Real class warfare

Class warfare seems to be the argument of choice against the ALP at the moment. According to their critics, the Gillard Government is engaging in a war against the rich, one that pits citizen against citizen and creates a sentiment of resentment. As the Government announced changes to superannuation a few weeks ago for example, an editorial in the Herald Sun claimed:

“Instead of governing for all Australians, the Gillard Government is actively promoting class warfare and realigning itself with the unions”.

Even Labor MPs have bought into the story. After his resignation from the Cabinet a couple of weeks ago Martin Ferguson said:

“The class-war rhetoric that started with the mining dispute of 2010 must cease. It is doing the Labor Party no good.”

It’s about time these claims are properly challenged as the rubbish they are.

Thinking about what we mean by class warfare; a conflict or struggle between different economic classes, the policies implemented by the ALP, certainly don’t fit the bill. At best the Government has slightly tinkered with the wealth of the rich, but it certainly doesn’t amount to a war.

And the problem is therefore that whilst we’re making these fake claims of class warfare, we’re ignoring the real threat of war that is right under our noses. To understand this, I think it is worth looking across the world to some real class warfare. After the election of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010, the UK Government has engaged in what can only be classified as high level warfare. Taking inspiration from the Thatcher years, Cameron made true of promises to cut the deficit and debt, and did so directly through targeting the poor. He made cuts to welfare programs, increased University fees, and slashed thousands of public service positions (directly impact the people who benefit from the services these people provide).

This program has taken a much more controversial turn recently with a new welfare platform. The most well-known of these is the so called ‘bedroom tax’, or the Spare Room Subsidy, a program where anyone receiving housing benefit payments will have to move or pay a subsidy for each room they have vacant. As George Monbiot notes, this tax is likely to hit disabled people the worst, and force thousands of poor people who can’t afford it from their homes (some councils are already saying they will not evict people who can’t afford the tax). Monbiot also points towards other policies, including cuts to relief for the poor from council taxes, the cut off of legal aid for civil cases, a cut in real terms of benefit payments for the poorest in society and the implementation of a total benefits cap, which is likely to force people who live in places with high property prices out of their homes.

All of this will be topped off with the fact that at the same time those who make more than £150,000 a year will have their income tax cut. As Monbiot says:

“What we are witnessing is raw economic warfare by the rich against the poor.”

Monbiot is right; this is genuine class warfare. This is about one class, the wealthy and powerful, using their positions of power to increase their standing at the expense of the poor. It is not about good policy, nor good financial management, but about demonising the poor to the benefit of the rich. And in doing so this is the sort of class warfare we should be really concerned about. Compared to a sort of warfare that involves leveling the playing field or tinkering with the pay checks of the wealthy, this is about kicking those who are already struggling whilst they’re down.

And, whilst we’ve heard screams about the mining and superannuation taxes, this is the sort of class warfare we should be really worried about in Australia. Whilst the Government watered down its mining tax for example, it also cut payments to single parents on welfare. This meant that over the past 6 months, the Government has cut more money to single parents than it raised from the mining tax. The Government has begun to implement a welfare management system, which provides for the compulsory quarantining of 50 per cent of welfare payments so money is spent on essentials and children. Whilst not as bad as the Cameron cuts, these provisions point to a form of class warfare that is largely being ignored.

And things only look to get worse if Tony Abbott is elected. Abbott already has a series of policies directed straight at the poor. As part of his plan abolish the mining tax, Abbott has announced that he would reverse superannuation tax cuts which have affected 3.6 million of the lowest paid Australians. He has announced a range of welfare policies, including continuing with welfare quarantining, stripping away unemployment benefits for people in areas where there are skill shortages and overhauling the disability pension. Abbott called his policy a ‘tough-love’ approach. Abbott’s approach is to be met with a range of policies that will benefit the wealthy, including the repealing of the carbon and mining taxes and the ending of the means testing of the private health rebate.

And there is the very real potential that we could expect more for Abbott if he is elected. It has already been noted that if elected the Coalition has a large budget hole, as his spending promises do not match his promised cuts. With the promise to get the budget back into surplus, and a campaign of no new taxes, it is very possible that Abbott could look to welfare and the poor.

Class warfare is alive and strong in Australia. But it is not what the Australian and Conservative MPs are talking about – it is about an ongoing, and systematic attack on the poor. There is a real chance that this campaign could get significantly worse if an Abbott Government is elected, and it is something that deserves real attention.

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