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30 November, 2006

National Day of Action

You’d never guess, sitting here in a CBD office amid the usual hum and bustle of my white-collar colleagues, but today is a national day of action in Australia. Tens of thousands of people all around the country are on the streets protesting against the government’s new industrial relations laws. I’d like to be out there with them but these days I’m my own boss and my job security is simply a function of my sales ability. Still, I sympathise with them. Ordinary people in ordinary jobs are facing a future far more uncertain and a working life far less pleasant than they have enjoyed in the past few decades. And all because the government wants to create an environment in which business can prosper and the economy can grow.

Those of you in the USA and similar corporation-dominated societies will recognise the situation. In order for these economies to survive, they have to grow. If they don’t grow, you’re in a recession, and the investment goes elsewhere. Without investment, the economies shrink. Then you have depression.

And how do you get growth? Well, you can be lucky – like Australia – and be sitting on all the raw materials all the growing economies need, or you can raise productivity. Productivity means getting more for the same cost, or the same for less cost, or, best of all, more for less cost. It’s the reason we’re working harder and longer hours, why living standards are falling, why the rich are getting relatively richer and the poor relatively poorer, it’s why we need to ‘globalise’, why standards of service are falling, why manufactured goods are of lower quality. To get productivity up, the corporations have to squeeze and squeeze and keep squeezing.

That’s why Australia has new industrial relations laws, making it easier to sack people, guaranteeing fewer benefits (like holidays), and weakening the power of trades unions to do collective bargaining an behalf of their members. More for less. All the time more for less.

It wasn’t so long ago that the European countries and the Communist countries – and even Australia – were trying, and often able, to provide free education at all levels, to everyone, free health care across the board, generous pensions, low-rent public housing on an enormous scale, and universal free access to services such as legal representation. For a brief period – after World War 2 until the Reagan/Thatcher era began in the late 70s – governments all over pursued an agenda of social reform and sharing of wealth.

Now the agenda is economic growth. But you’ve got to ask: if economic growth means that we get less and less benefit as we are squeezed harder and harder, why on Earth would we want it? I’m pretty sure that this is the kind of question in the minds of the marchers out on the streets today.

I wish them all the very best.

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