fascist australia: squalor & criminality

Victorian government accelerates lifting of COVID-19 restrictions to satisfy big business
Mike Head, WSWS, Sep 28 2020

Andrews giving a public COVID-19 briefing last month (ABC News)

Anxious to meet the needs of the corporate elite, the Victorian state Labor government yesterday began lifting coronavirus safety measures faster than previously proposed. Not only were partial industrial restrictions and primary school closures ended more quickly than planned. Future dates for lifting most of the remaining precautions were cast aside, so that reopenings will occur more quickly, within weeks, if COVID-19 case numbers decline. Premier Daniel Andrews explicitly couched the acceleration in terms of the number of employees who will return to industrial workplaces, thus falling further into line with the “return to work” campaign mounted for weeks by big business, the media and the federal Liberal-National government. Many restrictions will remain on households, but worksites, schools, childcare centres and universities will be reopened more quickly in order to get workers fully back into factories, warehouses and construction sites.

The contrast is revealing. Workplaces, which Andrews previously admitted accounted for 80% of infections since May, will reopen faster than family visits will be allowed. Labor’s repressive 9 pm to 5 am curfew, which had no public health justification, will be lifted, but new $5k fines will apply to breaching rules on public gatherings. Risky workplaces are involved. From today, in the capital Melbourne, workforce capacity will go up to 80% for meat processing, 90% for poultry processing and 80% for seafood processing. All staffing limits will be lifted for warehouses and supermarkets. This profit-driven rush to reopen workplaces raises the danger of another disastrous infection wave, adding to the nearly 800 deaths that have resulted in Victoria from the last accelerated lifting of safety measures nationally in May–June. With primary schools told to return to face-to-face teaching by Oct 12, school teachers and students will be placed on the front line of this danger, along with the health and aged care workers and nursing home residents who have already paid the heaviest price for the pandemic in Australia, as they have internationally.

Around the world, the pandemic is worsening. The premature lifting of workplace restrictions is leading to record daily confirmed cases, such as 16k in France on Thursday, 6.6k in Britain and more than 1k in New York on Saturday as the US death toll from the virus passed 200k. Globally, the “return to work” drive has taken the death toll to 1m. Lockdowns, although limited, have helped reduce Australia’s confirmed infections since a peak of over 700 new cases daily in June, but community transmission is still occurring, as are deaths. There were 24 new cases nationally yesterday, with 16 in Victoria and 7 in Western Australia. The WA cases came from a visiting cargo ship, highlighting the impossibility of walling the country off from the pandemic. While welcoming yesterday’s Victorian announcements as a first step, business leaders and the federal government of PM Scott Morrison are demanding an even faster ending of workplace restrictions. Despite opinion polls in Victoria and nationally showing strong support for continued lockdown precautions, they seized on Andrews’ announcement to ramp up the pressure for a rapid full economic re-opening. Morrison said in a joint media statement yesterday with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt:

Easing restrictions in Victoria in a COVID-safe way is vitally important so that more Victorians can get back to work and resume their normal lives. Today’s announcement is a small but important step in that direction.

For all the empty references to “COVID-safe,” this means prioritising corporate profits over human health and lives. In a typical expression of this offensive, Australian Retailers Association chief executive Paul Zahra criticised Victoria’s new schedule as too slow. Zahra said he was “deeply concerned” non-essential retail would remain closed until at least mid-October. He said:

That is simply too close to Christmas trading to allow viable retail activity.

Echoing such demands, Andrews said his government would take its next step toward lifting restrictions as early as Oct 19, with an aim for a “COVID-normal Christmas.” Andrews emphasised that 127k workers would immediately return to various worksites, including building projects, meatworks, supermarkets, food distribution, food processing, manufacturing and some solo outdoor employees, about 30k more than initially planned. To facilitate this process, primary school students would return to schools from Oct 12, earlier than previously proposed, as well as prep to grade 2, special and final-year students, and childcare centres could open for all children. Yet, according to a summary provided by Andrews, modelling has indicated that opening workplaces too soon would be “dangerous.” He said:

The Burnet Institute found that opening up too quickly would result in a 41% chance of a third wave within four weeks.

Regarding schools, the government claimed to be acting on new findings from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute that children aged under 10 were less infectious than older children. Reportedly, the research found that when young children had been infected and gone to school, outbreaks were “very uncommon.” More than 150 schools in Victoria have had to shut at some point this year due to a positive case, and at least 373 students and 139 staff have been infected with COVID-19. But Andrews said the study concluded that schools were more likely to be a multiplier of existing community transmission rather than a driver of the epidemic. Even on that basis, teachers and other school workers, as well as students and their families, are to be exposed to great risks. Returning all primary students to classrooms was “unlikely to change the trajectory of case numbers significantly by Christmas,” the Murdoch Institute report said, but there were dangers arising from household transmission and increased movement, including by adults during pick-up and drop-off. The government is counting on the education trade unions to suppress the opposition of educators that eventually forced the closure of schools in June. On its Facebook page, the Australian Education Union, which covers school staff, told its members yesterday:

We are continuing discussions with Dept of Education around the details and will be in touch with members with more information soon.

In reality the union is working closely with the government to stifle resistance. AEU Victorian branch president Meredith Peace told the media that the Oct 12 return was a positive sign the education system was slowly returning to normal. Premier Andrews cleared the political deck for yesterday’s acceleration announcement by forcing the resignation of the state’s health minister, Jenny Mikakos. Last Friday, he publicly blamed her for the use of untrained and ill-equipped private security guards at hotel quarantine sites for returning overseas travellers. Mikakos was made the scapegoat for the catastrophic failures of the Andrews and Morrison governments to provide adequate PPE and staff in hospitals and nursing homes, mass testing, contact-tracing and quarantine facilities.

In their joint statement yesterday, the three federal ministers centrally responsible for the premature reopening of the economy in June (Morrison, Frydenberg and Hunt) professed to be “deeply concerned” for the mental health of Victorians due to the length of the state’s lockdown. They then alluded to their actual concern. They said the federal government had already paid more than $27b to Victorians throughout the pandemic and expected to pay out an additional $16.8b in the December and March quarters. This same government began slashing these JobKeeper wage subsidies and JobSeeker unemployment payments last Friday, seeking to give destitute workers no choice but to accept unsafe conditions and lower wages as part of the financial elite’s “return to work” offensive. This concerted drive to reopen all workplaces amid the global pandemic and the most serious economic and social breakdown since the 1930s Great Depression will trigger critical class struggles, posing the necessity for the working class to take control of society and reorganise it totally along socialist lines.

Australia’s Queensland Labor government suspends public hearings of Grosvenor Mine disaster inquiry
Terry Cook, WSWS, Sep 28 2020

The real purpose behind the calling by the Queensland Labor government of a special Board of Inquiry into the methane gas explosion at Anglo American’s underground coal Grosvenor Mine in central Queensland on May 6 this year has become increasingly clear in the weeks since proceedings began early last month. The explosion that ripped through the mine seriously injured five mine workers. Four sustained horrific burns to their upper torsos and airways. The fifth miner, who was not as badly affected, was able to be released from hospital in late May. When Queensland Mines and Energy Minister Dr Anthony Lynham announced on May 21 that the government would call the Board of Inquiry to be headed by retired judge Terry Martin, he promised it would “conduct public hearings, call witnesses and make broad inquiries” in relation to the Grosvenor Mine tragedy, as well as 40 other incidents relating to the principal hazard of methane gas. Lynham also pledged the inquiry “would determine the nature and cause of each” and bring down its finding by Nov 30 this year. He claimed the inquiry would draw up recommendations for improving safety and health practices across the mining sector “to mitigate against the risk of these incidents happening again.”

Subsequent developments, however, reveal that these pledges were a cynical fraud. Like other government-initiated inquiries into industrial disasters, the Grosvenor Mine inquiry is shown to be a damage control exercise called to hose down widespread public outrage that erupted in the wake of the Grosvenor explosion. This disaster followed multiple fatalities and life threatening accidents in Queensland mines and quarries. The government’s real aim in calling the board of inquiry was to gain time to organise a cover-up and prevent any genuine investigation of the underlying causes of all such disasters that ultimately lie in the subordination of safety by corporations to the drive to bolster profits and shareholder values. The cover up agenda was embedded in the very structure of the inquiry. The first tranche of the inquiry hearings began in August. However, this did not collect or consider any evidence relating directly to the May 6 Grosvenor mine explosion. This tranche was restricted to examining more general issues associated with the mining sector such as industry and site safety, health representatives, and how the management structure and employment arrangements may impact on mine safety. It also touched on incidents of methane exceedances (when gas concentrations rise to dangerous levels) at four other Queensland mines, Grasstree, Moranbah North and Oaky North.

A second tranche, scheduled to commence on Sep 15, was supposed to examine the causes that led to the catastrophic incident at the Grosvenor mine. However, in an extraordinary statement on Sep 11, inquiry chairman Terry Martin seized on a series of technicalities and delays by government departments to justify postponing further any public hearings into both the May explosion and 27 other methane gas related incidents that had occurred at the Grosvenor Mine itself. Martin acknowledged that when the board of inquiry was announced on May 21, it had been stated that all evidence relating to the causes of the Grosvenor explosion would be called in public hearings commencing Sep 15. Martin, however, went on to claim:

That is no longer possible.

Offering a highly convoluted justification for his decision, Martin claimed that the Queensland mine regulator had not concluded its investigation into the Grosvenor Mine explosion, therefore the Work Health and Safety Prosecutor was unable to confirm if there was potential for laying any charges. He then claimed that because of this, numbers of witnesses had informed the board of inquiry that they would refuse to answer questions because doing so may tend to incriminate them. Stating unequivocally that the witnesses “refusal to answer such questions is justified,” Martin concluded:

We cannot, at this stage, meaningfully inquire into the 27 methane exceedances (at the Grosvenor Mine) or the serious accident at Grosvenor Mine. We will continue to receive and consider evidence from expert reports and public submissions, but any further public hearings will be listed for no earlier than mid-Mar 2021.

It is also no accident that the state Labor government’s move to suspend public hearings comes just prior to the pending state election in October. With growing popular discontent over mounting job losses and public sector wage cuts amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and in an election where the loss of just two seats would cost the government its majority, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was anxious to take the spotlight off the government’s scandalous record on mine safety. In this, Palaszczuk is being fully backed by the mining unions. When Lynham announced the board of inquiry in the wake of the Grosvenor Mine explosion, the Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) rushed to state:

This is an opportunity for a thorough, wide-ranging and independent examination of the shocking events.

The CFMMEU has not moved an inch from this position even as it became increasingly clear that no such examination was to take place and that a cover-up was underway. On Sep 11, the same day that Martin announced the suspension of further public hearings, the CFMMEU issued a fawning statement declaring their disappointment over Lynham’s announcement of his “retirement from politics at the upcoming election.” The statement praised the outgoing minister for his supposed contribution to safety in the mining industry, fraudulently declaring:

Lynham’s leadership has made a real difference and we thank him for making sure mineworkers’ voices have been heard, including through the wide-ranging Queensland Coal Mining Board of Inquiry which he established.

In reality, even before organising the Grosvenor Mine cover-up operation, Lynham and the Queensland Labor government had consistently defended the mining companies, even in the face of a rising death toll including eight fatalities in the 18 months to December last year. Labor’s close collaboration with the mining giants is in part driven by the fact that the government counts on coal-mining royalties to meet budgetary requirements. These were estimated to be $4.3b last year, a substantial amount, but a drop in the ocean compared to the many billions of dollars that go annually into the coffers of the mining companies. Labor, along with previous state governments, has also overseen the escalating casualisation of the mining sector workforce and the large miners’ increasing use of contract hire companies that experts have identified as a major contributor to mining deaths and injuries. Over the years, assisted by the mining unions that worked to suppress workers’ opposition to job cuts, the once better-trained permanent workforce has been increasingly replaced by less experienced contract-hire workers. Moreover, the precarious position of casual workers, whose employment can be readily terminated by contract-hire companies, has produced a situation where such workers are highly reluctant to report safety concerns out of fear of losing their jobs. Whichever big-business party comes to power in the October Queensland state elections, Labor or Liberal National, the undermining of safety in the mining sector and across industry generally will continue unabated. The carnage will not end until workers take matters into their own hands and build new rank-and-file organisations of struggle independent of the unions that will vigorously enforce safety and basic conditions. This will form part of the fight to totally reorganise society along socialist lines, so that production is placed under workers’ control to meet social need, not private profit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.