IS RUDD’S honeymoon coming to an end? Recent weeks have seen him blunder over fuel prices, his Howardesque moralism over Bill Henson and brewing battles with unions over pay disputes and the rollback of Workchoices.
For the first time since its election, the Rudd government is looking on the back foot. Elected on the back of promises to combat the rising cost of living, Rudd has done little to deal with rising fuel prices. In early June they hit a new high of 164.9 cents a litre in Sydney, even as the price of oil dropped.
Leaked cabinet documents showed that the government is pushing ahead with a national FuelWatch scheme, despite opposition from four public service departments and Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson. This came after Brendan Nelson’s call for a five cent per litre cut in petrol excise-no more than a populist stunt. But in his rejection of the scheme, Rudd underestimated just how much high fuel prices are hurting the “working families” he claims to represent.
Rudd claims that his government is hamstrung because oil prices are rising around the globe, and says OPEC must increase production.
Instead of talking about providing motorists with information on fuel prices through FuelWatch, Rudd should be intervening to cap prices and stop petrol stations profiteering by increasing costs at the pump. The debate over Nelson’s pathetic proposal to cut excise by a few cents indicated that both he and Rudd are committed to economic rationalism, and are not prepared to substantially reduce taxes that hit consumption like the GST and fuel excises. On the other hand, they talk about the need to reduce corporate tax even further.
As Rudd bungled his response to rising fuel prices, some sections of the environment movement, including the Greens, championed rising fuel prices. They reason that in the face of government inaction on climate change, rising fuel prices will force a key change needed to combat climate change-shifting people out of cars and onto public transport.
But lack of investment in public transport infrastructure means people are reliant on cars. And as we have seen time and again, state governments have not been prepared to substantially boost funding to public transport to improve access. A higher fuel bill for individuals will not force them onto public transport if there are no services. All it will do is increase profits at the big end of town.
If Rudd does not take serious action to combat cost of living increases, the unions’ battle for above-inflation pay rises takes on added importance (see pages 6-7). All of the public sector disputes of the recent period-teachers around the country, nurses and firefighters in NSW, have seen government ministers arguing for below inflation pay rises-in effect pay cuts.
The willingness of the public sector unions to challenge these pay limits is encouraging. In NSW the state government has been under huge pressure over the privatisation of electricity. A united campaign led by public sector unions against privatisation and the state government’s pay cap could deal a serious blow to Iemma’s economic rationalist agenda. Unfortunately, Unions NSW has been reluctant to escalate the union demonstrations against privatisation. There needs to be as much pressure applied as possible, particularly from public sector union members, for the campaign to continue and for an escalation of protests backed with strike action.
Finally, the scandal over Bill Henson’s artwork (see page 32) has worried those who thought that a Rudd government might undo some of Howard’s bigotry and fear mongering. Rudd’s hard line, despite the legal case against Henson collapsing, reflects his investment in using reactionary values as a tool to reinforce his conservative economic agenda.
These threads have begun to sharpen suspicions about whether Rudd really plans to undo Howard’s legacy. The history of Labor governments in power (see page 24) reveals much about the nature of the party and the way in which we can begin to build a political challenge to Rudd’s conservatism. The task now is to turn these moments of doubt into confident action.