Kevin Rudd’s first few months have seen important symbolic breaks with Howard’s legacy. The highpoint so far was his apology to the Stolen Generations, reversing Howard’s attempt to hide the racist policies of previous governments.
But on the economic front the new government faces a series of problems.
Despite economic troubles overseas, the Australian economy continues to boom. This should be a time when ordinary people can make some gains after 12 years of a vicious, business-first government.
Bureau of Statistics figures released in early March show that in Howard’s last three months in power company profits shot up by almost four per cent, while wages grew by just 0.9 per cent. Factoring in inflation that equates to a real wage cut.
Howard expanded inequality by continually favoring the big end of town. Working class voters across Australia rejected his government because of the free kick he gave to employers to slash wages and conditions through WorkChoices.
Kevin Rudd has promised to “ease the squeeze” on household budgets. During the election campaign he attacked the Liberals for having done nothing to stop the rising cost of living for ordinary working families.
But in response to the increase in inflation that is making everything from insurance to groceries more expensive, Rudd is telling us that ordinary people need to accept “wage restraint” in order to maintain economic growth.
Our universities, schools and hospitals are in a state of crisis after 12 years starved of funding. Yet Kevin Rudd has declared that “fighting inflation” comes first. In February he promised there would be “screams and squeals” at the cuts when he hands down his first budget in May.
But there is no reason at all that workers and the poor should be made to bear the cost. His promised tax cuts, as well as the subsidies for private health insurance and private schools should be redirected into repairing public services.
Rudd could also reverse the drastic expansion in military spending under Howard-an increase of $8 billion every year.
But the indications are that he will continue with an oversized military, in order to continue to play the role of staunch US ally in the Middle East, and deputy sheriff in the region.
After visiting Canberra to meet the new government, US defence secretary Robert Gates offered a glowing endorsement of Rudd’s efforts to support the US.
What this makes clear is that left to his own devices, Kevin Rudd will not reverse anywhere near enough of Howard’s policies.
We need to take every opportunity to pressure his government for a serious break with Howard’s legacy.
At a state level, campaigns to force back the neo-liberal agenda of state Labor governments will put pressure on Labor federally to reject this agenda too. The campaigns against privatisation in NSW and against the attempt to impose pay limits on public sectors workers like teachers are the two best examples.
United campaign groups involving the Greens, Labor members and the unions around NSW privatisation could be built deep into the suburbs, and would provide a mechanism for mobilising a mass lobby against the sell-off at the ALP conference.
The campaigns for an end to support for the US wars in the Middle East, and for an end to the assault on Aboriginal rights in the Northern Territory and across Australia also need to continue.
The success of these struggles is the only way that we are going to see serious change.