Growth continues and living standards continue to fall

John Gowland

For three decades Australia has experienced almost continual growth, even escaping the 2008 GFC. While there has been a marked decline in living standards for workers in every country, now for the first time in a generation, workers in Australia have been hit hard and are still in a state of shock. New data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) showed that the cost of living over the past year grew by 9.3%! This is the biggest increase in the cost of living since 1987.

A global recession is widely expected during the latter half of 2023, but all the data indicates that Australia will avoid it.

A recession is generally seen as a period of 2 quarters of negative growth accompanied by a significant rise in the unemployment rate. In 2021 there was, globally, 6.1% growth, in 2022 it was 3.1% and only a 2.9% expected in the first half of 2023. At least one-third of the global economy is anticipated to be in recession in 2023 and for the rest “it would feel like recession for hundreds of millions of people”, as the IMF put it. 

So, we have to change the definition, accepted in every capitalist country for decades, of what a recession is. We currently see the opposite occuring, this international capitalist crisis is accompanied by a serious shortage of Labor in almost every country. This trend has now reversed and in many countries, there have been huge cuts in the workforce and unemployment will soon start to rise rapidly.

The policy of every central bank, The Federal Reserve in the USA, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and the World Bank, has been to increasingly raise interest rates and keep wages down in order to avoid a massive rise in inflation with the aim, primarily, to avoid a full-blown depression. A depression is an extreme recession that lasts three or more years or which leads to a decline in real GDP of at least 10%.

These definitions are the tools of the world’s leading capitalists. But we can apply the same definitions to the conditions of the working classes. In Australia the official inflation rate has risen for the last three years from 0.89% mid 2019 to 6.5% in 2022 and is now 7.8%. The real inflation rate is more than 9%. Wage rates have grown steadily from 2.4% in 2021 to 3.5% in 2023.  (ABS). The precise measure of the falling living standards is hard to assess, but we do know that during 2021 and 2022 there were massive hikes in petrol, interest rates (rises in mortgage repayments and rents) electricity, gas, and food (ABS) .

Estimates indicate that the average income in Australia has declined by around 5% in 2020 and 2021 but 9.3% last year which is a cumulative decline of almost 20%. That falling rate of income is set to accelerate in 2023 and 2024, with gas and oil prices predicted to rise by around 20%!

And all these are expected to rise at a faster rate in 2023 than they did in 2022. Technically, and in reality, the Australian people, the 98%, are already in a state of recession and will enter a state of depression during 2023. The majority of the populations of many countries have already been in a state of depression. In countries like Sri Lanka the great majority have been in a state of severe economic depression for some time.

Meanwhile, the richest capitalists in the world have fared very well in this period.

The world’s ten richest men more than doubled their fortunes from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion —at a rate of $15,000 per second or $1.3 billion a day— during the first two years of a pandemic that has seen the incomes of 99 percent of humanity fall and over 160 million more people forced into poverty.

It is now almost impossible for the average young couple to buy a home. Interest rates are so high that even with the help of both sets of parents young people cannot buy a home. The rental market, in every state in Australia, is a nightmare. There is increasing pressure on young and middle aged people. 

The housing market has long been the Achilles heel of the Australian economy. Financial advisors, have for decades, emphasised that the best insurance for the future is for families to buy as expensive a home, and a second home, as their income will allow. This was based on the false assumption that living standards would continue to grow. That advice has now turned into a nightmare for Australian families.

“RateCity says this week’s official interest rate rise means the average borrower with a $500,000 loan is likely paying an extra $908 a month since rates started to rise last May.” The Guardian. Since the average mortgage is $600,000, Australian families are now paying on average $1,000 a month more than 9 months ago. This means almost a million homeowners will be under severe mortgage stress.

The situation for older Australians is not much better. Those in their 60’s, 70’s, and above rely on their pensions and/or their Superannuation. Investment funds have collapsed, and many older workers have lost tens of thousands of dollars in superannuation.

So, there is tension building in the Australian working and middle classes,unseen since the 80s. That was 40 years ago. Strikes continue to grow and although nowhere near the levels of the 80s it is very noticeable. One of the indications of this process is the relative, very recent, wage rises that have not been noted since 2010, 13 years ago.

As the tension builds inside the working-class, anger can quickly turn against the ALP and the leadership of the trade unions. That process will take place without a doubt, but it is not present yet. Sections of the militant workers are still holding back in the hope that the ALP will create conditions to alleviate their falling living standards and stress about the future for their families. When that process of anger towards the ALP develops, socialists must intervene to direct that energy to the task of building new organisations of the working-class, a new workers’ party.

Workers have been under increasing work pressures for several years but now with rapidly falling living standards there is a new sense of anger. There are sections of the working class that have never taken industrial action or at least not for decades. Nurses, public sector workers, transport workers have all taken industrial action in the last year.

There are also sections of society that are potentially explosive. In the West Australian mining/recourse sector, that has held up the Australian economy for so long, workers have been under increasing work pressures for several years but now with rapidly falling living standards there is a new sense of anger. The CFMEU, in the building sector, which is highly unionised, is starting a campaign for big wage rises.

There is a mood of shock and disbelief among Australian workers. The leadership of the unions are holding back workers from industrial action because they have hope in the ALP federally and every state, but one. Most of the union leadership have put forward minimal wage rise claims of 5% in an attempt to support the ALP in this time of serious cost of living crisis. But anger amongst workers is growing, in a mass meeting of nurses recently, the leadership put forward a 5% increase, there were shouts from the health workers of 10% which grew, and the leadership were forced to put it to a vote which was overwhelmingly accepted.

The class struggle and the struggle for socialism is inevitable, at some stage, what is not inevitable is the outcome. The tiniest cog the human mind can imagine can turn the next smallest cog and so forth. This process will develop in the coming period. Only a socialist society can solve this nightmare for the working class. All capitalist routes lead to failure and never-ending crisis with continual, now shorter, booms and more catastrophic slumps, for all Australians.

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