Opinion piece: Business as usual - Liberals attack workers


AFTER a year that was singularly unlike any other, it is gravely disappointing to see the Morrison government return to its age-old strategy of attacking workers.

There was great optimism last year when the Prime Minister yielded to Labor's calls for wage subsidies to protect jobs and keep money flowing through local economies.

The creation of JobKeeper even led some to dare hope the Liberals may finally have kicked their longstanding habit of responding to every economic challenge by going after workers' pay and conditions - that it might have dawned on them that when working Australians are doing well, the whole country benefits.

Given what has happened since, these hopes now seems naive. First, the government laid the groundwork to break an election promise by scrapping the planned increase to the employer superannuation contribution, known as the Superannuation Guarantee, which was due to grow incrementally to 12 per cent starting from July.

Superannuation was always designed to grow over time to allow Australians to have enough to provide dignity in retirement without levying a heavy burden on future taxpayers.

The government's own review found Australia's retirement system is "effective, sound and its costs are broadly sustainable".

Despite this, when the review was released last month, it was accompanied by unsubstantiated claims from the Treasurer that continuing with the legislated increases would hurt wages and threaten our standard of living.

Australia has been down this path before. The increase to the Superannuation Guarantee was delayed by John Howard after his election in 1996, and again by Tony Abbott in 2014. A

t the time, Mr Abbott declared the delay to be a "good deal for workers" that would lead to higher wages. Of course, it did nothing of the sort. In fact, Australians lost tens of thousands of dollars from their retirement balances and, in return, got the lowest wage growth on record.

But that hasn't stopped our current Treasurer from trotting out the same old debunked arguments again in 2020 as he gets set to strip up to $200,000 from the retirement incomes of the average Australian family.

But it gets worse. Not content with prepping to further slash Australians' hard-earned retirement savings, the Morrison government used the frenzy of the last week of Parliament to introduce some of the most damaging workplace laws since Work Choices.

Under this legislation, employers would be permitted to violate the Better Off Overall Test - a critical safeguard which, as the name implies, protects workers by prohibiting agreements that would leave them worse off.

This cruel plan would allow new agreements to get rid of any penalty rates or shift penalties, costing workers as much as $11,000 a year. Employers can take advantage of this option if they were affected by COVID-19, but under the government's definition it would be hard to find an employer who wouldn't fall into this category.

While the government argues this is a temporary measure, the reality is that it runs for at least two years for agreements that will then last for years themselves. In the firing line will be some of the lowest paid people in the workforce. This includes cleaners, supermarket workers, cooks, truck drivers, childcare workers and aged care staff - indeed, people who have sacrificed so much already during this pandemic.

This is shameful. After a terrible pandemic year - indeed using the COVID-19 as a cover - the government has returned to form, slashing the pay and conditions of some of the lowest paid workers in Australia. And to think, only a few months ago the Prime Minister was insisting that we're "all in this together".

Has the Morrison government learned nothing from the pandemic or the past? Surely, it's time to acknowledge that slashing wages and conditions isn't going to help anyone.

Let's not hinder our economic recovery with a stubborn adherence to Liberal ideology and time-worn strategies of going after workers at every opportunity. Australian men and women deserve so much more. 

PUBLISHED IN THE NEWCASTLE HERALD ON 27 JANUARY 2021


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