MUNGO MacCALLUM. The Union movement has never been more important.

Jul 2, 2019

Last week Scott Morrison spelled out what he called his economic policy.

But, as usual, it was little more than a series of motherhood slogans about the need for more productivity, less regulation, and a spot of union bashing for good measure—nothing new, nothing of real substance, much like the prime minister himself.  

Basically it was all about tax cuts, because this is the one and only idea Scott Morrison can convincingly articulate: tax cuts were his election policy and he won the election.

So it follows that if he can bully the parliament into legislating them, the economy will spring to life like a startled gazelle, the surplus will be delivered, confidence will be restored, employment will rise, wages will revive, spending will soar and we will all bask in the promise of Australia forever after.

Well, putting $20 a week in the pockets of the least wealthy, who will spend them because they must, may help, but it is hard to see how the rest of the package – the bits that will have to wait for another six years – will turn the economy gangbusters. One of ScoMo’s business spruikers said bravely it would give people something to look forward to – the archetypal pie in the sky.

Then there is the need to unleash our animal spirits, cruelly entangled in red and green tape, which he defines as ”the regulatory and bureaucratic barriers to business.”

Others might characterise such rules as a bare minimum required to protect the public from exploitation – wasn’t that what the banking royal commission proved, not to mention aged care facilities and of course the construction industry, from which new buildings are being evacuated regularly to ensure basic safety.

But hey, we need more animal spirits, nature and free enterprise red in tooth and claw, and so we are inviting the business sector – the exploiters, both real and potential – to give us their agenda. Consumers, environmentalists, and other busybodies need not apply.

And as for the unionists – well, hush your mouth. Time for yet another ritual bashing in the name of industrial relations reform, again to be masterminded by the impeccably impartial employers, who have thrown their tired old prescriptions on to the counter as if they had suddenly discovered a cure for cancer.

Get rid of unfair dismissal laws, they chorus – let us sack more people, that should boost jobs and growth. And remove the provision that replacing new awards must include a “better off over all” standard – “no disadvantage” is more than sufficient, until we can get around to actually slashing terms and conditions as true free enterprise demands.

Scott Morrison’s propagandist powerhouses, the Murdoch press and the Institute of Public Affairs, have already made it clear that their real nirvana will be the re-introduction of the feudal system, But why be politically correct, let’s get out of the bubble and be fair dinkum: how good is slavery?

And just for starters, we want laws to allow us to deregister unions we don’t like (meaning just abut all of them, but in particular the hated CFMMEU. That should get productivity going gangbusters.

The unions have always been a convenient whipping boy for the coalition, but using them in their traditional role at this moment in history is even more opportunist than usual – it is based purely on the embarrassment of John Setka.

In fact the union movement has seldom been more impotent. Not only has its membership dwindled to the point where it is seriously endangered, but its real influence is minimal. This is why we have wage stagnation, now conceded by everyone from the Reserve Bank to struggling employees as the major and most urgent problem confronting the floundering economy.

And it is why industrial disputes – strikes – have diminished to insignificance. The bogey men, the big bad union bosses now exist only in the fantasies of the right wing warriors who cannot face the reality that actually a lot of the mess is their own fault – and they have absolutely no idea of how to fix it.

And the irony is that their tentative solutions are firmly against their own neoliberal ethos. Energy prices too high? Government intervention, control, regulation, more red tape to restrain the animal spirits of the power companies.

It probably won’t happen and if it does it almost certainly won’t work. But such is Morrison’s desperation to provide an agenda – any agenda – that the contradictions entailed in his manifesto have to be overlooked in the hope that someone, somewhere, will take him seriously.

What is actually needed is, as The RBA Governor Phillip Lowe wearily repeats, is stimulus – interest rates by themselves can no longer suffice to end the malaise. A more ambitious program of infrastructure might help. To which Morrison replies we already have one – it’s just not stimulating yet. In fact, actual construction went backwards last year But eventually it might work — when it trickles down …

And then there was innovation – we have to be daring, smart, in the forefront of developments – except, of course, if they involve the biggest challenge and opportunity of all, climate change, which Morrison could not bring himself to mention.Ah, yes, we remember innovation, way back in 2015, when Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister and was innovating like buggery, being agile and nimble all over the place.

Admittedly not a lot happened – the business community decided that there was no point in taking risks when the government was already depressing wages and pushing profits up quite nicely, thank you, and could be relied on to keep doing so. The likelihood of some Damascene conversion, however miraculous Morrison pretends, is at best minimal. But Morrison is relying on the business community for guidance and direction – he is their leader, so he must follow them.

However, perhaps not just yet – first he had to jet off to the G20 to tell Donald Trump and Xi Jinping how to run their economies. Of course they won’t take any notice of him either, but there could be a decent photo opportunity in it. And there was plenty of time for shmoozing the Donald, and even inviting him to come to a game of golf in Melbourne.

Now that should get the economy moving. Or at least the headlines, which are what really matters.

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