May 8th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Trade deal - surrendered sovereignty

EDITORIAL: Competition policy destroys retail liquor competition

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Will new NCP inquiry be a whitewash?

COMMENT: Economic zealotry triumphs over commonsense

EMBRYOS: Cloning - a licence to kill

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Fallout from hospital strikes / Lots of help for MPs

ENVIRONMENT: PM at odds with Murray River report

HEALTH: Sexual reassignment at age 13!

Expert advice? (letter)

Dairy industry (letter)

Latham and Asia (letter)

DEVELOPING WORLD: Grameen Bank - banking on the poor

EAST ASIA: Why Japan is building a ballistic missile defence

BIOFUELS: Sugar industry forum on ethanol

COMMENT: Iraq is not Vietnam

HUMAN RIGHTS: Vietnam's sex trade shame

FAMILY: Why John Howard is right on marriage

ASIA: Why Taiwan should be in WHO

BOOKS: LEFT ILLUSIONS: An Intellectual Odyssey, by David Horowitz

BOOKS: The Coming Of The Third Reich, By Richard J. Evans

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Fallout from hospital strikes / Lots of help for MPs

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, May 8, 2004
We are observing a government - in this case the Bracks Government - facing a direct and coordinated assault by a group of unions, the success of which would destroy all hopes of a plausible state budget or the general operation of any principles of equity or distributive justice throughout society.

In response, Victoria and some other equally profligate states are in turn attacking Canberra and its budgetary integrity in order to compensate for their own political blunders.

Incidentally, one would expect a state Opposition to behave in a realistic and foresighted manner and not show sympathy for what amounts to political blackmail and hostage-taking just so as to score a few ephemeral political points. For it would be their turn next time around.

We all remember the gang-ups of Left unions controlling transport, shipping and power which used to paralyse Victoria and which, quite rightly, came to be regarded as political strikes - conspiracies against the public interest.

Well, these white-collar combinations are no different, no better.

The aim seems to be to break the will of the Labor Parliamentary leadership - irrespective of the consequences, whether they be the electoral fortunes of the governing party or the sufferings of the most vulnerable sections of the public. And the sufferers - the hostages - are far more vulnerable, far more at risk than we were when we couldn't catch a tram or have that daily long, hot shower.

There used to be an Essential Services Act whereby - as the description implied - certain essential services were subject to strict limits as to strikes, go-slows and other interferences with normal industrial relations.

And, with powerful, semi-mandatory sanctions attached to the whole enterprise.

This quite successful choker on wild unionism was attacked, of course, by Labor and the Left, and those brazenly describing themselves as civil libertarians. This Act was mothballed under Labor, but now Steve Bracks is foreshadowing a newer version to become law.

However, it will not be to deal with the very areas upon which Labor has so long concentrated - that is, presenting the face of compassion by expending enormous sums thereupon while employing large numbers of teachers, nurses, carers and bureaucrats and bleeding Canberra for more. Rather, to better protect business from importunate unions when the latter's activities are regarded as jeopardising new big projects, judged to be of importance to the economic development of the state. One example cited, the projected new convention centre (yet another) in Southbank. To cost $400 million. Sorry - it's to be $800 million. Private investors will go dutch. Yes, of course. Will they?

So, schoolchildren and their parents, the sick and public transport users shouldn't hold their breaths for future stability in the areas which affect them most.

Ultimately, a deal will be struck. The service unions will be more circumspect for a while, but will wait to see whether the Bracks Government is really going to set out to limit the power of the building unions. If they are, we might expect "the unions will be back in the streets" as one leading Trades Hall figure threatened. That is, the alliance which overthrew John Brumby as Labor leader would try it on again.

Incidentally, the Victorian Liberals seem incapable of dealing with such complexities: but the effects on the Federal poll could be noticeable.

Finally it should be noted that Bracks is aiming at the same segments of union power as were Peter Reith and Tony Abbott.

Fallout from hospital strikes

The fallout from industrial disturbances can spread far and wide, and large concessions to the nurses' claims would certainly trigger these. The budgets of hospitals, nursing homes and private health funds would all be fractured. Other health workers - e.g., in psychiatric services - are getting ready for their industrial actions.

The Commonwealth and private health services will, if possible, be scapegoated. Even if these tactics fail, costs everywhere will blow out. The same will follow in education and no one seriously expects an improvement in services, in accountability, in transparency. It almost looks to be part of a Stone Age ideological conflict. We could even expect an ultimate rise in the inflation rate.

In the face of the revolt of the New Class unions in one state or another, the only way out for the state Labor governments is to attack the centre of the federal system itself. So, the Feds should pick up the tabs and cover for the squandermania and state government surrenders to union blackmail.

The Bracks Government is already expending what could be millions of dollars in advertising campaigns to attacking the current formula for federal-state revenue disbursements. Thus, the transport disaster in Victoria is due to Canberra and to other greedy states such as Queensland.

Meantime capital is leaving Victoria and escaping this Victorian nightmare. As the bills come in from the teachers, nurses, ambulance services (what did happen to that $80 million inquiry into ambulance services in the state?), power workers, transport workers and, who knows, policemen - we can expect more media campaigns to cover the chaos in Spring Street.

One quite unprecedented move which Steve Bracks has made has been to reject the judges' claims for more money. Perhaps as a signal to all the other mendicants waiting in the wings.

Most Victorians and Australians would have supported him. The judiciary are now lumped together with the legal profession.

Their mystique is virtually destroyed - by themselves. The exhilaration of innovative legalism, never-ending public statements on widely-ranging subjects, an ominous hypersensitivity to criticism, a culture clash on sentencing policies between the public and the judiciary, and a perception of conflict between police views and those of many judges and magistrates, with the judiciary winning but the public supporting the police ... has produced a crisis in people/judicial relations. So most voters are pleased to see judges stopped in their tracks - for the moment.

But, while he is on the job, what about MPs' salaries, super and endless freebies? Federal MPs' are being cut back so why not state politicians'? Their work is less demanding than Federal MPs and certainly less than judges and magistrates. People like John Howard have maintained that if we want good people to be attracted to politics then we must pay them well. I doubt if most Australians any longer agree.

Lots of help

Apparently MPs can't write their own speeches, they need a speechwriter. They can't do research any more - they need research assistants (taxpayer-funded). They don't spend too much time meeting constituents for their electoral officers are there for that. The feds sit roughly half the time that British MPs do and our state MPs sit even less.

The description of most MPs by de Tocqueville as "hacks and mercenaries" seeking to ape the lifestyle of the rich and successful outside politics, corresponds more closely to the people's perception than it does to John Howard's. And the phrase "the best body of men that money can buy" is no longer unambiguous.

The awareness of so many people who are working in quangos, public and semi-public authorities and universities of the scale of the privileges and take-home pay that their bosses and CEOs are marching off with, is doubtless influencing the rank-and-file to ask for more for themselves. Thereby helping to narrow the gap between haves and have-nots, or have-much and have-little, about which everyone is talking.

Any political leader who promises to take the blowtorch to this elitist profligacy - irrespective of his motives - could find himself a hero in his own time.

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