Tuesday, May 31, 2005

C'est non.

If you're an Aussie you'd probably notice a great deal of media hubris around the Corby case. If you're outside this wide brown land it probably hasn't registered a blip.

Similarly if you are in the EU you'd have probably heard the French voted a "non" to the EU constitution and if you reside in "Godzone" you may have read about this on page 10 in the world news section after reading about what Shapelle had for breakfast on page 8.

I was asked on a newsgroup a few weeks ago as an outsider by a French citizen what I knew about the EU constitution vote in France. I admitted that I hadn't heard about it and a quick search through the Sydney Morning Herald revealed that most of the stories about France were either rugby or tourism related.No stories on the French EU vote.

I still don't know much about it but from what I gather it seems to be a vote against the neo-liberal concept of opening up trade and of social and welfare reform. Peter the Other has written a great piece about the vote.

This social/welfare reform actually had already taken place in Australia in the late 80's under the stewardship of the Hawke/Keating government. What has saved Australia isn't the machination of economic tinkering and "free trade" but the resources locked up in the soil. These primary industry resources currently supply China as it experiences a secondary industry boom with the help of a low pegged Yuan against the US greenback.

Anyway here are some of my opinions of the results of that little Keating/ Hawke welfare/social exercise and the subsequent harder lined Howard policy of reform. Take it with a grain of salt and a liberal dose of being no economic and socially aware heavyweight. This is what the French miss out on.

1. No more free tertiary education. The universities were now under the auspices of free trade.Tertiary education had become a privelege not a right. If you pay up front, it is cheaper than opting for the pay later scheme which means the tertiary institutions prefer those with the cheque already signed. Open competition saw the universities vying for overseas full fee paying students. In some cases university places were the result of Daddy writing the cheque, not how well you had done at school.

2. Privatization of the unemployed. The unemployed were no longer the government's problem. Casual recruiting agencies became the new CES (Commonwealth Employment Service). Unemployment figures "dropped" as those who worked four hours a week in a crappy job at a mushroom farm became no longer listed as enemployed.

3. Privatization of the medical system. For some reason a world class FREE medical system was seen as an unecessary expense that could be again farmed out to the private sector. Those from high income brackets were encouraged to join private health funds. The bizarre thing is that if you earned more money, you were actually paying more into the 1.5% medicare levy. In the last series of tax reform, if you earned more than a certain amount and were not in a private health care scheme, you have an extra levy of 1% tacked on, taking the medicare levy up to 2.5%.

Again, this to discourage those earning more from using a once excellent public health care system even though they are paying MORE for it.

Big donations to the current Liberal government from a few of these private health care companies BTW. And their hospitals suck, if you have something really life threatening, you are usually sent to a public hospital anyway.

Privatize the health system and you end up with a basket case like the USA. I was horrified to read a case of a guy in the USA who had broken four fingers at university who didn't seek medical treatment because of health insurance problems. The Australian system is heading this way fast.

3. Privatization of retirement income. Traditionally you paid your taxes, those from the younger generation would support you just as you had supported the older generations. There will be no old aged pension when I get older. Superannuation reform and the reduction of in pocket income was reduced as money was funnelled to the bright lads on Pitt and Collins Streets to gamble with your money on the free money markets. The pension these days is locked up in the value of the house which you will sell and move somewhere cheaper.

4. Reduction in interest rates resulting in a housing price bubble. Interest rates were kept low and a fair whack of the economy was invested into private housing. The resulting demand saw housing prices skyrocket and out of the reaches of the next house buying generation. If you did buy a house it was done using two incomes as the lending criteria. Most of a young couples income goes on the mortgage, that is straight to the banks.

I have been fortunate enough to visit France a couple of times and in some respects it reminds me a lot of Australia, except they don't speak English and everything seems a lot older. There is an underlying work to live not live to work ethos and the newsagents seem to be the most profitable businesses in the small towns, like downunder you actually have to queue up to buy you newspaper.

The "most typically French moment" I suppose was some friends and I being taken on a tour by a French wonderful Frenchman Pierre-Paul who works in a winery and does photography on the side. He took us through a favourite spot of his, in the Gers valley full of sunflower, tobacco and lavender crops. We were examining an ancient fortified chateau in a small village, overhead an Airbus test pilot was stall testing an Airbus jet. The ancient and the modern seem to have a comfortable relationship. Three stocky French policemen piled into a small Citroen just added to the day.

So in some instance France is different and in others it is the same.

Unlike the French, the Australians have allowed the powers to be to get away with handing over the countries safety nets to the banks and private sector. And from what I have seen, in some respects, this is not a good thing. I believe the French have been a lot smarter in this respect.

Kudos for the government in enabling the people to vote on the issue at hand rather than voting their leaders in on other platforms and then sneaking the changes in under a "mandate to reform".


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