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Austria: Coalition agreement: a Green fig leaf for the ÖVP

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With the approval of more than 93 percent of the Federal Congress of the Greens for a coalition agreement with the conservative Austrian People’s Party, ÖVP, the new Austrian government has been formed. The congress vote, however, masks a justified scepticism among the party base, as the government is clearly under the dominance of the ÖVP. It has 10 ministers, including Finance, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Defence, Economy, Labour and Education while the Greens have just four; Justice, Social Affairs, Environment and Arts.

The government programme itself clearly has a conservative, right-wing character that maintains the neoliberal, racist and authoritarian course of the "new” People's Party under Sebastian Kurz. Although the Greens are credited with ensuring a number of “ecological reforms”, they do not represent a serious breakthrough in environmental policy.

There is no great satisfaction on the part of the People's Party either. The previous “black-blue” government, the coalition between ÖVP and the Freedom Party, was set up by Sebastian Kurz as a long term, strategic project to remove important achievements of the workers' movement. It was partly successful, especially on the extension of the legal maximum working hours to 12 hours per day or 60 hours per week, and the reform of the social security system, which relieves the financial contributions of the companies and gives their representatives more political influence.

However, other important projects such as tax reform, reform of unemployment insurance or cuts for the Chamber of Labour could not be implemented because the coalition broke down in the wake of Heinz-Christian Strache's Ibiza scandal and related disputes.

Further scandals and quarrels about former party leader Strache have shaken the FPÖ so badly that a continuation of the black-blue project after the elections last September was out of the question - to the regret of Sebastian Kurz. In view of the ÖVP's right-wing course on the one hand and the political crisis of social democracy on the other, a reconciliation of these two parties was also unrealistic. With the strong "comeback" of the Greens to parliament, and the current importance of climate change in the public debate, the "green option" for the People's Party now became obvious.

Key reforms
Kurz's overarching project to reduce the tax ratio to 40 percent will also be retained in the government with the Greens. Behind it is the neo-liberal ideology of the People's Party to favour companies and higher earners. Of course, this will mean less government revenue and that will affect the social system in the medium term, but that is also part of the neoliberal idea.

The reduction of the tax ratio is ultimately a populist strategy that leads to a redistribution from the bottom to the top. One element of this is the reform of income tax rates downwards, from which large sections of the working class also benefit, but of course also the richer incomes. The poorest sections of the population, who pay little or no income tax, will not get any relief. For the bourgeoisie, an additional attraction is the reduction of the tax on corporate profits, from 25 percent to 21percent.

At the same time as reducing the tax rate, the government also wants to cut the state budget and reduce the debt ratio to 60 percent of GDP. This logic still worked during the last term of office because the good economic situation led to higher tax revenues, but now the economic outlook is poor and the desired investments in climate protection will cost quite a bit. In the face of a possible global economic crisis, Austrian capital will again cry out for economic stimulus programmes worth billions, and large amounts of money may be needed to rescue banks or companies.

In order to sugar the election pill, the government plans to expand the Kurz prestige project, the family bonus. From now on, high-income households with several children will receive a tax refund of €1,750 instead of €1,500 per child, per year, provided they pay that much income tax at all. Although an increased "additional child allowance" will be paid not only to single parents but all low-income, this will still only amount to 350 euros per child.

The Greens have apparently been persuaded by the latter measure to opt for the family bonus because it enables them to claim measures to combat poverty. The commitment to "closing the gap for low wages", that is, those below the lowest collectively agreed wages, follows the same pattern. The announcement has a nice ring to it, but this is by no means a statutory minimum wage, as is sometimes suggested in the media, but rather negotiations based on social partnership, from which it is highly unlikely that anything substantial will result.

The unemployment benefit reform proposed by the previous government, which would have abolished “emergency unemployment assistance”, has been dropped, but there is to be a "further development of the unemployment benefit with incentives, so that unemployed people can quickly return to work". This of course shows that the ÖVP does not want to abandon its reform plans, but probably could not reach an agreement. What an attack on the unemployed acceptable to the Greens would look like is still under negotiation.

The situation of women will probably not improve with this government. After cuts in funding for women's associations and a counterproductive "violence protection package", which obliges health personnel to report suspected rape to the police over and above the will of those affected, the women's budget is to be increased by an unknown amount and resources are to be made available for violence protection centres.

In addition, childcare is to be expanded (with a second kindergarten year possibly obligatory in the medium term) and the sales tax on feminine hygiene articles is to be reduced. A planned study on the distribution of unpaid work will then show that nothing has changed in the gendered division of labour, the basis for sexism and women's oppression. This would require a reduction in working hours and the organisation of reproductive work as a social task.

Of course, there are some racist measures in this government programme, with which the Kurz ÖVP wants to score points with the right-wing voters. So, the black-blue project of the so-called "German language support classes" is continued, meaning that for 15-20 hours per week children and young people with "insufficient German knowledge" will be separated from the rest of the class. Following on from the black-blue plans, the "care and legal representation of persons seeking protection", that is, asylum seekers, is to be "nationalised", meaning that this task is to be taken away from the NGOs. This would certainly lead to a worse situation for refugees. This plan is only put into perspective by the fact that the NGOs are to have a "quality advisory board".

Unsurprisingly, they also want to speed up asylum procedures, that is, take less time for an appropriate procedure, and are only guided by the "minimum standards" of the Geneva Convention on Refugees. In addition, there is to be a headscarf ban for girls under 14 at schools, which is justified by the "age of religious consent", while other religious measures against children such as baptisms, circumcisions etc. are tolerated.

In principle, the ÖVP and the Greens have kept open the possibility of introducing laws regarding flight, migration and asylum, without the agreement of both coalition partners. This means the ÖVP can fall back on support from the FPÖ, with which it could hold a majority in the National Council.

Also mentioned under "asylum", although it is likely to affect everyone, is the introduction of a so-called "preventive detention" by which persons are to be locked up preventively, in other words merely on suspicion. This step towards a police state will be accompanied by a substantial increase in the number of police officers; there are to be 2,300 additional posts and 2,000 additional training positions. Anti-Muslim paranoia is matched by the introduction of a documentation centre for "political Islam", which is sweepingly branded as extremism. In general, there are to be measures against associations with "anti-state ideas", the right wing “Identitarians” are mentioned as an example, but there is reason to fear laws that even affect leftist organisations with revolutionary or simply state critical positions.

For the Greens and the environmental movement, the most important issue is of course climate protection. Here, the government is planning to achieve "climate neutrality" by 2040 and 100 percent green electricity from 2030, by improving the National Energy and Climate Plan and setting emission reduction targets. The plan includes some very good measures such as the expansion of public transport, a one million roof solar panel programme or a phase-out of fossil fuel-based space heating. A CO2 price is to be worked out by a task force for 2022, but apparently there was no agreement on this. Either way, however, these measures are hardly sufficient to achieve climate neutrality. This would require the nationalisation of the corporations and an economic plan to reduce CO2 emissions in a targeted manner.

The role of the Greens and left strategy
The Greens are well aware of their subordinate position in this government, but they see the compromise as a necessity in order to make progress in environmental policy. In reality, however, the ecological measures will not be sufficient for a "green turnaround" and green policy must fail because of the short-term profit interests of the bourgeoisie. To ignore this is literally a fire hazard. The Green Party is now revealing itself as an ecological fig leaf for reactionary bourgeois politics.

The fact that the limits of the black-green climate policy are becoming apparent and in addition pressures are arising in the government, to which the Greens will, for better or worse, bend, will also be expressed in the climate movement. The future discussions about a more radical strategy are an important starting point for the left to separate the climate movement from its (petty) bourgeois illusions and to win an alliance with the workers' movement.

Conversely, a corresponding struggle must be waged in the working class, especially in the trade unions. In this way, the Greens can also come under pressure in such a way that the government falls and the ÖVP is isolated. An internationalist offensive of the environmental and workers' movement, based on a council-democratic organisation, can then show the anti-capitalist future perspective for the billions of working people, which is so urgently needed today.