With the beginnings of a decline in new cases of COVID-19 and suggestions that restrictions may be eased in a number of weeks, public debate is beginning to turn to what a post-COVID future may look like in Australia.
The analogy of a “war” against the pandemic has understandably meant the parallel of post-war reconstruction being cited amongst the progressive side of politics. Progressives do not want a return to the pre-COVID rut and instead want to build a new economy and reimagine a better future together, centred on care and focused on the public. It has drawn on ideas from economist Marianna Mazzucato about missions, increased public sector employment and spending, the pursuit of full employment and articulating a post-carbon reconstruction that rebuilds communities and local manufacturing capacity.
A “snapback” in six months to how things were seems unlikely with two of our largest export industries of tourism and higher education decimated and lower commodity prices for the near future. There is, however, a danger in assuming that this pandemic means the end of neoliberalism or a revival of a social democratic consensus. The experience of the Global Financial Crisis showed that. It is one of a myriad of possibilities that is unclear at this stage. The length of the crisis and the confluence of ideas, events and political coalitions will be just as important.
While we can be inspired by post-war reconstruction, its programme was developed over a decade, shaped by global ideas and agreements that reached across the traditional Left-Right partisan divides in many democratic countries. That same situation does not exist today.
The reinvigorated role of the state and concentration of power seems likely as changes tend to be “sticky” even if rolled back. But a larger role for the state and a rejection of unfettered laissez faire does not necessarily mean that a revived social democratic consensus is the result. A corporatist, big state, national conservatism is just as possible. It would oppose liberal cosmopolitanism, restrict and reduce immigration, promote industry policy with an eye to reducing dependence on China and pursue a hawkish national interest over a rules-based international order. It takes a desire for protection from danger and fear and taps into authoritarian instincts.
Overseas, we see are seeing variants of how this new conservatism could take shape. In America, Republican Party, individuals such as Senator Josh Hawley and former Mitt Romney adviser Oren Cass have rejected what they dub as ‘market fundamentalism’. In Britain, the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has attempted to frame a “One Nation” tradition, indicated a willingness to combine greater public spending and focus on blue-collar workers outside of London. And disturbingly amongst some Australian conservatives, the illiberal conservatism of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has appeal. A national conservatism is not the only alternative to a renewed social democratic agenda. Another possibility is the continuation of neoliberalism with the pursuit of an expansionary austerity agenda to complete the Coalition’s unfinished business from its 2014 National Commission of Audit. Despite government bond rates being at record lows, high household debt, weak investment and low wage growth holding back economic growth, the government debt and deficit narrative continues to have salience. Conservative commentators already making the case for post-crisis cuts, using the metaphor of a recovery to imply a return to a “natural” pre-crisis economy that left many behind. Corporate tax cuts, deregulation and industrial relations changes are already being floated by Scott Morrison.
Some may be tempted to use the rhetorical device of debt and deficit to try to argue for redistributive policies such as reforms to superannuation or franking credits under the guise of there not being money and preventing a worsening of intergenerational inequality. Reinforcing that neoliberal frame is more likely to result in expansionary austerity than those changes being made, helping to cement government debt as being Australia’s main problem when it is not at all.
Underpinning this would be the acceleration of existing trends such as automation and the growing use of technological surveillance, growing corporate concentration, increasing wealth inequality and the continued polarisation of the labour market between those with secure, well-paid, full-time jobs that can be done at home and those who are underemployed with low-paid insecure work.
The lesson is that the past can guide and inspire us but is not a crystal ball that can predict the future. We do not know if there will be multiple waves of infections that cause further disruptions to our lives or how long some of these restrictions will last for.
What a post-COVID Australia looks like will be a choice. It would be a folly for anyone to assume it will automatically be a more open, caring society. Those who wish for a better world need to get to work by campaigning and organising, engaging in policy work and public debate to articulate their vision of a society where we can all flourish. If anything, the last five years in global politics should teach us that nothing is inevitable and anything is possible.
Osmond Chiu is the editor of Challenge. He is Senior Policy and Research Officer at the CPSU (Community and Public Sector Union) and a Research Fellow at Per Capita. He is also a rank and file member of the NSW Labor Policy Forum. Twitter Facebook.