This week


‘Unsustainability’ is the word of the week. Brendan Nelson declares war yet again on compulsory student unionism. The current system is unsustainable he says. Students are ‘buying a product’, not providing funds for clubs and services – let alone extracurricula riches like student theatre or music. Hardly anyone resists the implications any longer: universities are businesses ‘selling products’, they must attend to their core business and to prevailing business terminology and humbug. Any departure from the business model is unsustainable.

After nine years of being told to get over it, the current account deficit has also been declared unsustainable. The skills shortages underlying it are unsustainable. But so, it seems, is the argument that importing an additional 20,000 skilled workers will solve the problem. How sustainable is the case for importing skills when the country has ‘2 million potential workers who are willing and able to work but are unemployed, not looking for work, or are discouraged job seekers’? (according to Tim Colebatch in today’s Age). As sustainable as it was to abolish the programs that might have given them skills? In New Matilda this week Kirk McKenzie finds that very long term unemployment has increased by a massive 68 per cent in the last five years.

Comparisons we badly need. Supports are being dismantled in the US economy just as we are increasingly using it as a role model. The Bush administration is struggling to persuade Americans to give him the go ahead to part-privatise US social welfare, but if they keep saying the present system is not sustainable, and say ‘personal accounts’ rather than ‘privatise’, they will get there in the end.

The Europeans do it differently of course. And despite what we and the Americans see as their stagnant workplace relations, inflexible work practices and unsustainable social democratic supports, the figures indicate they do it better. Much better.

That Europeans look after their workers better is undeniable: they work far fewer hours than American workers, have three or four or even five times the number of paid holidays; they all have health insurance (although their governments spend much less on it); they are more literate and numerate; they are entitled to paid maternal and paternal leave when they have children; in all but one or two countries their children are much less likely to die in infancy; in general they will live longer. Their wages might be a twentieth of their company CEO’s, but in the US, where 1 per cent of the population has 38 per cent of the wealth, it is more likely to be a four hundredth. They are also much less likely to be victims or perpetrators of crime and much less likely to wind up in gaol. Nor will they be executed. For every 100 000 Europeans 87 are in gaol; for every 100 000 Americans 685 are prisoners.

In 2003 the European Union gave US$36.5 billion in development aid which was three times what the US gave. Each year the atmosphere is polluted with nine metric tons of carbon dioxide for each European and twenty tons for each American.

Which model is the more sustainable? The figures favour Europe. It has much less debt (the U.S. has $3.3 trillion, or 28 per cent of GDP); in several European countries productivity per hour is greater than in the US, in several others it is comparable, and overall it is closing fast: not only are the Europeans much better at distributing wealth, they are at least as good at creating it. And they create more of it in small and medium sized enterprises; 65 per cent of European jobs are in SMEs, in the US the figure is 46 per cent.

Which model does our government now favour? Perhaps we should ask them. Ditto for the Opposition. And while we’re at it, we might ask them what they mean when they say ‘sustainable’.

Last week New Matilda began work on a Human Rights Act for this country. A small working party met to set in train the drafting. The draft will be posted on New Matilda in the next month and a forum set up for your comments. Then will begin the long process of harnessing community support, hosing down the panic merchants, petitioning parliament and seeking individual politicians with the determination to bring the issue to the forefront of their parties before the next election. We will keep you posted and seek your involvement.

If the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were being debated today, Australia would almost certainly oppose it.

If Australia were eligible for membership of the European Union, we would be disqualified on human rights grounds.

We would be disqualified because our treatment of asylum seekers breaches the standards imposed by the European Union.

Without a Charter or Bill or a Human Rights Act, Australia is unique in the Western world.

‘Two million thwarted in bid to work’ by Tim Colebatch, Economics editor
March 16, 2005, the Age

The Burden of Social Security Taxes and the Burden of Wage Inequality by Dean Baker, Center for Economic and Policy Research

New Poll Affirms Bush Weakness on Social Security, the Left Coaster

New York Review of Books Europe vs America by Tony Judt, NYRB

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.