As this year of living precariously draws to a close, it is worth reflecting why life in Australia is so much less precarious than in most other places on earth and what we should do to make it remain so.
For a start we should expunge from the lexicon the Reaganite nonsense that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
The things that have made life so much less precarious for Australians than Americans this year are mostly creations of government.
Half a dozen (almost none of which exist in the US) stand out. In chronological order of creation, they are: the Australian Broadcasting Commission (now Corporation) the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme; the Social Security safety net; minimum working conditions; the Australian Electoral Commission; Medibank/Medicare; anti-discrimination law; the Superannuation Guarantee; and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
These are the pillars that tell Australians as individuals or families that they are not on their own. They do not have to rely on charity alone. That turning to government is part of the solution, not part of the problem.
Of course, many in society and in politics would prefer the American way – the way of rugged individualism, under-pinned by a belief that poverty and misfortune are brought upon a person or family through their own fault and that wealth is self-made.
But poverty and misfortune (as the word “misfortune” suggests) are often down to bad luck, and wealth creation is as much the product of luck as individual talent and work, and certainly as much dependant on the use of collective assets and other people’s work and talent as the work and talent of the individual who gained the wealth.
So, while we should admire and acknowledge self-reliance as a defence against poverty and celebrate rather than begrudge those who have used their talents to do well, it is not the whole story.
Perhaps there has been no better illustration of this than the difference between the fate of Americans and Australians in this year of living precariously.
So whenever a political party, or a group within it, suggest any change to those great Australian pillars, watch out. Is the aim to weaken them or build them up? Some, of course, need building up. And new pillars, particularly a strong federal anti-corruption body, backed by a better-funded national audit office, should be added.
The pillars are under constant threat. No government dare abolish any of the pillars outright. Voters, quite rightly, not only like them, but rely and depend on them for their well-being. But the pillars are under constant threat of being white-anted – nibbled away at until they are no longer functioning as intended.
Right now, superannuation and working conditions are the targets.
A ginger group in the Liberal Party cannot bear the thought of workers sharing in the control of large retirement funds or workers having a well-funded retirement. They are out to reverse the legislated rise to 12 per cent of the Superannuation Guarantee.
They and others have put forward two specious arguments. One is that if employer superannuation contributions increase, wages will rise commensurately more slowly. Rubbish. Employers will pocket the lot as shown by the fact that wages have barely risen at all in the past 10 years because employers pay as little as they can get away with.
The second argument is that people should have access to their superannuation for a deposit on their first home. Well, all that would do is put more money and demand into the housing market and drive prices ever higher. Great for the property industry, but the first home wwould be just as elusive. Meanwhile, retirement income would go down the spout.
To date, the Coalition has tolerated the scheme because 9.5 per cent is not enough to fulfill the original intent of the scheme – to provide decent (not subsistence) retirement. All 9.5 per cent does is provide just enough to disqualify someone from receiving the aged pension and precious little more.
Now the legislated contributions are set to rise enough to yield a decent retirement income, they are out to white-ant the scheme. It is utter hypocrisy as those same politicians get 15.4 per cent on average from their employer – we the taxpayer. Surely, to be consistent, they should be arguing for a reduction of their 15.4 per cent to 9.5 per cent.
On working conditions, the Government has introduced new laws ostensibly aimed at reversing the casualisation of the workforce by giving workers who have been working regular casual hours for a year the right to ask for permanent employment. Note, that is not to actually get permanency, but to ask for it.
The employer cannot unreasonably refuse. But it will take little to dream up a reasonable excuse, and to challenge it the worker will have to go through a complicated appeal process that the average casual worker will not be up for.
But at least we have a superannuation scheme and a Fair Work Commission.
At least we have all the other pillars, even if the funding for them has been slowly eroded under this government – at once making life more precarious for wage earners and those without work, and making the government less accountable for doing so. As voters we must be continually vigilant in protecting those pillars.
So, more fundamentally in this year of living precariously we have an independent electoral commission which maintains the rolls for federal, state and territory elections. We had three this year and no-one questioned their fairness or integrity, unlike the democracy under-mining schmozzle in the US.
And our public health system has meant we do not have nearly one in a thousand people dead in the Covid pandemic.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 12 December 2020.