More than 4,000 coal miners in central Queensland are in week seven of a strike amounting to a massive tax revolt. The strike is causing substantial losses of revenue for the state and the Australian government, and has prompted a semiofficial protest from Japan, which buys coal the miners normally produce.
Federal ministers are in a quandary over the strike. They have already compromised their own position, but are anxious not to give in to the miners' full demands.If they do, they will have lost a major battle in their fight against tax evasion, a fight in which they are suffering many reverses.
The issue in the strike is the Australian government's decision to tax miners for the value of the subsidized rented housing provided for them by the major mining companies. While subsidized housing has always been theoretically taxable in Australia as part of an employee's earnings, it was not until 1978 that the tax office turned its attention to the housing provided for miners in outback Queensland.
The miners pay only A$5 a week for their houses. Two years ago officials estimated the true value of the rentals was A$45 a week. In April, the officials reduced this estimate to A$30. In July, two weeks after the strike began, the federal treasurer said the payments would be phased in over a three-year period.
Last week, the government made a further concession, reducing the amount on which tax would be paid to A$16 a week. On the tax scales for most of the miners, who earn between $18,000 and $25,000 a year, this would mean a payment of just over $5 a week in tax.
Although they have won major concessions from the government, the miners have decided to continue with their strike indefinitely.
Union leaders say the men want the complete abolition of the tax. Their argument is that since the mines first opened in the area in the 1960s, they have not been taxed on their housing. They believe that once any tax is imposed , the government will rapidly increase it.
Federal Treasurer John Howard says the government won't make any further concessions to the miners. What has been offered so far, he says, amounts to proposals that are "by any means reasonable, and some might say generous, response to the concerns expressed by the miners on strike."
The government is holding out for more than A$1 million it would collect from the miners under the original proposals. Its concern is the many thousands of other people in outback areas who do pay the tax, people such as ambulance workers, sugar workers, schoolteachers, and police.
It also has its eye on miners living in Western Australia, who haven't yet been subjected to the tax, but are next on the taxation office's list.
The miners have responded to the government's pleas saying the prime minister doesn't pay tax on the rent-free accommodation in Canberra he gets from the government.
The government responds that the prime minister owns his own taxable residence elsewhere. One minister, Deputy Prime Minister Doug Anthony, said that all they had to do was buy houses elsewhere, even on the seaside.
As the strike has continued, it has taken on political overtones, which are becoming more important than the implications to the government's taxation policies.
In Queensland, politicians of all political parties tend to support the strikers against the federal government.
Mr. Anthony has accused the miners of having decided to maintain the strike until state and federal elections were held later this year.
In turn, the miners have denied this. One spokesman said he was a "bit suspicious that it was all politically motivated by the federal government."
The miners believe they can remain on strike for six months if necessary. They are being supported by contributions from miners in other parts of outback Australia and by public donations.
Until recently the Utah Development Company, the largest employer in the coalfields, had adopted a neutral position on the strike. But it now favors a settlement on the basis of the latest federal offer. The company is concerned about future coal contracts with Japan.