It's Not Too Early To Start Thinking About Australia After the Crisis

01 April 2020

Originally published on the Guardian.

“We are all in this together” is more than a matter of saying we are all at risk from coronavirus, or that we all have a responsibility to follow the rules – we are, and we do. We are all in this together is also about what happens next. It’s about the Australia we want to live in when life is normal again.

“We are all in this together” is more than a matter of saying we are all at risk from coronavirus, or that we all have a responsibility to follow the rules – we are, and we do. We are all in this together is also about what happens next. It’s about the Australia we want to live in when life is normal again.
Desperate queues outside Centrelink offices capture the cruelty of the crisis we’re living through. Tens of thousands of Australians who’d been instructed to stay home and to keep their distance, forced into lines that wound round the block in search of help.
If the suspension of our footy codes and the emptying-out of our workplaces bring home the severity of the coronavirus as a health emergency, those queues for support that seemed to stretch all the way back to the Great Depression speak to the diabolical economic consequences.
Every facet of Australian life will be tested by this moment. The quality of our health system, the foundations of our economy, the strength of our democracy and the ties that bind us together are being challenged in ways we could not have imagined weeks ago.
The most pressing health imperative is obvious; to save lives.
The immediate economic priority is triage – with wage subsidies to maintain the link between employers and workers and to ensure additional support is deployed with sufficient urgency and scale to minimise job losses and business closures and prevent a deeper, more damaging downturn.
So many Australians are working around the clock to deal with the immediate threats and we applaud them for their selfless courage and commitment.
It’s not too early for the rest of us to start thinking about what this crisis is teaching us; what the world looks like after the virus is gone; and what all this means for Australia in the years ahead.
The pandemic of 2020 changes so much, especially what we consider “essential”.
It’s reminded us that economics isn’t an academic abstraction or a meaningless numerical exercise. Economics is about people and the jobs that support them and how we provide for those we love.
That’s the economy. And government?
This crisis brings to light what many Australians already knew first-hand: hollowing-out the state hurts people. We’re seeing the cold hard consequences of years of cuts and closures dressed-up as “savings” and the outsourcing and offshoring of services in the name of “efficiency”.
We are hit in the heart by the realisation that as much as we hate Centrelink queues, we will hate respirator queues even more.
Around the world, this pandemic is proving that small government is ill-suited to big crises.
Neoliberalism has failed, but what comes next? Where will we start again?
The global economy that emerges will be characterised in the economist John Edwards’ words as “a new world … with familiar problems”. Big debt, rubbery policy levers, weak investment and productivity where “the sluggish performance of the last decade will be pleasingly recognisable”.
In Australia too the challenges eating away at our economy before the virus will be there after the hospitals empty. Before anyone had heard of Covid-19 we saw slowing quarterly growth, well below-average annual growth, stagnant wages and declining living standards. It will be “recognisable” but not “pleasing” if all of this persists.
We’ve been lulled into a complacent, mistaken belief that the ills of recession were safely confined to the past because of the three decades of continuous economic growth which started under Hawke and Keating and guaranteed by what Australians achieved together under Rudd and Swan.
Now as we confront over a million unemployed Australians; walk past the doors of hundreds of thousands of shuttered businesses; and tally towards a trillion dollars in public debt, it has to be obvious that Australians and their economy cannot endure after coronavirus like we did before.
In Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change, Jared Diamond wrote that “the challenge, for nations as for individuals in crisis, is to figure out which parts of their identities are already functioning well and don’t need changing, and which parts are no longer working and do need changing”.
To do that, “they need the courage to recognize what must be changed in order to deal with the new situation. That requires the individuals or nations to find new solutions compatible with their abilities and with the rest of their being”.
That’s the task ahead, for us as Australians.
This isn’t the second world war, our nation is fundamentally different and so is the crisis facing us.
It’s about saving lives not sinking ships.
But this doesn’t mean there aren’t useful parallels we can draw.
Stuart Macintyre’s masterpiece, Australia’s Boldest Experiment, chronicles the vision and foresight of John Curtin and Ben Chifley’s plan for “victory in war, victory in peace” in a country which becomes “a mighty fellowship in which the happiness of each will be assured by the effort of all”.
When Curtin established the Department of Post War Reconstruction it was almost Christmas in 1942, and when Chifley was made minister by the start of 1943, most of Europe was still occupied by the Nazis and Japanese bombs were still falling on northern Australia.
The war may have been turning in Australia’s favour but two more years of courage and the sacrifice of many more young people would be required before victory.
Those two Labor leaders knew that if Australia was to prosper after the war it needed to rewrite the social contract during the war, and to be meaningful, full employment needed to be at the core of it.
Curtin and Chifley understood the duty government owed to the citizens whose sacrifice had kept their nation free, the responsibility Australia had to prove worthy of its people’s courage.
Today we need a similar approach focused on the holy trinity of jobs, wages and living standards.
We can deal with the most pressing aspects of this crisis while we contemplate post-virus reconstruction in Australia.
We don’t need a new department but we do need new thinking.
We need to recognise this will be a generational challenge that will demand a generational change in our approaches. Progress may take decades and won’t be confined to budget cycles or the politics as usual which has dominated – if not contaminated – the approach so far.
We don’t have all the answers but we do know that reconstruction should be focused on good jobs for more people. Perhaps we could build it on these six pillars:
Prosperity, which comes from broad and inclusive economic growth, and relies on cheaper and cleaner energy.
Opportunity, which is fairly distributed, and intergenerational mobility especially in our most disadvantaged communities.
Sustainability of our environment, our public finances, better business practices and recognising the effects of our long-term decisions.
Security, national, personal and financial.
Democracy and diplomacy, which rebuilds our relationships, our institutions, and structures expert and scientific guidance.
And identity, which takes from Diamond the idea that crises are more likely to be averted or dealt with successfully by countries with the “ego strength” which comes from knowing who and what they are and which gives them the confidence to deal with the next crisis, or opportunity.
This is a truth Australia has lived for a long time. In adversity, we don’t abandon our values, we live up to them. George Megalogenis and others have made this point elegantly and repeatedly.
If we care about these six pillars as much as we should, and we agree that we need to take a broader, more holistic approach to the wellbeing of our people, then we should work out ways to measure progress more effectively.
We can deal with this crisis decisively, urgently, intelligently. And at the same time we can imagine what the best version of a new Australia looks like afterwards and work towards that with the quality of planning that Chifley deployed after the war with long-lasting and nation-changing effect.
A treasury white paper on the post-pandemic economy with input from all parts of the parliament and all parts of the country would be a good way to go about it.