“We Can Use This Crisis to Reconceptualize the Economy”

“We Can Use This Crisis to Reconceptualize the Economy”

The federal government has failed to understand the purpose of government. Economies are only there to serve people. But the government puts it the other way around; they think that people are there to serve the economy. That’s the fundamental problem.

Of course, they had to do something — but when they directed 70 to 75 percent of stimulus funds to business, it was a desperate attempt to keep this old banger of a capitalist economy on the road. Employers will bank most of that money or return it to shareholders while letting their workforces go.

Our response is predicated on helping people. The Job Keeper measure is a step in the right direction but it must be universalized to include all casuals, temporary visa holders and non-visa holders. There’s also the issue as to whether it will be enough. We are in unchartered waters here, approaching a recession or even a depression. The minimum wage won’t be enough to support many workers through this.

We are not only calling for a jobs guarantee, but also an income guarantee that applies to every single person in the country. And when we say everyone, we’re not talking about restricting it to citizens. We’re talking about everyone in the country right now, including people who are undocumented. Anyone who’s here, they need to be looked after now.

There’s no doubt capital will be bailed out — take Qantas, for example [which stood down 20,000 workers after receiving AU$714 million]. By allowing so many to be laid off, Morrison is trying to reduce workers’ bargaining power. When jobs are created again, he hopes the crisis will force them to accept worse conditions. We saw how this played out after 2008–9: it was an opportunity to ratchet down workers’ earnings and power.

A jobs and income guarantee is a two-pronged counterattack against this. We want a jobs guarantee because we believe no worker should be retrenched as a result of this crisis. The only way a jobs guarantee can work is if it is backed by a federal wage subsidy. Unless you put money in people’s pockets now, the economy will fall over and you’ll throw a whole generation to the curb. This is also the key to defending workers who have lost their jobs already or who are at risk of unemployment. It helps guarantee that when business comes online again, instead of hiring unemployed workers on the cheap, they rehire their previous workforce, guaranteeing continuity of conditions.

Morrison’s Job Keeper payment doesn’t guarantee this. For example, if workers have already been fired, the onus is on them to negotiate with their employer to put them back on the books. Expecting employers to agree puts too much faith in them, particularly in industries where wage-theft scandals have eroded that trust.

An income guarantee, on the other hand, also defends workers who either weren’t working or who didn’t have enough work before the crisis. This includes casuals, labor hire workers, freelancers, and sole traders. It includes artists, gig workers, and contract workers, who are often forgotten. It should apply irrespective of citizenship or visa status.

You know what it’s like; everyone says Australia is a great economy with over twenty years of uninterrupted growth, but the last few weeks show that a large proportion of Australians are on the bones of their arse. It didn’t take much to knock us down. That’s why you’ve got huge queues outside Centrelink. So, we believe the income guarantee payment should be equal to the minimum wage of $740 a week.

This has been presented by some as a Universal Basic Income, but that’s not quite right. Our income guarantee is targeted to help those who won’t be covered by a jobs guarantee. As a cash payment delivered on an individual basis, it may be a first step to a UBI.

A universal, individual payment is important for other reasons. Too often, people in Centrelink queues are knocked back because their partner has a job. This is just another way of attacking wages and conditions. Instead, a wage guarantee has to be unconditional. You shouldn’t be required to work or even show a willingness to work. It should be a right.

Your income support should not be predicated on how privileged you were before the crisis. The problem with only focusing on a jobs guarantee — a danger the union movement could fall for — is that it entrenches the divide between workers who were in secure work before the crisis and those who weren’t.

This speaks to our other demands, including a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments. We are supporting calls for a rent strike. We also want to open Medicare up for everyone in the country and introduce an amnesty for workers without a visa. And we want to raise the tax-free threshold, so that lower-income earners can cope.

This is the way to build the social and economic solidarity needed to safeguard everyone and defeat COVID-19. But more, it’s an opportunity for us to recast a system that is not working.

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