Socialist Worker

Face of Australia they want to cover up

Issue No. 1714

Behind Sydney Olympic games

Face of Australia they want to cover up

"THE PEOPLE'S games welcome the world." That is the message from Australia's politicians for the Sydney Olympic Games opening on Friday.

Australia's Liberal [Tory] government wants to project the image of a relaxed, united and equal society, playing on the myth of the "lucky country". But the reality is very different.

Business welcome

  • SODEXHO, THE multinational catering company that profits from the refugee voucher system in Britain, is sponsoring the Olympics.

The firm expects to make the equivalent of an entire year's profits during the games.

  • THE GAMES organisers wanted to ban spectators bringing in water or food. When the Olympic minister was asked whether Vegemite sandwiches would be seized at the gates, he replied, "I'm hesitant to mention products that aren't sponsors."
  • THE OLYMPIC organising committee has outlawed any unauthorised use of images of the games, even on the web.

It has gone to court to have 1,800 websites shut down that use the word "Olympic" in their title. These include a pizza palace, a pool hall and a brand of salad dressing.

  • McDONALD'S IS an official sponsor, with seven sites inside the Olympic stadium.

It will pay their workers as little as �2 an hour, half as much as other Olympic workers during the games.

  • MINING company BHP is a major sponsor of the "green" Olympic Games.

Yet BHP is has recently been criticised for pumping 800,000 tonnes of waste from its Papua New Guinea mine into a river, killing 90 percent of the fish. IN AUSTRALIA there is a yawning gap between rich and poor. Millions of people who once enjoyed a reasonable standard of living have been pushed down into poverty.

In the run-up to the Olympics there has been a huge row over the treatment of Sydney's homeless. The price of property in Sydney has rocketed due to the games. This has hiked up rents by up to 30 percent.

There are now an estimated 35,000 homeless people in Sydney, four times more than eight years ago. The games organisers, accused of sweeping the destitute off the streets, have had to promise "the sensitive treatment of homeless people who sleep in public places in the Central Business District of Sydney".

This homelessness is a symptom of wider poverty in Australia. Unemployment is twice the British rate. Joblessness amongst young people is close to 30 percent. This is in a rich country where even a decade ago workers would have expected a decent job "by right".

Attacks on workers, first under Labour and then Tory governments, has led to a massive increase in workloads along with huge job cuts. Like Britain, there has been a growth in part time and low paid jobs. One "boom" area is call centres.

There are also now 300,000 "outworkers" employed by sweatshop firms making clothes. They receive as little as 75 pence an hour.

But the super-rich have never had it so good. Media mogul Kerry Packer is Australia's richest man. He is a billionaire many times over.

His wealth has increased 64-fold since 1983. Yet his Consolidated Press did not pay a penny in tax last year. Packer, Rupert Murdoch and Alan Bond were the "mates" of 1980s right wing Labour prime minister Bob Hawke.

It was Hawke who unleashed a Thatcherite drive for the free market on the Australian economy. It has included privatisation, deregulation and tax breaks for the rich, while holding down workers' wages.

Labour's policies have continued under the Tories. The wealth of the top ten richest Australians increased by 58 percent in the last two years. The top 1 percent of the population own 20 percent of all wealth, and the top 10 percent own 50 percent. The bottom 30 percent own virtually nothing.


Racist legacy

ALTHOUGH THE Australian government is pushing Aboriginal athlete Kathy Freeman and has a boomerang for its official Olympic emblem, it cannot hide the disgraceful treatment of its indigenous population. Aboriginals' life expectancy is between 18 and 20 years lower than other Australians'. Aboriginal infant mortality rates are three times higher than for white Australians.

Unemployment is triple the national average. One in ten Aboriginals have tin sheds for homes. Aboriginals make up one third of the prison population despite being only 2 percent of the total population. Their rate of death in custody is the highest in the world.

Tory prime minister John Howard's first act when he came to office in 1996 was to slash around �200 million from the Aboriginal affairs budget. He has refused to apologise for past treatment of Aboriginals and stirred up hatred against them.

The roots of this racism go back to the continent's colonisation by Britain. The British ruling class referred to Australia as "empty land" in the late 18th century, ignoring the half a million Aboriginal people there. Britain used the colony as a dumping ground for the rebellious Irish, the poor, working class leaders and those who wanted to "chance their luck".

Racism, inherited from the British Empire, was fostered in this population. A policy of extermination followed, with Aboriginals hunted down as "pests". Later on, up to the 1970s, 100,000 children were kidnapped to be bought up as "white".

But as Australian journalist John Pilger has written, "This is not to suggest that all Australians are uncaring. On the contrary, many care deeply about the legacy of their country's rapacious past. A clear majority of whites want good relations with the indigenous people."

A quarter of a million people marched in Sydney in May to support reconciliation between black and white Australians.


Poor turned away

THE AUSTRALIAN federal government is welcoming the rich, the multinationals, tourists and athletes from across the world to the Olympics. But those seeking asylum are not given the red carpet-they are all incarcerated in detention camps.

Hundreds of asylum seekers broke out of a disused missile base turned detention centre in Woomera, South Australia, in June of this year. Breakouts followed in other centres. Two weeks ago a riot broke out in Woomera when police tried to arrest protest "ringleaders".

The police tear-gassed and water-cannoned the asylum seekers, who responded by torching buildings and defending themselves with slingshots and makeshift spears.

A history of struggle

1890s SHEEP SHEARERS and miners took militant strike action. A dockers' strike in 1890 in Sydney pulled out all the city's workers. "It seemed as though all Sydney were out to participate in or gaze upon the spectacle of labour defying capital," said a newspaper at the time. However, the strike wave, similar to the New Unionism taking place in Britain at the time, was defeated. The Australian Labour Party grew out of this period.

1917 A STRIKE of 85,000 transport and mine workers shut Sydney, and 100,000 rallied against conscription.

1945 A MASS strike wave after World War Two encouraged Aboriginal workers to demand their rights. For the first time they gained white workers' support. Dockers refused to load Dutch ships in 1945 in support of the Indonesian independence struggle.

1960s and 1970s AUSTRALIAN TRADE unions took political action against threats to the environment, known as "green bans". The first was imposed by building workers in 1971 against plans to redevelop a public park in a posh bit of Sydney waterfront.

By October 1973 the Master Builders Association reckoned green bans had halted projects worth "easily $300 million". In 1976 railway workers held a national strike when a union member was sacked for following a union ban on handling uranium.

1998-9 FOR MUCH of the 1980s and 1990s the union movement was in retreat. But militancy resurfaced in 1998 when thousands of workers walked off the job to support locked-out dock workers.

Last year 80,000 marched against the Tory government's anti-union laws. Earlier this year a wave of illegal strikes by steel and coal workers halted further government attacks.


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Sat 16 Sep 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1714
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