Australia can be a better, fairer place after the coronavirus, if we're willing to fight for it

Lenore Taylor
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Watching the Morrison government’s extraordinary transformation into whatever-it-takes Keynesians, doubling the dole one day, effectively part-nationalising private sector payrolls the next, it might seem they have abandoned every economic principle they once held sacred.

But as Malcolm Farr wrote this week, the prime minister sees it as a temporary transformation of practical necessity, and insists things will “snap back” to something like pre-crisis normal when the virus is finally contained. He and the premiers are doing what they must, but all the emergency responses are designed with an eye to their reversal.

Whether a quick “snap back” is realistic is an open question, but it is clear that when this is over and the great fiscal and social reckoning comes, as it will, its form will be contested.

The current political armistice is welcome and necessary, and this national cabinet – an effective way to manage a crisis in a federation – is going to try to hold together to oversee the recovery. But when life does start to return to normality, the consequences of what we will have had to do to get there will inevitably exacerbate ideological differences.

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The country will be deeply in debt, as will many households. As Tim Costello wrote, we’ll also be confronting a wave of grief and trauma. And when the stimulus spending is turned off, as it must be, we’ll face fundamental choices about how we reassemble the pieces – of our economy and our society and our freedoms.

The idea that at that point we could just pick up the settings of January 2020 seems politically heroic.

Having doubled government benefits when the dole queues swelled by hundreds of thousands in a week, having shelled out an extraordinary $130bn in wage subsidies without much of a mutual obligation in sight, and with the jobless rate likely to remain high for a very long time, how can we possibly return to below-poverty line payments and the “dole-bludger” narrative of blame for those who remain unemployed?

Having seen the life-saving benefit of our public health system, there will surely be enormous pressure to fund it better in the future. And having spent billions underwriting “private” hospitals – already reliant on direct and indirect public subsidies even before the crisis – wouldn’t it make sense to finally reconsider their role, as Jennifer Doggett has argued.

Now that we’ve learned, beyond doubt, that essential workers include nurses, cleaners, aged care workers, child carers and home delivery drivers, how can they continue to be paid so little?

Even conservative commentators can see that centre right politics is going to be in desperate need of a new political narrative.

We also know that at some point this all must be paid for. We’ve put our national survival on the tick, reasoning, with justification, that no price is too high.

But the government maintains its philosophical attachment to lower taxes, insisting its already legislated tax cuts can continue unimpeded, even as it is forced to run up the biggest budget deficit in postwar history. There’s been no time to plan that far ahead yet, but as it stands that seems like a quick route to major cuts to services, as Greg Jericho wrote this week, or even to the kind of austerity imposed in the US and the UK after the last financial crisis, with calamitous political consequences.

And some commentators are already lining up to argue that after this, the climate crisis will be pushed aside and business will have a clearer case against government regulation.

Those imagining a different post-crisis world, something fairer, kinder or greener, need to assemble their thoughts and arguments now, and Guardian Australia is publishing as many voices as we can to further that discussion.

This week Richard Dennis lamented that the government had embraced bigger spending by government, rather than bigger government, restricting the potential for the crisis to change things, and benefiting business in the end.

“There is a big difference between pumping money into the economy and creating jobs. When governments pour hundreds of billions of dollars into existing businesses it’s literally impossible to use that money to encourage new things to happen. Targeted wage subsidies have an important role to play in keeping people working through this crisis, but subsidising the wages of 6 million workers to prevent 1 million of them losing their jobs isn’t targeting, it’s an enormous transfer of wealth to the owners of profitable businesses,” he wrote.

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Labor’s treasury spokesman, Jim Chalmers, looked to the postwar experience to argue for a new post-crisis social contract, focused on employment.

“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.

“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.”

The economist Mariana Mazucatto argues the crisis is an opportunity to work out how to do capitalism differently.

“This requires a rethink of what governments are for: rather than simply fixing market failures when they arise, they should move towards actively shaping and creating markets that deliver sustainable and inclusive growth,” she said, in arguments that have been backed by the Pope.

And Sam Mostyn and Travers McLeod considered how Mazucatto’s ideas translated to Australia, arguing it would be “a huge mistake for Australia to go back to where we came from”.

“We need to reflect seriously on our national capacity before the crisis – the lack of complexity in our economy, diminishing capability across our public sector, and the inequity in our communities. Our headline growth indicator was OK but struggled to be clean, sustainable or inclusive, particularly coming out of a summer bruised by drought, heat, fire and storms.”

In a way it’s a good time to think and imagine, while the partisan noise is dialled down, and with everything peripheral stripped away and our lives distilled to their fundamentals: our work – if we are lucky enough to still have it – our homes, our loved ones and a quick walk each day in the sun. Pared back like this it’s easier to concentrate on what really is essential, what matters to us most, and to consider how we should pick up the pieces when we finally emerge from isolation.

  • Lenore Taylor is the editor of Guardian Australia

Some of the commentators mentioned in this piece have participated in a daily lunchtime briefing on ideas for Australia’s future after the crisis. The program can be found at www.australiaathome.com.au