Sunday, July 6, 2014

What is 'Financialisation' and Where is it Taking us?

In this submission from former Communist Party of Australia leader, Eric Aarons, the financial sector is put under scrutiny for its amoral pursuit of profit - but at the cost of society at large.  As the author explains, some of the world's largest banks' actions sometimes verge on the criminal.

Eric Aarons

It is the new form being taken by capitalism, in which a worldwide coterie of Mega-rich individuals takes a far greater part of the socially-created wealth than can be justified on any national interest or social justice grounds.


It is taking us on a path that endangers the capacity of our natural environment, our planet, to continue supplying the quantity and quality of resources we will always need for our own existence, and the continued existence and health of the wider natural environment we require to be able to flourish.


We need to know for some purposes the cash value of the items we use, but to actually live we need to have the  things themselves, the solid entities, that we and other living species require for life itself, and to develop, over this and coming centuries, the full potential of Homo sapiens – a project which we have only just begun.


If my memory serves me, the economist Gary Becker said that a money equivalent could (and should) be put on marriage and other inter-personal relationships. We know that this indeed occurs, but is it in any way a recipe for achieving genuine community happiness?


The general concept of ‘financialization’ (a new and rather ugly word as well as a repugnant concept) arose from the rapid rise in the proportion of GDP occupied by financial transactions, entities and ‘products’ following the victory over fascism in the Second World War. From about 2 percent in 1940, it rose in the US, which led the way, to 8 per cent at the turn of the present century, where financial markets have dominated the traditional industrial, agricultural and social ones.


It also plays on a naïve belief, derived from the phenomena of interest and credit, that money can, of itself, make more money. A knowledgeable sales person can make up endless tales that seem to make sense of this for the unwary, and many are paid by their bank employers on that basis, being sacked if they fail to succeed in doing so.


Planned multi-billion dollar fraud


But as well as the theoretical fundamental weaknesses of the concept, it has now become, through the banking system, a centre of widespread, multi-billion, even trillion-dollar crime that, unless rigorously dealt with, threatens far worse catastrophes than those we have recently seen in this early part of the second millenium.


In his renowned biography of John Maynard Keynes, Robert Skidelsky quoted an unsourced remark that Lenin was reported to have made: ‘that there is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency’. (page 239)                     


I doubt that Lenin ever made such a remark, and in any case he did not have the means to actually do it. But the centres for financialization, the big banks, are doing a more than competent job in that direction, of which I give many instances below.


The intention is to treat all values exchanged, including tangible or intangible, future or present promises, as if they were a form of currency. Promises are morally expected to be kept and agreed processes observed, with legal penalties sometimes available to enforce them. But today they increasingly take on illegal form as instanced below, or that of `betting, which has now, among other evils, penetrated all forms of sport, degrading the site of one of humanity’s most pleasurable, even noble, manifestations.


There are plenty of past examples of financial fraud, but both the scale and the source today are unprecedented in scale and the source – modern banking, which is well advanced in corrupting the very basis of the currency, with potentially lethal social disasters.


Before giving instances of the scale of the crimes, we should note that they only became possible when Paper currency – that is fiat money – became universal when gold became impractical. The word describes  an edict in which a government declares ‘let it be so’ , or ‘let it be done’, derived from the Latin word ‘fieri’.


Britain takes the reins


Though Britain was near-bankrupted by the Second World War, its long-standing banking credentials gave it the call over the USA to be the world’s international financial centre. One of its tasks in this capacity was to determine, through a top level bankers’ committee, the rate of interest to be charged on the widely used temporary unsecured loans that banks make between themselves. This in turn became a guiding benchmark for a myriad of other financial transactions. It was called Libor – the ‘London inter bank offered rate’, set each working day at 11 am. (There is also a ‘Euribor’)


Many banks were caught out by the GFC, partly because the official economics had arrived at the point of a Great Moderation in which the boom-bust  pattern of development of the past would no longer apply. How wrong they were!


If a bank’s assets fail to exceed its liabilities, by law it has to cease trading. Details are not available, but many banks found that loans and purchases made in earlier and better times (say in Greek or Spanish government bonds) were losing up to half  of their value, so that the bank itself (Barclays for example) could have found itself technically insolvent and would have had to cease trading. Then, in 2009, when Bob Diamond, a former CEO of Barclays was in charge of setting Libor, he arbitrarily fixed the rate to boost the value of some of the bank’s holdings.


The prestigious American organization Council on Foreign Relations later published a background paper ‘Understanding the Libor Scandal’ updated on December 5, 2013 which said:


In 2012, an international investigation into the manipulation of interbank offered lending rates revealed a widespread plot undertaken by multiple banks – most notably Barclays, UBS [Union bank of Switzerland], Rabobank [Dutch] and the Royal Bank of Scotland – to leverage these interest rates for profit … Regulators in the US, UK and EU fined banks more than $6 billion for participating in rigging interest rates. Barclays agreed in late June 2012 to pay a $453 million fine to settle allegations that it had systematically rigged The ‘London interbank offered rate’ – Libor – between 2005 and 2009.



Many other banks joined in:


From now on space limitations will confine me to giving only the name of the bank; but further information is readily available on the internet.


Citi Bank

JP Morgan Chase

Bank of America

Wells Fargo

UBS  (Union Bank of Switzerland)

Rabobank (a Dutch bank with a long name)

The Royal Bank of Scotland

Deutsche Bank

ING Bank

Deutsche Bank, JP Morgan and Societe Generale were also involved .


Though, so far as we know, no major Australian bank has been directly involved in such criminalities, its general approach is similar. Known before privatization as the ‘People’s Bank’, some employees of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in October 2008 sent an anonymous fax to the Australian Securities Investment Commission ‘citing fraud at Commonwealth Financial Planning  and  alleging a “high level” of cover  up within CBA. The culmination of that action was a damaging report from the Senate economics committee. It sensationally found that the bank repeatedly sought to  keep the regulator and the public in the dark and its credibility was so tarnished that only a royal commission or judicial inquiry could get to the bottom of what really went on.

Major Crimes

Credit Suisse is reported to have misled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on the quality of loans worth $16.6 billion in mortgage bonds. (The Australian, 24 March, 2014).


The Bank of England has become embroiled in the escalating foreign exchange scandal after it suspended a member of staff and launched a new investigation into allegations that its officials condoned or were aware of market manipulation. The move is the latest twist in the $US 5.3 trillion per day forex [foreign exchange] industry, the world’s largest financial market.’ (The Australian, March 7, 2014)

HSBC (Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation) may be outstanding in this field.

It laundered an as yet unrevealed number of billions of dollars of illegal Mexican drug money into the United States. Found out, in 2012 it paid fines for multiple offences of $1.921 billion (The Australian, June 1, 2014).

The Royal Bank of Scotland ‘had to pay large fines, bringing the total penalties paid in Libor settlements to more than $3.7 billion. (Wikipedia, December 5, 2013)


The Bank of England has become embroiled in the escalating foreign exchange scandal after it suspended a member of staff and launched a new investigation into allegations that its officials condoned or were aware of market manipulation. The move is the latest twist in the $US 5.3 trillion per day forex [foreign exchange] industry, the world’s largest financial market.’ (The Australian, March 7, 2014)


BNP (Banque National de Paris) + Paribas (Banque de Paris) $US 8.97 billion. The Australian reported (July 2) that, legally, the prosecutors could have sought double that amount’…..
‘US authorities are pushing for BNP Paribas to pay more than $US 10.7 billion to end a criminal probe into allegations the bank evaded US sanctions’. (The Australian, June 1, 2014)


On July 3, The Australian revealed how much worse than I have so far revealed the situation with the banks really is. It wrote ‘The French government which had warned that disproportionate sanctions could destabilize Europe’s took credit for the limited scope of the dollar ban, but “BNP Paribas will continue to be able to finance economic activity in satisfactory conditions”  said France’s Finance Minister Michael Sapin. And the paper claimed, straight-faced, that bankers ‘think that criminal charges are now like financial penalties: a painful but manageable cost of doing business’.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

I think it likely that accounting-wise these fines might be classified as a ‘business expense’. If, for example, the scam netted $3 billion profit, evea a fine of $2 billion would leave the bank $1 billion better off, with none of its operators in danger of being jailed, For in  the banking field it is rare for  anyone to be even charged, let alone actually tried, and even then ever sentenced. In no other field are fines accepted in lieu of jail for major crimes. This conduct clearly trashes the basic principle that we are all equal before the law.


Until people in banking are duly prosecuted for transgressing the law, and jailed when found guilty of the sorts of crimes described above, I believe the debauching of the currency and the consequent social collapse foreshadowed by Skidelsky will become increasingly likely.

There is much more information available on the internet, but the above should be enough to show that unless the banks are rigorously policed, with prosecutions and jail terms for the guilty imposed, the financial system is threatened with the debauched state predicted by Keynes, but today in reality inflicted by the greed of the banks in particular, and the mega-rich that own them.


Some may hold to the view ‘the worse the better (for social change)’. But history does not support that stance. It is always the mass of people that suffer most in such circumstances, so we must, rather, struggle to avoid such outcomes with positive alternatives. I hope that, among others, trade unionists and their supporters will see the potential of the above facts to negate or diminish major features of the assault the Abbott government is developing against trade unions and the left in general.

All the guilty should be punished; but on this count the Left should be firmly on the front, not the back foot as it is at present.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Joe Hockey shows how “Class Warfare against the Vulnerable” is done

Joe Hockey is promoting a 'Social Civil War' - pitting even low wage workers as well as the well off and the middle class against the welfare-dependent.   In response to this regressive campaign, Labor cannot accept the Liberals' 'terms of debate' but must propose its own policy agenda for just and socially fair Australia.

nb:an Apology to 'The Australia Institute'; In a typo I accidentally referred to that left-wing think tank when I should have referred to the right-wing 'Sydney Institute'. The typo has been corrected.

Tristan Ewins

Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey has been “on the attack” recently; targeting Australians who for whatever reason have been welfare-dependent, or have benefited from welfare during their lives.  Specifically, Hockey asserted that one in ten Australians were welfare-dependent in some way, with a total welfare bill of $146 billion a year in a $1.6 Trillion economy. 

Apparently, this is meant to produce a ‘shock and horror’ effect amongst an electorate which is considered to be ‘narrowly self-interested’, without any sense of social solidarity, or of the gains to be had through such reciprocal solidarity and also the various forms of collective consumption.

Interestingly, though, Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews himself has observed that cash payments in Australia comprise around 7 per cent of GDP, compared with approximately 19 per cent in France; and approximately 14 per cent in Sweden!  Though in Denmark, for instance, there is a much more substantial social wage, with social expenditure at approximately 31 per cent of GDP compared with approximately 19 per cent in Australia.  (also approximately 33 per cent in France,  and approximately 29 per cent in Sweden)

More particularly Hockey has alluded to those dependent of Youth Allowance,  Newstart, the Aged or (military) Service Pension, and the Disability Support Pension.   Apparently in an attempt to stir up division and resentment, Hockey argued that “the average Australian”, whether “a cleaner, a plumber or a teacher” works over a month every year to provide for the nation’s welfare bill. (Herald-Sun, June 12th, 2014, p3)   This ‘political play’ to narrow financial self-interest ignores the benefits of reciprocal social solidarity via welfare.

Meanwhile in a speech to the right-wing Sydney Institute Hockey launched into a tirade against those he describes as “leaners” as opposed to “lifters”.   For Hockey it is claims that the wealthy must ‘pay their fair share’ that comprise ‘class warfare’; and not the Federal Government’s attacks on welfare, as well as their assaults on Medicare and rights and conditions for labour.  Rather than ‘social solidarity’ Hockey proclaims ‘individual responsibility’. (ie:  ‘sink or swim’)   

In an infuriating furphy, Hockey promoted his personal interpretation of “equal opportunity” as opposed to the ‘straw-man’ of “equality of outcomes”.    On this basis he also attempted to defend the Federal Government’s Higher Education ‘reforms’ – which will see a fee deregulation (some of the highest fees probably reaching well over $100,000), as well as a reduction in the repayment threshold for student loans, and also an increase in the rate of interest paid on those outstanding loans.  (‘The Age’, June 13th, 2014, p 8)  This will affect women - whose working lives are often interrupted.  

In the same vein, there will be those with significant university debts who for various reasons (eg: disability) may not be able to continue their pursuit of a career in law, medicine etc.  These peoples' university debts could easily spiral way out of control. The element of ‘risk’ here means that many young students from disadvantaged backgrounds will not dare to take on a university debt.  Those that do also may be distracted from gaining their most from study because of the necessity for part-time work.  And ‘equality of opportunity’ in this context is a lie: because those students tend to be concentrated in lower socio-economic zones, with relatively under-resourced schools.   (they may also lack the support of parents who have enjoyed a tertiary education)

In response to Hockey one of the most important of his assertions to deal with is that ‘straw-man’ argument of ‘Equality of Outcome OR Equality of Opportunity’.    Instead of this false dichotomy it is much better to frame the issue as a matter of Fairness.  Pretty much no-one – even on the far Left – want full ‘equality of outcomes’.   Rather there is support for redistribution via the social wage, welfare state, social wage, and forms of social insurance for the sake of distributive justice. (as opposed to full equality)  ‘Equality opportunity’ is part of the picture; but so too are ‘fair outcomes’.

Here, ‘distributive justice’ assumes that the outcomes gained in the labour market through ‘supply and demand’ of skills – and ‘consumers’ capacity to pay’ are not necessarily just.   For cleaners, as well as hospitality, child care, and aged care workers – people whose work deserves respect –there is an argument for intervention and redistribution as the means of achieving fairness.   (not absolute equality)   Those measures of redistribution – through the social wage, tax-transfer system,  welfare state, labour market regulation - do not have to put the remuneration of a cleaner ‘on par’ with a surgeon, for instance.  But all workers who face disadvantage and injustice in the labour market deserve fair outcomes; and those means of intervention are effective means of providing those fairer outcomes.

Arguably Joe Hockey is is attempting to ‘divide and rule’ the nation.  An element of divison is inevitable – perhaps even desirable – in a democracy.  The point of democracy after all is ‘to set oppositions free’ and resolve them through democratic processes. 

But Hockey is inciting resentment against the vulnerable – no matter what he has said to the contrary.   This is qualitatively different than attempts to tax the wealthy – which Australia’s Conservatives try and dismiss with hypocritical howls of ‘class warfare’.

More specifically, Hockey’s approach comprises a ‘bold gambit’.  Low-income workers themselves are to be ‘played off against’ the welfare dependent. Rather than raising minimum wages and conditions, or improving the social wage – they are urged to express resentment against the vulnerable.  The ‘endgame’ is a US-style class system.  The very wealthy are to be ‘untouchable’ and largely untaxed lest we be bombarded with cries of ‘class warfare’.   Taxes are to be ‘simpler’ and ‘flatter’ – that is, more unfair. The middle class are to provide ‘the base of stability’ for Conservative political forces: their lifestyles supported by the exploitation of the working poor. And the working poor – indeed, the ‘underclass’ - are to be ‘disciplined’ by fear of homelessness and destitution – with the erosion of the ‘social safety net’. 

Crime will also likely escalate as a consequence of desperate inequality; but this insight is to be ignored for the sake of a warped, and ultimately immoral, notion of ‘meritocracy’.  How this ‘meritocracy’ is meant to work without real equality of opportunity (especially education); while there is ‘hyper-exploitation’ of the working poor; and amidst ‘windfall’ inheritances in the most privileged families - is not really considered by today’s Conservative Ideologues.  It is ‘an inconvenient truth’.

In Hockey’s ‘grand statement’ to the ‘Sydney Institute’ those designated as ‘leaners’ are to be reviled.  There are Aged Pensioners. (who have largely paid taxes their whole working lives)  And yet no mention of self-funded retirees – whose liquid assets alone can range well over a $1 million – but who receive enormous superannuation tax concessions.  The total bill of those concessions will soon cost the nation over  $40 billion a year. As Richard Denniss of the Australia Institute observes:   "the top 5 per cent of income earners get a third of the benefit, and the bottom 20 per cent get literally nothing."

Then there are the disabled. Underlying resentment against Disability Support Pensions is the notion, for instance, that ‘mental illness’ is not to be seen in the same way as ‘extreme physical disability’.  We’re talking about people with anxiety disorders, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder...   Something Andrew Robb could probably advise the Parliamentary Liberal Party about: and yet from a cursory web-search he does not appear to have done so. 

Often the ability of these disability pensioners to work is intermittent at best.    And the underlying assumption that they are to be looked upon suspiciously – as ‘rorters’.   Hence ‘Disabilitywatch’ has noted moves by the Federal Government to ‘tighten up’ assessment for eligibility, including ‘work for the pension’ for those deemed able to work at least 8 hours a week.  (now to be reduced from 15 hours a week)   But arguably if a person is living in poverty due to disability, and may be capable (intermittently) of some work, then perhaps their payments could be complemented fairly in return for voluntary community work, without the threat of losing that pension altogether.  Instead we are getting another dose of labour conscription – this time for some of the most vulnerable of all.

In conclusion: a movement is building against Hockey’s ‘Robin Hood in Reverse’ Budget.  In Melbourne the day before this article was written the ‘Bust the Budget’ rally amassed around 20,000 attendees – perhaps more.  The ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign against John Howard’s aggressively in egalitarian ‘Work Choices’ labour market legislation attracted the support of millions.  Today the same is possible if we stand collectively against Hockey’s cynical ploy to ‘divide and rule’ the country.

Yet Opposition Labor Party leader Bill Shorten is ‘treading lightly’ around Joe Hockey’s appeal to divide the nation – a ‘nation at war with itself’; a war of so-called ‘lifters’ against so-called ‘leaners’. So far he refuses to reject this characterisation of Australian society outright.

But Labor cannot accept a political discourse which is propagated on the Liberals’ terms.  Labor needs to respond to Hockey with its own powerful narrative:  of a society based on mutual and reciprocal social solidarity.  This means promoting social security and social justice through a range of measures including labour market regulation, welfare, a progressive tax mix, the social wage, and various forms of ‘collective consumption’.  Not a society of ‘absolute equality of outcomes’ – but a FAIR and JUST society!
In a practical sense that must mean a decisive break on the part of Labor with the mindset of ‘small government’.  Labor must ‘go on the policy offensive’: advocating both old and new policies.  That includes Gonski and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.  But it must also include National Aged Care Insurance and Comprehensive Medicare Dental, amongst range of other policies.   The way is open for a progressive counter-offensive mobilising millions.  Labor, the unions, the welfare sector, and all progressive social movements - must seize the initiative.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Budget Cuts spell Disaster for the Vulnerable

above:   Expect this to become more common on Australia's streets with the implementation of the 2014-15 Abbott/Hockey/Cormann Austerity Budget.


Tristan Ewins

The Government of Tony Abbott has proposed a Budget that makes a mockery of his claim to ‘spread the burden’ of ‘reform’ fairly.   The Budget has also made a mockery of the government’s claim to ‘credibility’ regarding its mandate – and the extreme violation of that which is now going on before our eyes.   Massive cuts to health, education and welfare fly in the face of the Government’s pre-election commitments.

We will now go through some of the most alarming aspects of that Budget drawing on the observations from ‘The Age’ and the “Herald-Sun” .

Health:  The Abbott Government is imposing an additional $7 charge for each GP visit, and an extra $5 for those needing pathology services. (eg: blood tests)   For those with no option but to regularly visit the doctor, and have blood tests taken, this could add up to $120 extra a year.  An awful lot if you’ve just been forced onto Newstart, or had all support payments withdrawn!  

Indeed, in  ‘The Age’ Ross Gittins argues health austerity may lead the ‘poor sick’ to delay seeking help until their conditions become acute.  And for those who do not care about anything without a dollar sign attached to it – this could cost the Budget and the economy over the longer run.

The rationale of providing a disincentive for ‘spurious’ visits to the GP is also very doubtful given the already-widespread application of co-payments;  and it is open to question whether pathology services are used ‘spuriously’ in any case.   If the government had balanced these changes with increases to pensions and progressive reform of the tax mix the policy may have sidestepped its otherwise regressive and counter-productive consequences.  But the opposite is now the case.

Education:  In higher education university fees will be deregulated leading to a ‘two tiered’ system at best. ‘Elite’ universities will be free to charge whatever they like – with the very real possibility of $100,000 or even $200,000 degrees. This ‘user pays’ aspect will also be applied to make up for an average 20% cut in Federal Higher Education funding supporting the cost of degrees. 

Abbott and Pyne argue there will be scholarships; but the reality will be a quality of education  generally dependent on the depth of a students’ pockets – rather than merit.  (as a consequence of the prohibitive cost)   Arguably ‘equal opportunity’ should involve extra and widespread subsidies and quotas for students with disadvantaged backgrounds.  And an understanding of education as ‘a social good’ beyond labour market requirements.

Student Loan repayment thresholds will fall regressively and interest rates on loans will sit around about 6 per cent.   For someone whose life is disrupted by disability, for instance, (or perhaps parenthood) university debts could easily spiral out of control.  The Conservatives claim students must ‘contribute’ towards the cost of degrees.  But surely this occurs already through the tax system; and progressive tax is the best way to ensure students (and business) contribute proportionately to the financial benefit gained.

The ‘united ticket’ on Gonski is also to be dropped assuming the Coalition wins the next election and has the opportunity to do so.  (though to be honest even Labor was not fully implementing the Gonski recommendations)

Finally on Education the School Chaplains program will receive a boost of approximately $250 million over five years.  But the contempt for which this government holds the poor and vulnerable exposes the lie of their upholding ‘Christian values’.

Local Government: $1 billion over four years withdrawn – probably leading to an increase in Rates or user pays – or otherwise a degradation of services

Aged Pension and Retirement:   The age of retirement will rise gradually to 70 by 2035; and Pension means tests will be frozen for three years – making it difficult even for part-self-funded retirees with limited means.   Arguably we are now living in conditions of great  ‘material abundance’ compared with many decades ago.  Aside from the systemic imperative of endlessly expanding markets under capitalism, abundance means arguments to ‘work us into the ground’ are not practically or morally defendable.

Other Welfare:   This is where the Abbott/Hockey/Cormann austerity really begins to bite against some of the most vulnerable of all.   Despite offensively deceitful  rhetoric of ‘spreading the burden’ the vulnerable will be driven into the most spiritually crushing poverty; and ACOSS has argued this will lead to a possible sharp rise in homelessness given the withdrawal of ‘the social safety net’.

The measures include:  

·         A six month waiting period for under 30s applying for Newstart; and then ‘Work for the Dole’ 

·         Very tough eligibility criteria for the Disability Support Pension;  particularly for those under 35

·         Unemployed under 26 forced on to the abysmally inadequate ‘Youth Allowance’

Sole Parents will also be affected by the withdrawal of Family Tax Benefit B, and deserve more robust compensatory support than Hockey’s offer of $750 per child  between the age of 6 and 12.  (see: )

Furthermore: the *formula* for determining pensions will be altered by the Coalition Government.  Pensions will be indexed to inflation rather than Average Male Weekly Earnings – with a gradual fall in payments ‘by attrition’.    John Collett at ‘The Age’ believes this could cost pensioners $100 a fortnight “in several years’ time”.

The consequence will be utterly desperate circumstances for the jobless; especially the young jobless.  And those without family to fall back upon will probably end up homeless.  (those forced to move away from the support of family to find work will be hit doubly hard) This is the ‘American model’ that the Conservatives seem to be aspiring to.   The creation of a desperate class of working poor – motivated by the very real fear of falling even further down the social ladder – into homelessness; and the destruction of all hope.  But for neo-liberals this desperate ‘reserve army of labour’ is ‘functional’ in weakening the bargaining power of workers.

 It is also becoming apparent that the Federal Coalition’s $300 million cut to pensioners’ concessions will apply to everything from water to energy. (so much for fighting ‘cost of living’ pressures) Some ofthe Victorian Conservatives are outwardly angry with Abbott, as $73-$75 million in cutbacks to pensioner concessions will flow on to Victorians specifically. This could be the beginning of an internal rift within the Conservative parties: whose ‘endgame’ could include driving (or for some others providing a pretext) for desperate state governments to lobby for an increase in the GST rate, or a broadening of the GST base.

Theoretically the GST can increase in the context of a more progressive tax and welfare mix to compensate the poor and vulnerable, and average workers. But the odds are more in favour of a regressive mix – with GST ‘reforms’ hurting low income earners and pensioners again who had already been hit hard. Arguably a more regressive mix for Hockey involves a swipe at ‘the undeserving poor’ – in favour of those ‘millionaire wealth creators’, and some ‘self-funded retirees’ whose very comfortable conditions of retirement are effectively subsidised by taxpayers to the tune of tens of billions in tax concessions every year.

Also importantly: with cuts in the Carbon Tax, Mining Tax and Company Tax overall revenue is still likely to fall. The question that follows is thus: Will the GST be promoted to overcome ‘the infrastructure deficit’ – or will infrastructure privatisation reach previously unheard of extremes; with the public being fleeced in the context of ‘user pays’, and the relatively unfavourable cost structures of private enterprise? Few in the Liberal Party (or even Labor) look set to accept the proposition that a mixed economy is better for capitalism, and better for workers and the disadvantaged at the same time. So this Budget is likely only ‘round one’ of a protracted assault upon Australia’s social wage and social insurance.


Those enjoying incomes of around half a million a year will have to pay $6400 extra in tax. But again in a morally abhorrent fashion the government is contending that this has seen a ‘spreading of the burden’.   While millionaires will barely notice the ‘mosquito bite’ that is the temporary, so –called ‘budget repair levy’ – the effect on the poor and vulnerable will be utterly crushing and permanent.

‘The Age’ argues that the Coalition is now set to withdraw $80 billion “from schools and hospitals over the next decade.

Hockey argues Australia is “a nation of lifters, not leaners”.  He has little appreciation of the fact some of us have no choice to lean lest we fall down.  He is willing to judge the vulnerable; but he is unwilling (and probably unable) ‘to walk in their shoes’.    Under such circumstances the civilised and compassionate thing to do is to provide support for those who have the need.   Altering the formula for calculating pensions as they are, the Conservatives instead exhibit contempt for these people.

The Liberal Government would likely want to play down the legitimacy of claims to disability pensions on the basis of mental illness, for instance – playing upon popular misperceptions in order to legitimise a callous agenda.  Liberal MP Andrew Robb could possibly set them straight on that were they willing to listen…  If he has it in his heart perhaps he should make some kind of statement against these attacks against disability pensioners.  (many of whom do not have relative material wealth to fall back on)

Finally ‘labour conscription’ applied to disability pensioners able to work 8 hours or more a week  comprises further cruel exploitation of the most vulnerable.   Better to provide positive incentives for flexible community work – with untaxed payments on top of the pension -  rather than ‘the big stick’.  Flexible opportunities are crucial as disability can inhibit a person’s ability for regular work.

Abbott’s radical abandonment of the welfare state comprises both a rejection of ‘Catholic social welfare Centrism’, and also of the very-conservative but welfare-minded tradition of the Democratic Labour Party from which Abbott originally emerged.  It flies in the face of Pope Francis’s warnings about the dangers of unbridled capitalism lacking of social conscience.

What remains to be seen now is how Labor will respond over the coming years. Will Shorten ultimately capitulate on welfare, social wage and social insurance in order to maintain ‘small government’; or will he follow the principled path instead of ‘short term opportunism’?

In the meantime progressive social movements need to coalesce and prepare for the fight of their lives.

Hard Copy Sources:  ‘The Age’ and the “Herald-Sun'; May 14th and 15th 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Abbott in a ‘Breach of Trust’ on the Budget

But is Shorten ‘backing Labor into a corner’ on future tax and social welfare reform?

Above:  Shorten in the Red Tie, Abbott in the Blue Tie -
But what's the substance come Budget-time?

Tristan Ewins

Tony Abbott is coming under increasing pressure with regard his proposed tax measures as well as his overall agenda of austerity.    The Sydney Morning Herald observed the following proposals under consideration by Abbott for the 2014-15 Federal Budget.  (Some comprised very probable items for the May Budget - following the “Commission of Audit’; others might be considered ‘longer term aspirations’ for the sake of an Ideological commitment to ‘small government’.  Some may even be rejected as ‘too hard-line’ to be ‘electorally viable’)

·         Firstly there is Abbott’s ‘debt levy’ impacting on those on incomes over $80,000


·          Attacks on universal health-care, with  extra upfront payments for those visiting a GP, or a Hospital emergency department


·         Cuts in the Aged and Disability Pensions, and also to Newstart – a more austere formula for pensioners; but also cuts in eligibility;  (Also there is talk of ‘slowing’ NDIS implementation - a cut by another name)


·         Phasing in 70 as the age of retirement, with the family home included in an assets test – even where such assets are way below average property values….


·         Big increases in university fees – but also reductions in repayment thresholds – so poorer graduates are put under extreme financial strain even where there is not a proportionate financial benefit stemming from their education


·         Massive cuts in the minimum wage; moving towards a permanent stratum of ‘working poor’; a divided Australia similar to the United States -  where middle class lifestyles rest partly on intensifying exploitation or the poor and vulnerable


·         Forcing the young unemployed (25 and under) from the austere ‘Newstart’ and onto the even more austere “Youth Allowance”.  (approx $207/week for those living away from home)  (Even more severe changes appear to have been dropped: changes which would have forced young unemployed to move house to find work – even where ‘live at home’ was the only way of ‘making ends meet’ for the barest necessities)  (‘The Age’, May 4th, p 13)


·         Road tolls (effectively flat ‘user pays’ mechanism) – In my opinion probably leading to further extensive privatisation of transport infrastructure (rail, road etc)


·         Privatisation of what few federal assets remain:  “Snowy-Hydro, the Australian Submarine Corporation, Defence Housing, Australian Rail Track Corporation, Australia Post, Medibank, the Royal Mint and the National Broadband Network.”  (Where infrastructure and central government functions are concerned these will likely be leased back to the Australian people – but at enormous financial cost – revealing the privatisation agenda as essentially Ideological – with the public fleeced in the final analysis)


·         Industry Assistance cut in areas like the auto industry.  (We already know this may ‘flow on’ with a cost of around 50,000 Jobs)

Importantly: Howard era tax cuts went well into the tens of billions.  ‘The Australian’ observed how in the dying days of the Howard/Costello government $34 billion in tax cuts were promised – and then matched by Rudd Labor.   Even the usually-biased ‘Australian’ noted the impact this had upon the Federal deficit. 

‘The Australian’ also noted more recently how  the final 2013-14 Labor Federal Budget  “would [have been]  in surplus by at least $25 billion, with an estimated $40 billion in extra revenue, if income tax cuts introduced between 2005-2008 had not been put into place.”

(Wayne Swan would have made his budget surplus by a country mile were it not for his own insistence on ‘small government’)   

The consequence of these unsustainable tax cuts was a Labor Government that largely ‘trod water’ when it came to overall progressive reform of welfare and of the social wage.   Restructuring of income tax, improvements in pensions, and subsidies for disadvantaged workers (eg: in aged care) – were important exceptions.  And Rudd Labor deserves credit for its response to the Global Financial Crisis; with its timely investment in infrastructure.  Yet there were also attacks – such as cuts to Sole Parent pensions.  And implementation of Gonski and the NDIS were committed to ‘into the future’ at a time when Labor seemed bound to lose office in any case.  Labor did ‘put Abbott on the spot’ – pressuring him to commit to these popular polices.  But now it appears Abbott never had any intention of keeping his promises.

Peter Martin in ‘The Age’ explains that ‘Net Debt’ is now set to peak at 16 per cent of GDP or about $280 billion.  The consequence of this is that 2.2 per cent of GDP must be devoted to servicing that debt : or about $9 billion a year.   (The Age, May 4th, pp 29-29) 

net debt is the sum of all liabilities (gross debt) of an organisation, less their respective financial assets (cash and other liquid assets).”

To get this in perspective Australian Gross Domestic Product is now worth over  US $1.5 TRILLION; and by comparison Japanese ‘general government debt’  is over 200% of GDP; and US ‘general government debt’ at over 100% GDP.   

There are a number of factors worth considering amidst the panic and deception surrounding the issue of government debt:

a)       Lower gross debt under Howard/Costello needs to be considered alongside greatly reduced government income and income bearing assets – the cost of unsustainable tax cuts, upper middle class welfare, and privatisations


b)      We need to consider our capacity to SERVICE the debt; and the ‘trade off’ from public debt compared with greater productivity which would flow from public investment in infrastructure, education and the like. 


c)      The Liberals attempt to compare the Federal Budget with household budgets. And yet those families who can still afford it (since the Howard era housing bubble) need to make long term investments in the family home; servicing and repaying debt in a sustainable fashion over decades.  Families ‘having a roof over their heads’ is a fairly un-negotiable need.  By comparison, if governments fail to invest over the long term in infrastructure and education – the cost to the economy (and to real people) is greater than had those governments ‘opted out’ in order to cut debt.  And if the private sector is brought in ‘to pick up the slack’ – the cost to the Australian people as private consumers is greater than had they ‘collectively consumed’ infrastructure and services via progressive tax.   To clarify: there are additional private sector costs such as profit margins, marketing, executive salaries and a higher cost of borrowing


d)      Finally: issuing government bonds over the long term is arguably a fairer way of financing major public infrastructure – as the cost can be staggered over several generations  with those who will benefit in the future paying their fair share.

All these facts combined also reveal the falsehood of our supposed ‘economic crisis’ and insincere cries that we must cut radically in order to ‘live within our means.’   

But there ARE alternatives.

If the regressive subsidies for wealthy retirees via the Superannuation Concessions regime are taken into account; and if unsustainable tax cuts flowing largely to the wealthy and the upper middle class are considered;  it becomes clear that Australia has the means to provide for the Aged and the disabled without vicious austerity. That is: without attempts to whip up resentment against vulnerable welfare recipients. 

GetUp! has observed that over $15 billion in superannuation concessions go to the “richest ten per cent”;  and arguably even more if we consider the upper middle class.  

And according to the Sydney Morning Herald the overall  “Commonwealth bill for [superannuation] concessions is projected to rise at a staggering 12 per cent annually to be $50.7 billion in 2016-17.  

On the basis of the figures already considered: progressively raising government revenue to pre-Howard levels (as a proportion of GDP); and winding back regressive superannuation concessions alone could claw back well over $50 billion.   From those measures alone, the Federal government could meet increasing demands in future decades on health, welfare and aged care .   It could also meet the cost of providing key infrastructure and social services publicly – without the extra (regressively structured) costs on private consumers that flow from privatization.  

There are several areas of urgent need which will certainly be neglected should the Abbott administration continue to ruthlessly pursue its Ideological ‘small government’ agenda:

·         Roads, rail (including Fast Rail), and other public transport


·         Better funded State schools; greater Tertiary educational opportunity; make HECS fairer by raising rather than lowering the repayment threshold


·         Better resourced public hospitals, universal health care with comprehensive Medicare dental and improved mental health facilities and services


·         National Disability Insurance, and National Aged Care Insurance


·         A National Broadband Network ‘to last the long term’ instead of a ‘second best’ option


·         Pensions maintained without cutting payments and eligibility for vulnerable Australians; and without regressive assets tests that include ‘the family home’ even when it is roughly equal to or lower than average property values


·         Free burials or cremations to save families unfair costs and stress when they are grieving for their loved ones


·         massive investment in public housing to increase supply – finally correcting the Howard-era bubble and making housing accessible and affordable for more Australians again


·         Continue to invest in renewable energy for Australia’s future – and for the planet;  the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is not a ‘drag on the Budget’ anyway – and reported a profit of 7 per cent

·         Invest in pure and applied scientific research; for example into a cure for dementia

Abbott has broken faith with the Australian people.   And unlike with Julia Gillard, he has broken that faith without the Greens ‘holding him over a barrel’ lest he lose Government.  Just as Gillard was hounded until the very end on her carbon tax promise – Labor needs to ensure Abbott – and the Australian people – never forget this broken promise.

The Government’s plans to raise taxation slightly for the upper middle class and the wealthy while ‘coming down like a ton of bricks’ against welfare recipients is also offensive. 

Oscar Wilde once said: “To recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less.” 

He could just as well have been speaking to Abbott, Hockey or Cormann. 

A wealthy taxpayer might barely notice a marginal increase in tax.  But for the poor and vulnerable the impact of welfare austerity would be crushing.

But Shorten’s response to the Government’s plans is also very disappointing.

He has been quoted as arguing:

“Increasing taxes on working class and middle class Australians is a terrible mistake and people will not forgive Mr Abbott for breaking this very big promise to increase taxes.”

Again: Abbott must be held accountable for the breach of trust. 

But Shorten’s apparent opposition to any increase of tax on the middle class is also deeply concerning.  Yes, removing superannuation concessions from the most wealthy could save  over $15 billion.  But a more ambitious program of welfare, infrastructure and social wage expansion would necessitate a broader base.   And over the longer term even ‘treading water’ on welfare and social wage provision would require a proportionate increase in tax.   The ‘good news’, however, is that tax increases on the middle class don’t have to be too severe – because of that broader base.

Labor should never have abandoned its support for a retirement age of 65. Arguably for retirees there are ‘quality of life’ issues that go beyond the drive to extract more revenue and press ever-growing consumption.   Under these circumstances the middle class would have to shoulder part of the responsibility for making Australia a truly ‘Good Society’.   If Shorten does not take account of this the Greens most likely will.  And Labor will progressively ‘lose ground’ to the Greens ‘on their Left Flank’; while floundering in its attempts to inspire a rush in membership levels and activity.

All said, though, it is the austerity rather than the tax measures which are the most concerning aspect of the Conservative agenda in Australia.  The tax measures on their own could provide a ‘silver lining’.  Some debt is arguably necessary to spread the cost of infrastructure over generations.  But cutting debt servicing costs in half could be workable, and arguably see all that money  saved (approx. $4.5 billion) redirected every year toward the most vulnerable and needy.  For instance: for those in need of Aged Care.

With Hockey’s priorities, reduced debt servicing costs would likely be passed onto corporations, the wealthy and the upper middle class rather than the poor and vulnerable.  But if there are those in the Government who would rather aspire towards ‘Catholic social welfare Centrism’ – then this would be a crucial issue on which to take an uncompromising stand.  (both on social welfare; and in opposition to US-style exploitation of the working poor)   (And the same would apply to others identifying as 'compassionate Christians' - though there is a very significant Catholic representation in the Government)

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