Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told ABC Radio National this morning he intends to pursue a “productivity agenda” that includes deregulation, industrial relations reform and lower company taxes.
He had “no plans” to lift the GST but did not rule it out, and said he had unfinished business when it comes to an anti-union bill and extending the lowered 25% company tax rate to large corporations.
Yesterday Reserve Bank governor Philip Low, predicting the biggest contraction in national output and income seen in Australia since the 1930s, said top of his list of reform measures was “the way we tax income generation, consumption and land” and “looking at the flexibility and complexity of our industrial relations system”.
Frydenberg, who told ABC that Australia’s company tax rate was too high relative to other countries, said he’s had multiple discussions with business lobby groups this week. They have been pushing hard for company tax cuts, deregulation and weakening of industrial relations protections.
Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter has already used the crisis to make it easier for big businesses to strip workers of pay and conditions, leading to threats from unions of a national public boycott campaign against any companies that try to “exploit the pandemic”.
Federal Government ministers have been out in force since the start of the COVID-19 crisis pushing “Team Australia” language when advocating for policy decisions. “It is a big team Australia moment,” said government services minister Stuart Robert on the weekend when pushing his COVID-19 tracking app.
Dr Lowe in reference to the banks yesterday said “they understand that they’re part of Team Australia, that they have a role to play in keeping the economy running”.
Michael Cooney, general manager of public affairs at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, said today the “rhetoric of ‘team Australia’ is being used pretty cyncically it feels like to try to get progressive people and civil society to buy into some pretty conservative agendas”.
Cooney expressed concern on the Australia At Home online event today, with Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers, regarding the proposed tax cuts, industrial relations reform and superannuation withdrawals. He added Maurice Blackburn Lawyers had already seen multiple cases of employers trying to rort the government’s JobKeeper package, such as by not passing the payments on to employees or asking staff to work more hours for effectively no more pay.
Chalmers said an alternative vision was needed for what Australia looks like following the crisis, noting that even pre-crisis Australia was defined by underemployment, insecure/precarious work, stagnant wages, declining living standards, low consumption, record household debt and sluggish economic growth.
“I am a bit worried that as you say the ‘team Australia’ becomes another way that the conservatives divide people; you’re either in the cart for all the things they want to do or you’re outside the cart and therefore not playing for team Australia,” said Chalmers.
“I think that is a potentially damaging rhetorical advance.”
Chalmers added: “I think it would be disappointing but not especially surprising if the government tried to use this crisis as an excuse to kind of dust off all their old ideological obsesssions, all their anti-union rhetoric, all their anti-worker industrial relations proposals.”
He said it was “disappointing” the government was also trying to “undermine superannuation” in its response to the crisis by encouraging workers to access their superanunation early. Chalmers believes nationalisation or taking equity in struggling businesses like Virgin “should be an option for the government” to protect jobs but he was generally not in favour of nationalising healthy businesses.
“During the GFC even the British government nationalised some of their finance sector companies and from memory they made quite a bit of money on it when they reprivatised it,” said Chalmers, adding he was not a supporter of “universal basic income” because it would leave less money to help vunlerable people.
Experts have warned that a continuation of the government’s neoliberal economic agenda of deregulation, tax cuts and cuts to government spending could make the coming economic depression far more painful for most Australians.
“Neoliberalism has failed, but what comes next?,” Chalmers pondered in a op-ed for The Guardian last month.
In response to business press coverage of Dr Lowe’s remarks, Labor senator Murray Watt tweeted today: “An economic recovery that shifts the tax burden from the rich to the poor, and cutting workplace rights is not ‘Team Australia’.”