Queensland flood aftermath brings a rising tide of nationalism

Politicians flogged the nationalist drum hard during the recent flood crisis. “We will hang on to our Aussie mateship and our Aussie fair go in the worst times and in the best,” declared Julia Gillard.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh turned on the Queensland jingoism: “We are Queenslanders. We’re the people they breed tough north of the border. We’re the ones they knock down and we get up again.”

The enormous amount of altruism displayed during the crisis was used to make arguments about “Aussie mateship”. This altruism, however, is a human response and not uniquely Australian. The banner draped from the Villawood detention centre—“Dear Queenslanders: we asylum seekers are with you in this difficult times with flooding”—proves that Australian citizens don’t have a monopoly on empathy.

Natural disasters periodically inflict less developed nations but there is never any shortage of neighbourly help. A “tide of local volunteers” helped the victims of the recent floods in Brazil, reported the Christian Science Monitor. In the rush to promote nationalists myths, however, the Villawood and Brazil events were pushed to the margins.

Politicians flog nationalism because it is a useful tool for rallying working class people behind the interests of big business. “We’re all in the same boat”, we’re told—but conveniently everything deemed to be in the “national interest” also happens to be in the interests of big business. Deregulation, anti-union laws, budget cuts, increased productivity, the list goes on. Even protecting the polluting coal industry is “in the national interest”, regardless of its contribution to climate change and natural disasters.

Flood recovery
The government’s flood recovery plan, a new tax worth $1.8 billion and $3.8 billion worth of delays and cuts to government programs, is also being sold as part of the “national interest”. But the reality is a crude class agenda. All of the money raised for reconstruction will go towards rebuilding infrastructure needed to get industry back on its feet. The floods have hit coal mining, agriculture and tourism hard and the government wants to build “roads, bridges, ports”.

None of the money will help individual householders: “This levy is completely separate from donations”, Julia Gillard told the National Press Club, “People who pay this levy will be helping to rebuild the infrastructure”.

While business will benefit primarily from the reconstruction effort, wages will be taxed, not profits. The support the recovery plan has received from the Australian Industry Group and the Chamber of Commerce shows just how business-friendly it is.

While workers on less than $50,000 and those directly affected by the floods are exempt, many on struggle street will be slugged. The levy cuts in at $15,000 below the average annual wage for fulltime workers.

The recovery plan could easily have been funded by borrowing. Every year the government collects over $300 billion in revenue. In a booming economy it would have taken only a couple of years to pay back any loans. But Julia Gillard—obsessed with proving her conservative economic credentials—ruled this out as a “soft option”.

Taxing profits is another way to raise funds. Just a small increase in the rate of company tax—cut down from 49 per cent in 1986 to 30 per cent currently—would have covered the costs. There is no shortage of money at the top end of town. The government’s initial Resource Super Profits Tax (that they backed down from) would have netted them an extra $60 billion.

The programs being slashed, such as the National Rental Affordability Scheme, the Australian Learning and Teaching Council and different solar projects, too, are a backward step.

Slashing these programs, however, won the government praise from conservatives. Paul Kelly from The Australian said that, “the savings signals a leadership team ready to make more cuts to underwrite the 2012-13 budget surplus goal”.

The floods hit workers in other ways. The Queensland Workplace Rights Ombudsman has said that employers are not obliged to pay workers for time off work due to floods, and unions have expressed concerns that some casual mine workers are not going to be re-employed.

Over 50 per cent of flood victims don’t have adequate insurance and will essentially be left to fend for themselves. The destruction of crops will push food prices up and rents will increase in Brisbane and other places as displaced people chase after a shrinking number of rental properties.

While the politicians might argue “we’re all in the same boat”, it’s clear that some have first class cabins and life jackets when things go wrong and will leave the rest of us to sink.

By Mark Gillespie


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