Humphrey McQueen speaking up for pensioners.

Speech at March in March Rally, Canberra, 6th July, 2014

 ‘What will become of us now?’ That was the question my grandmother asked as she went to bed weeping on the night of the election of the Menzies government in December 1949.

The sight of her in tears has kept her question alive for more than sixty years: ‘What will become of us now?’

My granddad had died of miner’s lung in his late thirties. There was not much by way of worker’s comp in the 1910s, and there was no widow’s pension until 1942. My gran kept herself and her three daughters by doing what poor widows had always done: she scrubbed floors for the rich. Her fear in 1949 was that she would be forced back onto her knees. That didn’t happen because, in the 1950s, a militant working-class blocked the worst excesses from a run of Coalition ‘horror budgets’.

The 2014 budget is the most horrendous since the credit crunch of 1960-61.

Pensioners today have more to weep over than the cuts to our fortnightly rate and the loss of concessions. Those attacks are all too obvious. We are also going to suffer from a blast of policies that will make life harder for the aged and the disabled.

First, there is the threat to change the pension indexation rate from average weekly earnings down to the consumer price index. That means a reduction in our fortnightly income. But the switch to the CPI is only half the story. The government aims to drive wage increases below rises in the cost of living. We can see that threat in the assault on the wages of cleaners. Weekly earnings need active unions like United Voice. The spending money for pensioners is therefore under threat from attacks on unions by the Royal Commission headed by the reactionary ‘Sir’ Dyson Heydon.

The fate of the cleaners has another impact on pensioners. Cleaners are a vital element in health care. The sad fact is that we are the biggest users of hospitals. Any cuts to hospitals are elder-abuse, an assault on our well-being.

The more Corporate providers in hospitals and aged care, the greater the pressure to push up profit rates by increasing charges and cutting services.

Signing up to the Pacific Trade Partnership is the threat to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). If Big Pharma gets its way, it will not just be a higher co-payment for prescriptions, but no PBS at all.

Abbott justifies the GP co-payment as introducing ‘market signals’ into health care. If that lack of principle is established, how long will it before Abbott is buying and selling blood? And why not a futures market in organs for transplanting?

Cuts to education will have a similar rolling impact. Higher uni fees mean fewer health professionals: fewer nurse’s aids, fewer chiropodists, fewer opthalmologists.

Housing will become less available and thus less affordable. Rent subsidies do almost nothing for pensioners in the commercial rental market. We need tens of thousands of extra public housing units.

Anyone lucky enough to have a nest-egg is bleeding capital to meet our lump-sum expenses such as rates, insurance and body corporate fees. Low interest rates make pensioners susceptible to offers of higher returns dangled by the Big Four banks. Yet, rules about financial advisors are being watered down to serve their profits just when pensioners are more vulnerable.

When the scams were rife at the Commonwealth Bank, David Murray was its CEO. Now he is heading up the Inquiry to de-regulate the financial sector.

Like generations of workers, my granmother thought of the Commonwealth Bank as the People’s Bank. ‘Vote Labor and Bank Commonwealth’. How she would have wept to see it sold off by the ALP so that it could compete with the rip-off merchants.

‘What will become of us now?’

The best answer comes from Australia-wide rallies to bust the budget. What will become of us next depends on what we do next. We need to build our movement to resist the attacks. We need to pressure the Greens, the ALP and the independents to stick by their rhetoric.

That means bringing community groups and unions together in action. It is great as ever to hear John Falcon from the St Vincent de Paul and great to be followed by CFMEU secretary Dean Hall whose members have to take their fight up to the boss if more of them are not to be murdered for profit before they can retire at seventy.

A second point is even more important. Stopping the co-payment will be a victory. But it can be only a defensive step. It will be a win because we will have come together to fight back. But stopping the co-payment will sour into a defeat if we allow the Business Council to set the agenda of what we need and what is possible.

Yes, we must Bust this Budget but only as a first step towards breaking through to win more than we had before the cuts.

For example, let’s abolish all the tax concessions for the Super Rich and use the revenues to lift the pension from $20,000 to $25,000.

It is not hard to think of comparable needs in housing, health, education, the environment and public transport.

And can someone please explain two things to me? First, how it is that we have $1.8 trillion in super funds while the aged pension is branded unsustainable. Secondly, why the hell do we need to beg Canadian Super funds to invest in our infrastructure?

What will become of us next?

If we go home today and do nothing more, we’ll all end up scrubbing floors for merchant bankers like the billionaire Turnbull, being treated like dish mops.

Our one hope is to put into practice the oath of the rebels at Eureka:

To stand truly by each other and fight for our rights and liberties.

THE SHOPPER    by Bertolt Brecht   (1934)

 I am an old woman.
When Germany had awoken
Pension rates were cut. My children
Gave me the pennies they could spare. But
I could hardly buy anything now. So at first
I went less often to the shops where I’d gone daily.

But one day I thought it over, and then
Daily once more I went to the baker’s, the greengrocer‘s
As an old customer.

With care I picked my provisions
Took no more than I used to, but no less either
Put rolls beside the loaf and leeks beside the cabbage and only
When they added up the bill did I sigh
With my stiff fingers dug into my little purse
And shaking my head confessed that I didn’t have enough
To pay for those few things, and shaking my head I
Left the shop, observed by all the customers.

I said to myself:
If all of us who have nothing
No longer turn up where food is laid out
They may think we don’t need anything
But if we come and are unable to buy
They’ll know how it is.


See also: Marxism

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