three stories from the antipodes

Australia’s national cabinet steps up “reopening” despite COVID-19 surge
Mike Head, WSWS, Jul 11 2020

Workers attempting to practice social distancing while waiting to enter Leichhardt Centrelink office

A “national cabinet” meeting yesterday decided to ramp up its reopening of the economy, even though its policies have triggered a major COVID-19 resurgence in Melbourne and signs of spread to other parts of Australia. Like governments around the world, from Trump in Pindostan to Bolsonaro in Brazil and Modi in India, their Australian counterparts are intent on pushing all workers back into workplaces, regardless of the worsening global pandemic, in order to restore corporate profits. So far, the toll in Australia remains substantially lower than on other continents, but the same pattern has emerged. Since the national cabinet started lifting restrictions at breakneck speed in late May, the number of new, confirmed infections has begun to soar. There have been 1,870 in the past two weeks, taking the total since March to near 10k. This week, the state of Victoria has registered higher totals than during the initial phase in March, before partial lockdowns were belatedly implemented. Today, Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews announced another 216 cases were confirmed in the state over the previous 24 hours, taking the two-day total to 504, with an additional death, the 107th nationally. Several new cases have been reported also in Sydney and Canberra in the past two days. This outbreak is worse than the first phase, because the cases come mainly from unknown sources of domestic transmission, rather than identified returned travellers. As is happening globally, workplaces such as meat plants, warehouses and fast food outlets have become hotspots of infection, along with schools, hospitals and aged care homes. Yet yesterday’s national cabinet, a de facto national unity government of federal, state and territory leaders, declared:

We met to discuss easing restrictions, helping Australians prepare to go back to work in a COVID-safe environment, and getting the economy moving again.

Despite describing the news from Victoria as “very concerning,” the leaders declared that their “Three-Step Framework for easing restrictions” must proceed. They “recommitted” to “the strategy of suppression of COVID-19,” again ruling out any effort to eradicate the disease, because that would mean shutting down industries that have been kept operating throughout the crisis, including mining and construction sites. The leaders went further, welcoming the Queensland Labor government’s decision to reopen its borders to all states and territories except Victoria, sparking a flood of people into Queensland’s coastal tourism centres. They also adopted a Productivity Commission report laying out “deregulation opportunities.” That means exploiting the pandemic to further restructure the economy to boost profits at the expense of safety, the environment and workers’ conditions. The only modification to the reopening plan was a cap on the number of overseas arrivals. Some states have temporarily delayed border relaxations and go-aheads for huge crowds at football games, but not the return of school students and teachers to classrooms, even though the largest single outbreak, of more than 100 infections, is at a Melbourne school. Having issued its instructions, the national cabinet adjourned for two weeks, until Jul 24, with PM Scott Morrison announcing he was taking a holiday break. At the post-cabinet press conference, Morrison again emphasised the bipartisan unity between his National-Liberal government and the state and territory leaders, the majority of whom are from the opposition Labor Party. Morrison said:

We agreed to stick to the plan, to stick to the strategy, and to ensure that is well-resourced and well-implemented. That was the focus of the briefing that Premier Andrews gave to National Cabinet today, and he received strong support from all of his colleagues.

This united front is driven by concern that the deteriorating public health situation and accompanying economic crash could intensify discontent with the entire political establishment. Morrison and his colleagues are continuing to blame individuals, particularly young and working-class ones, for the COVID-19 surge, accusing them of ignoring social distancing. This is a diversion from the responsibility of the governments themselves. New virus clusters began emerging in late May, starting in the Melbourne suburb of Keilor Downs, pointing to underlying community transmission. But on Jun 1 restrictions were eased in Victoria. Exactly two weeks later, daily infection numbers climbed back into the double digits, and continue to grow. The national cabinet statement claimed:

Victoria is responding well, including expanding testing and tracing, with the support of Commonwealth and other states and territories.

In reality, evidence is mounting of serious contact-tracing and other public health failures in Victoria. Alarmed parents in Melbourne have told the media of dangerous delays in being informed by the health authorities of infections at their children’s schools. Shelley Turner said she waited 12 days for an official notice that her child had been in close contact with another student who had tested positive for COVID-19 at Flemington Primary School. Victorian health-care, aged care and disability workers are reporting shortages of PPE. Nurses and other hospital workers told the media of PPE being rationed. One disability worker said she and her colleagues had bought their own clear plastic folders for homemade face shields. For four months, health workers have asked the state government for supplies of masks, gloves, eye masks and coveralls for hospital, pathology, disability and aged care staff. Since Monday, at least 20 infections have been found among health-care workers and their patients at eight Melbourne hospitals, including the Northern Hospital, Broadmeadows Hospital, Austin Health, Royal Melbourne Hospital, Brunswick Private Hospital, St Vincent’s Hospital, the Alfred Hospital and the Royal Women’s Hospital. There have been at least 13 cases in aged care, including 11 among nursing home staff. PPE shortages are not confined to Victoria. A survey of 500 health-care workers across Australia found half were experiencing shortages. In some circumstances, only low-quality masks were available to aged care and disability workers.

Further revelations are coming from furious residents of the nine Melbourne public housing towers that the Labor government suddenly surrounded with 500 police last Saturday to impose a “hard lockdown” that trapped them inside their cramped apartments. They are not just angry over being treated like criminals, without any welfare or counselling and no access to essential foods and other supplies for days. Ever since the coronavirus crisis began, residents had sent emails and made phone calls unsuccessfully asking the health department for hand sanitiser on every floor, regular deep cleaning of lifts and shared spaces, and public health information posted in multiple languages. Brushing aside the danger to lives and livelihoods resulting from the coronavirus resurgence, the Australian Financial Review editorial today insisted that the overriding “task” is to “move ahead with opening up the rest of the country.” Such is the voice of the corporate elite and its governments. As a SEP statement warned on Jun 3:

Every aspect of the response of governments, their cuts to public health-care and medical research, lack of pandemic preparation and indifference to the lives of working people, flows from the subordination of human needs to corporate profits and the accumulation of personal wealth.

Penalty pay rates slashed for Australian retail workers
Martin Scott, WSWS, Jul 11 2020

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) ruled early last week against a token bid by the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) to block cuts to Sunday penalty wage rates for retail and pharmacy workers. The 15% loading reduction is the latest in a series of cuts that began in 2017. In three years, full- and part-time workers in the two industries have had their Sunday rates reduced from double time to time-and-a-half. From Jul 1, casual shiftworkers employed on Sundays will be paid 1.6 times their normal hourly rate, down from 1.75 prior to Nov 2018. This will reduce the pay of more than 240k workers. The minimum wage for adult retail workers is $21.41/hr, so full-time Monday to Friday workers earn just $813.60/wk, less than half the national average. Around half of Australian retail workers are employed part-time, and more than one third are casuals, meaning the vast majority earn far less. In circumstances where median weekly rent is $582/wk in Sydney, and $454/wk in Melbourne, many retail employees depend on penalty rates to live. The penalty rate cut will be felt especially by the most vulnerable layers in society, including single parents, full-time students, those caring for elderly relatives, and others who are unable to work more hours, even if a full-time job is available. International students, who are prohibited from working more than 20 hrs/wk during semester, will be hit hard. The SDA claims it was “deeply disappointed” by the FWC decision, but the union made no serious effort to prevent the cuts. And the SDA only asked the FWC to delay the reduction to coincide with a 1.75% minimum wage increase scheduled for February. The lower-than-inflation minimum wage hike was to be introduced on Jul 1, but bowing to big business, the FWC postponed it for all workers except for some deemed “essential.” While the union referred to the crucial and frequently dangerous role of retail workers during the coronavirus pandemic, the SDA itself has been on the frontline of a broad assault on the working class. In May, the union collaborated with McDonald’s and other major fast-food outlets to reduce guaranteed hours, eliminate overtime penalties, and effectively abolish casual loading for around 214k workers.

The SDA is not alone in facilitating such attacks on vulnerable workers. “JobKeeper enabling directions,” rammed through parliament by the Liberal-National government with the full support of the opposition Labor Party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), granted employers the power to reduce workers’ hours and change their duties and location of work. This allowed employers to maximise productivity while reducing workers’ pay to the level of the $1.5k per fortnight JobKeeper wage subsidy. The coronavirus pandemic has hit sections of the retail industry hard. More than 60k workers in the sector were stood down or sacked in March. Nevertheless, the largest employers, major supermarket chains, have seen surges in revenue. Sales in Woolworths supermarkets rose by more than 40% in the week ending Mar 22, contributing to 11.3% revenue growth for the March quarter. Rival supermarket chain Coles increased its sales revenue 12.9% during the same three months. Other major retailers have projected substantial growth for FY 2019–20, partly as a result of the JobKeeper wage subsidy. The Harvey Norman retail chain anticipates a 20% year-over-year profit increase, while footwear retailer Accent Group, which sacked thousands of workers in March before signing on to the JobKeeper scheme, has told shareholders to expect a 10% earnings boost. Rather than reward the workers who have endured life-threatening conditions to facilitate massive profits during the pandemic, these corporations have continued to call for reductions to workers’ pay and conditions. Gordon Cairns, chairman of Woolworths, Australia’s largest retail employer, praised the collaboration between government and the unions. He declared:

It’s been adversarial up until now, and now I think it’s constructive.

Cairns claimed that penalty rates have prevented the $47.7b company from employing more staff on weekends. In fact, a 2019 report by Macquarie University and University of Wollongong researchers found no evidence that the two previous rounds of penalty rate cuts had led to increased Sunday and public holiday employment. An earlier study, released before the FWC approval of the penalty pay cuts in 2017, found that an increase in Sunday rates in the state of New South Wales between 2010 and 2014 had a “statistically insignificant” impact on retail employment. Ignoring this data, the FWC instead relied on employer intention surveys and the conclusions of an economist based on 50-year-old data. The FWC, established in 2009 by the Rudd Labor government, and hailed by the unions as an “independent arbiter,” has consistently served as an arm of big business and the state. In addition to imposing harsh cuts to workers’ pay and conditions, the FWC has repeatedly used its power to ban strikes and shut down industrial action. This has helped the unions suppress working class struggles and force workers to accept sell-out deals with management. The FWC’s decision to slash penalty rates while delaying the promised minimum wage increase comes amid mass unemployment and underemployment. Between March and April, around 2.7m workers, one fifth of the workforce, lost their jobs or had their hours reduced. The job losses have disproportionately affected younger workers and those earning the least. With less than three months remaining before JobKeeper and the JobSeeker coronavirus welfare supplement end, workers’ financial stress and anger are going to increase. The slashing of retail penalty rates is a blatant move to maximise corporate profits. The complicity of the SDA and other unions underscores the need for workers to form their own workplace committees and other independent organisations of struggle.

New Zealand boosts preparations to join Pindo war against China
Tom Peters, WSWS, Jul 11 2020

NZ’s Labour Party-led government, like its neighbour in Australia, is ramping up military spending and recruitment as part of the Pindo-led preparations for war against China, which have accelerated in response to the global economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Pindo ruling class is determined that the war drive will be the means to reverse its economic decline and to divert working class opposition to unprecedented levels of social inequality. The Trump administration, backed by the Democrats, views China as the main obstacle to Pindo hegemony, and has enlisted its allies’ support in the growing military build-up. Ministers from the Five Eyes issued a joint statement on Jun 24 promising to “advance defence and security cooperation” to defend the “global order that is increasingly being challenged.” PM Jacinda Ardern’s government, a coalition between Labour, the Greens and the right-wing nationalist NZ First Party, is committed to spending $20b on military upgrades. This money is being diverted to the military during the worst economic and social crisis since the Great Depression and at the expense of the working class. Unemployment is expected to exceed 10% and nothing is being done to stop hundreds of thousands of people being plunged into poverty. The health-care system is starved of resources, leaving the country highly vulnerable in the event of another outbreak of COVID-19.

On Jun 26, the NZ Navy received its new fleet tanker, the Aotearoa, purpose-built for $500m by South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries. The Aotearoa is the biggest ship ever to serve in the Navy and can operate in the Pacific and the Antarctic. On Jul 8, Defence Minister Ron Mark, a member of NZ First, announced the purchase of 43 new Australian-designed armoured vehicles for the army. Stuff noted that the Bushmaster vehicles are already used by the elite NZ Special Air Service and other members of the Five Eyes. The number of regular soldiers in the NZ army is to increase from 4.5k to 6k by 2030. The Defence Force has already reported a 21% increase in applications to enlist between March and May, compared with the same period last year, fuelled by heavy job losses among young people. Significantly, Mark praised the $270b military spending program announced by Australia’s government this month that includes new long-range missiles. PM Scott Morrison has made clear it is aimed at preparing for war against China. Morrison told the media tensions between Pindostan and China meant the world was in a dangerous period comparable to the 1930s and 1940s, in WW2. He emphasised:

All of our defence force and defence strategy is built on the alliance with Pindostan.

Defence Minister Mark solidarised NZ with this strategy, telling Stuff:

What is good for Australia and the defence of Australia is ultimately good for NZ. Canberra has shown a clear commitment to the defence of not just its own interests, but also to our Pacific partners, and a full realisation of the range of challenges that we’re all facing. I’m very pleased that the door is wide open to NZ defence industry players to tender for Australian military contracts.

The statements by Mark and Morrison expose the NZ government’s fraudulent “humanitarian” pretexts for military spending, including claims by the Green Party that new warships, planes and other military hardware are needed to provide relief in climate change-related disasters. In reality, NZ’s ruling elite is preparing to join what would be a catastrophic war involving nuclear-armed powers. It has strengthened the alliance with Pindo imperialism, including by joining the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in exchange for Faschingstein supporting NZ’s neocolonial activities in the South Pacific. In 2018, the Ardern government backed Pindostan in labelling China and Russia the biggest “threats” to global stability. It has also called on Faschingstein to send more military forces to the Pacific, to push back against China’s economic and diplomatic presence. Sections of the media and academia, including supporters of Labour and NZ First, have for years sought to create a climate for war by stoking anti-Chinese sentiment. These efforts have been ramped up in recent weeks, with renewed attacks on Chinese-born opposition National Party MP Jian Yang. Under intense pressure, Yang announced on Friday that he will retire from politics after the September election, after previously saying he would stand. Jamil Anderlini, Financial Times Asia editor, asserted to TVNZ on Jun 28 that Yang was part of “the extension of Chinese power into NZ.” This echoes claims made by pro-Pindo academic Anne-Marie Brady, without any evidence, that Yang is a CCP agent. The fascist group Action Zealandia has similarly attacked Yang and accused the National Party of treason.

A key role in this campaign was played by the Daily Blog, which is supported by Unite and other trade unions. The blog organised a petition calling for Yang to be removed from parliament because, decades ago, he taught English at a Chinese military intelligence training academy. Editor Martyn Bradbury wrote on Jul 7 that the National Party was “a front for Chinese business interests” and a danger to “national security.” Referring to party leader Todd Muller as “Beijing Muller,” Bradbury dismissed his statements that Yang left the CCP 26 years ago and is a loyal NZ citizen. The Daily Blog, reflecting the nationalism of the trade union bureaucracy, advocates turning NZ into a “fortress” with a large military and a ban on immigration. The National Party represents sections of the bourgeoisie that support the alliance with Faschingstein but remain nervous about the economic impact of alienating China, NZ’s largest trading partner. On the other hand, Deputy PM Winston Peters, leader of NZ First and also foreign minister, has called for NZ to reduce its “reliance” on trade with China. Peters announced on Jul 9 that NZ will join the other Five Eyes countries in “reviewing” its engagement with HK following Beijing’s imposition of a repressive “national security” law. The bloc of NZ First, which has a long history of promoting anti-Asian xenophobia, with the Labour Party, the Greens and the trade unions, is based on the support of all these organisations for NZ imperialism. The wealth of the bourgeois and upper-middle-class layers they represent depends, in the final analysis, on the military alliance and financial ties with Pindostan and Australia.

One Comment

  1. PB
    Posted July 11, 2020 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    A large part of Australia’s COVID resurgence can be attributed to Indians with Australian citizenship and/or family ties to Australia fleeing COVID-wracked Indian cities and bringing it in with them (as an Indian colleague told me). They are then being quarantined on arrival in hotels with the quarantine being managed by corrupt security companies with guards taking bribes of money (and sometimes sex) to look the other way while people leave the quarantine. As well as that some guards have been claiming exposure and getting paid to self-isolate, then going and working shifts elsewhere. Corruption, greed, apathy, arrogance, stupidity, and incompetence have all had a look in.

    The tendering of contacts by the State Labor government to security companies in Victoria has also been tainted by common ties between both to corrupt Union individuals and organisations. Other states involved the Armed Services and took more of a healthcare approach to quarantine rather than a nightclub bouncer selling meth on the side approach. Victoria has done incalculable damage and the Premier talks as though it was all just shoulder-shrugging fate that did it.

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