Victoria: A far cry from utopia

[Green Left Weekly, #248, September 25, 1996]

MELBOURNE — "Life wasn't meant to be easy": in its day, Malcolm Fraser's quip became notorious. Its haughty Tory disdain summed up perfectly the outlook of the capitalist class and the Coalition government towards the needs and concerns of ordinary people.

And now our very own Jeff Kennett has done it for the '90s. As the institutions, arrangements and certainties of a previous period are being demolished about us, he has warned Victorians: don't expect utopia.

He made his remarks in regard to the crisis in the state's hospital system but they surely have a general applicability. As capitalist austerity bites deeper and deeper, utopia is the last thing we should expect from this system. In fact, a lot of Victorians probably no longer expect anything good; they just hope things don't get too bad and that somehow they'll get by.

State news in recent weeks has been dominated by the hospitals crisis and the government's decision to allow virtually unrestricted retail trading hours. These two developments show clearly just where we are headed, and utopia definitely doesn't figure on the agenda — for working-class Victorians, that is; it's a different story if you are the millionaire owner of a casino or a big retail store.

The government's relentless closure of hospital beds has inevitably led to the current crisis. In recent months, record numbers of patients at major Melbourne hospitals have languished for 12 hours or more on trolleys in the corridors: there are simply not enough beds to accommodate them. In his inimitable in-your-face style, Kennett said that Victorians could not expect a utopian system in which they received treatment in public hospitals at any time.

The decision to allow seven-days-a-week, 24-hour shopping is breathtaking in its brutal arrogance. Some people on the left are bemused by the premier's small business background. This is a furphy: the Kennett government carries out the agenda of big business. Unrestricted retail trading will wipe out thousands of small stores and shops, and many small traders who do survive will be condemned to a hellish existence of even longer hours for much diminished returns.

The government claims "consumers" want this madness. But what ordinary shoppers want has nothing whatsoever to do with the matter. The big retail outfits — Myers, David Jones, Woolworths, Coles, Hudson Conway (operators of the huge Crown casino and shopping complex) and so on — want an open slather, and their government has given it to them. Small traders will go to the wall in droves, and conditions and quality of life of workers in the non-stop stores will sharply deteriorate.

You don't like it? Too bad. You shouldn't expect utopia.