Speech by ACTU President Ged Kearney to Canberra May Day March, 3 May 2014

Ged Kearney
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It gives me great pleasure to be among you today for this May Day march here on the doorstep of the home of Australian democracy.

This is a day which celebrates the labour and achievements of working people, when we recall the sacrifices and determination of our ancestors to forge a better life, and resolve to build on those achievements for future generations.

These improvements in the lives of working people have only been relatively recent developments.

For many, many centuries, inequality in society was a gaping canyon. There were the very wealthy landowners and there were the very poor who worked for them.

There was no real middle class, and no concept of a government providing a safety net or basic services.

The emergence of unions in the 18th and 19th centuries was the start of change.

Collectively, the great mass of working people found the strength to challenge and change the system that had held them down for so long.

The changes began in the workplace through the concept of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and the eight hour day, but as the labour movement became organised politically improvements rapidly spread into lives outside of work.

The way of life we enjoy today, in modern Australia, has been built on a social compact where everyone has basic rights and equal opportunity, where we provide social protections to look after those who for one reason or another would otherwise be left behind, we reward hard work, and we ensure that wealth is spread evenly.
 
These are the values of Australian unions.
 
This spirit of a fair go that is imbued in our national character.
 
It means that everyone who has a job receives a wage that is a living wage, and if they work on weekends or public holidays they get penalty rates.
 
It means access to healthcare and education for all.
 
It means that if you get sick, or you are elderly, or for whatever reason you lose your job, you will not be left to fend for yourself.
 
And it means a range of public services which are provided at no, or minimal cost, to the community that the private sector is either unable to provide, or cannot be trusted to provide to the benefit of all beyond their own thirst for profits.
 
These are the essential parts of a civilised and productive society.
Australians have always accepted that with rights and freedom of living in one of the greatest countries in the world, also come responsibilities to contribute to a state that provides for the community’s health, safety and wellbeing and that the government is justified in spending that revenue to provide those services.

Far from damaging our social fabric, the role of government in providing basic needs actually strengthens our commitment to each other.

But now Tony Abbott says there is a Budget emergency and the “hand out mentality” must end.

Joe Hockey says “the age of entitlement” is over.

What is their solution?

They have outsourced government policy to big business and handed them a big, blank sheet of paper on which to write their own wish list.

They called it the National Commission of Audit, and we saw the results of their handiwork on Thursday.

The list of recommendations is truly shocking.

If you are sick, Tony Shepherd and his other commissioners say you should pay $15 each time you visit the doctor.

And they’ll double the Medicare levy surcharge to force you to take out expensive private health insurance.

Be prepared to work until you are 70, and if you are old, they say your pension should be cut by almost $150 a fortnight – and by the way, if you still own your home, you might no longer be entitled to the pension at all.

And don’t think about dipping into your super so you can retire early, because they want to close access to that until you are 65 as well.

If you are disabled, and were looking forward to the start of publicly-funded care the National Disability Insurance Scheme, then don’t hold your breath because they want to delay that until well into next decade.

If you are young and unemployed, get ready to pack your bags and move interstate because your Newstart – which, remember is only $510.10 a fortnight, 23% of average weekly earnings - will be cut off after 12 months.

If you need aged care, you will have to pay for more of your costs yourself, and if you care for a relative, your payments will be cut.

If your job is in an import-exposed or exporting industry, or one that is struggling because of the high dollar or structural change, don’t expect any help from the government because the Commission of Audit recommends abolishing almost all forms of industry and export assistance.

And if you are a minimum wage worker, the gap between what you earn and average wages will become an impossible chasm to bridge.

The Commission of Audit wants to freeze the minimum wage for a decade until they fall to 44% of average weekly earnings.

In today’s terms, that is a pay cut of $136 a week.

Taken as a percentage of average weekly full-time earnings, today Australia’s national minimum wage of $16.37 an hour is fourth on the OECD league table of minimum wages.

But under the Commission of Audit’s plans, we would drop to 20 out of 27, not much higher the United States.

This blatant attack on the wage setting system that has been in place since the early-1900s not only contravenes the Commission of Audit’s own terms of reference, but it betrays the true ideological agenda hiding behind this process.

The big business strategy is clear, if you bust apart the wages safety net you can drive everyone's wages down.

This is more than an attack on the low paid - it is an attack on all of us.

There are plenty of other nasties. The Gonski reforms to schools funding would be torn up. Australia Post and the Mint would be sold off; Centrelink and Medicare customer service would be from kiosks in post offices; and dozens of other government services would be outsourced to private contractors.

The impact of these recommendations here in Canberra will be immense – 15,000 jobs to go – 5% of Commonwealth government employment. A jobs blow of that size, on top of other job losses already announced, would be devastating for Canberra’s economy.

No doubt, the Abbott Government will reject many of these recommendations for political reasons.

To adopt them would be to sign its own suicide note.

But make no mistake.

The Commission of Audit is the philosophical and ideological blueprint of the Abbott Government.

It tells us what type of Australia the Abbott Government believes in.

It is a recipe for the Americanisation of Australian society, with wide disparities of inequality and huge pockets of poverty and working poor.

And this is just the start.

Because soon, they will also have in their sights workers’ wages and conditions.

It has already begun.

Coalition MPs and the employer lobby are openly campaigning to abolish penalty rates.

Proposed amendments to the Fair Work Act would see the widespread use of Individual Flexibility Agreements, which would once again allow employers to dictate pay and conditions to workers with little regard for a collective agreement or Award.

And the Productivity Commission review into the workplace system will be another Trojan horse to continue the project that began with WorkChoices.

The Coalition just don’t like working people.

They’ll parade around in high-viz vests when they think there is a vote in it, but actions speak louder than words, and every day their actions are undermining the very way of life of working Australians.

We’re in the middle of a jobs crisis and what does Tony Abbott do?

He tells us to be frightened that someone else on another part of the planet might do it cheaper. You have to take a pay cut, he says.

Is it too much to ask to have a Prime Minister who’ll actually fight for our jobs instead of giving up on working people?

A Prime Minister who turns a blind eye so companies can make money by sacking Australians and sending our jobs overseas?

When you boil it down, Tony Abbott is only interested in helping his billionaire mates, and he’ll do their bidding regardless of the cost to workers and their families.

But he wants no hardship for the big end of town, so it’s ordinary people who must take a hit.

All this talk about a stronger economy is about satisfying big business through deregulation, privatisation and tax cuts for high income earners.
 
None of it delivers a better life for working people.
 
The outcome will be a society where fewer and fewer people enjoy extraordinary wealth, and more and more people work just to get by.

Not only do Abbott and the Coalition not like workers, but they dislike unions even more.

They are throwing everything they can at us in an attempt to distract, hinder and weaken our movement.

And the reason is simple. Because unions stand between Tony Abbott and what he’s willing to do ordinary Australians to please the big end of town.

He wants to take us backwards, to force ordinary people to accept that they can no longer have the Australian way of life.

He’ll sacrifice jobs, cut pay and conditions, get rid of penalty rates and unfair dismissal protection.

He’s prepared to favour elite private education ahead of an equitable funding system for all kids; to make everyone pay more for healthcare; and leave the elderly, sick and disadvantaged to fend for themselves.

Why should the people who can least afford it be the ones who have to take the hit?

Australians are not bludgers. We work hard, and we pay our taxes. And we expect a basic level of government support in return. We do not deserve to be punished in this way.

A permanent, deliberate cut in living standards will hurt not just today’s workers, but their families.

It’s their children who will be hurt the most.

They’ll not only grow up in households where their parents worry more, they’ll face fewer opportunities for a better life when they grow up and look for work.

And the state won’t be there to help them along the way.

The only real defence is to stand shoulder-to-shoulder as union members to protect the way of life that we value.

Together, we need to remind the government that the only voice is not that of big business.

As we remember on May Day, this has been the driving force for unions throughout history: to unite collectively to win support for a decent society and a better life for all Australians.

But we need to turn up the volume, we need to get active, and we need to bring the community with us.

I’d like to leave you with that message on this, May Day 2014.

Thank you.