the virus has spread. We can’t get a better situation for working people in this state or elsewhere if we are not prepared to criticise the actions of leaders such as Daniel Andrews.
Fortunately, some workers and unionists have taken stop-work actions to protect worker and community health and safety. Coles cold storage warehouse workers stopped work to fight for pandemic leave and other vital safety measures. And JBS meat workers refused to go back to an unsafe situation. While these incidents have been isolated, there are workers fighting back. There are rank-and-file unionists attempting to organise, whether supported by their union officials or not, in schools, call centres, universities, hospitality, transport and more.
We need a new political force in Australian politics, one that stands up to the bosses, that is unafraid to take on politicians and governments of all stripes. The Victorian Socialists are running in council elections this year, as one part of building a socialist alternative to the Labor Party. It’s an alternative that puts health and life before profits. An alternative that’s based on the collective power of people who know how it feels to have to scrape together money to pay the bills, but who also know what it means to stand up to the powerful. It’s all of us – workers, students, pensioners, migrants, refugees, welfare recipients and public housing residents – standing together to declare that we’re sick of a politics built on screwing us over at every turn, and we’re here to change everything.