By Siri Gamage –
Since the neoliberal economic policies were implemented by governments around the world a few decades ago, countries have faced numerous economic and social problems. Such policies have been promoted by governments and multilateral bodies under labels such as globalisation, free trade, opening economies and societies for business and migration, free movement of people, goods and ideas. Governments have been formed, changed and re-formed on the basis of various promises including the promise of a better future or country for the people. In the case of developing countries, more local and international) borrowings to construct mega projects-whether they be transport infrastructure, water irrigation and hydro dam construction, agriculture, education, health, housing, telecommunications, or tourism – did take place. Some borrowings are for projects such as improving the standards of various government owned institutions e.g. judicial or educational. Ultimately, countries like Sri Lanka have reached the bottom in terms of not only so-called development but also very ability of people and institutions including governance to survive. There is no tangible development dividend. Instead, due to the taking off the controls, prices and taxes have sky rocketed. Cost of living has become a major issue for the people due to high prices of utilities, food and medicine, transport, housing etc.
Countries like Australia is no exception. Australia adopted a free trade policy several decades ago when former Prime Minister introduced deregulation of the economy. Since then, many free trade agreements have been signed with other countries. As a country that produces various resources for export, it relies heavily on such exports for earnings e.g. coal, iron ore, meat, fish, agricultural products. Government (federal and State) relies heavily on company taxes from export earnings and royalties from mining and exploration companies. Over the decades, user pay system has been introduced to various services.
A General services Tax (GST) of 10 percent is applied to many consumer goods in addition to personal income tax. State governments have imposed various taxes to other fields. Such taxes are called levies e.g. fire services levy. Public institutions and assets have been sold to the corporate sector as well. E.g. Commonwealth bank, Toll roads. As the State election is to be held next month in New South Wales (NSW) and the campaign is gearing up political leaders from various parties are visiting electorates to promote their agenda. Sue Higginson, upper house member in the NSW parliament, a member of the Australian Greens attended a couple of events in Armidale where I live this week. According to her, at the core of our problems is the State government’s push for further privatisation of public assets. Once they are transferred to corporations, they use such assets to make further profits for the shareholders. Public interest is secondary.
In NSW electricity generation has been privatised. After the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, there have been many disruptions to the supply chain of goods and services. This has led to an increase in numerous goods including medicine, consumer goods, parts for producing various products, and more. As Australia imports various items for producing consumer goods, these disruptions have contributed to higher cost of living. NSW Premier is saying that Water also has to be privatised if he wins government. In order to fund the government’s 100 billion infrastructure program, he sees further privatisation, asset circulation(selling)and borrowings as the key. The picture in Sri Lanka is no different. People have come to the realisation that more borrowings and asset selling to corporate sector is not the solution, even though the government is looking to IMF for further borrowings. IMF is insisting further rationalisation of government institutions (some privatisation), higher taxes to recover the expenses by various government held entities, control mechanisms for corruption and of course human liberties just for the sake of it.
Thus, at the core of these changes taking place in many countries-developed and developing) is the move away from governments responsible for providing public services including utilities, transport, health, education, and telecommunication from the tax income to either encouraging private sector to enter such fields to provide the services. In fact, the government not only grants approvals but, in many cases, financial assistance also. In the Australian case, private education institutions have been given permission to provide education services. It is believed some of them receive grants from the government to do so. In Sri Lanka also, some private education institutions provide degree courses. Under registration by the University Grants Commission (UGC). Health sector also operates on public-private basis. Doctors and specialists are allowed to charge fees from patients when they are consulted in private consultancy rooms. Private hospitals have been built. Medicine that used to be given free to patients in public hospitals is no longer available free. Public transport system – both bus and train – have been neglected for decades. Railway stations including Colombo Fort, Kandy, Peradeniya are still in disrepair. Roofing is asbestos. Colonial style service is provided using old equipment and facilities.
Mainstream political parties that have been in power for decades and implementing economic policies that have brought their economies undone cannot provide the solutions to current cost of living and other problems. They cannot provide public utilities in the public interest. Their only prescription is to privatise public assets to the corporate sector and get several billions in return and waste that money on pet projects. Some minor parties provide a credible critique of this collaborative approach by governments to work closely with the corporate sector that does not necessarily produce the outcomes expected by the people. Enormous costs incurred on consultants and degradation of public service over the decades is another angle to all this approach. Even local Councils in Australia have started to adopt this approach. Some are raising their rates by 50%.
It is time that governments start to go back to basics rather than further promoting this honeymoon by governments and corporations at the expense of public services. Human well-being of the people has to be at the core of whatever governments are doing. Governments cannot rely on the corporate sector to do the right thing as their primary interest is in profit making. Governments have to institute right controls through legislation for the activities of multinational corporations. People’s movements or campaigns have arisen both in Australia and Sri Lanka against various projects that harm the environment, climate, water, or selling of public assets such as valuable land, buildings, ports, airports, beaches to multinationals.
Going back to basics mean several things in the case of Sri Lanka:
1. People starting to grow their own fruits, vegetables, and other agricultural products necessary for living
2. Sustainable institutions of governance. Better representation
3. Empowerment of people by collective action
4. Education based on local/indigenous knowledge and scholarship for relevance
5. Affordable health services including indigenous health service
6. Freedom to engage in association and organisation rights
7. Curtailment of unnecessary imports that compete with local products
8. Ideology not based on materialism but spiritual values
9. Promotion of human values that emphasise collectivity rather than the individual
10. Decolonisation of thinking, values, education, knowledge and life style
11. Taking back the country, identity, freedoms, rights, and power through community action and engagement at different levels
12. Become active and involved in local affairs, politics, community activities e.g. welfare.
13. Temples and churches developing strategies to help needy people.
14. Collaboration become the key mantra rather than competition.