As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats their folly (Proverbs 26: 11)
The conservative’s well worn policy agenda has relaunched itself under the guise of a plan for Australia’s post-Covid19 recovery - more corporate tax cuts, industrial relations ‘reform’, attacking superannuation, cutting environmental protections.
Like that proverbial dog, this is an agenda that conservatives return to again and again, as the solution to any problem. It’s not. At best these solutions are more akin to the bilious puddle.
To date Australia’s pandemic response has been largely free of dangerous ideas peddled by ideologues. No one here has been suggesting that we ingest bleach, although there was a small breakout when a local Liberal MP in Melbourne started fearmongering about the dangers of a suburban flying fox colony.
Evidence has guided our public health response. Early in the pandemic Elly Howse wrote for Challenge about how we build solidarity in a crisis - supporting evidence, following advice, and avoiding panic. This approach has worked for Australia, and our collective efforts are flattening the curve, averting the scale of a health crisis we witness overseas each night on the news.
The apparent successes we are seeing - but by no means yet assured - come when we listen to experts. The other critical factor was having a strong social infrastructure - a strong public health system, a credible public broadcaster, an extensive social security and family payments system supported by tireless public servants.
All bound together with a strong sense of social solidarity.
The crisis has also amplified inequalities and laid bare the inadequacy of parts of our social support system. The temporary increase to what used to be called Newstart is case in point. The government had to increase the JobSeeker payment because it realised what so many had been saying for so long - the current rate wasn’t enough to live on, and there would clearly be political, economic and social consequences if hundreds of thousands more Australians had to rely on it to survive . A permanent answer to raise the rate is not yet locked in.
As Osmond Chiu wrote here recently the shape of our post-Covid future is not assured. We hope for a progressive social democractic consensus, but ‘a corporatist, big state, national conservatism is just as possible.’
In late January, before the pandemic upended our world, Andrew Giles and I outlined for the Chifley Research Centre a reflection on Labor’s 2019 election loss, and that the challenge that the disconnection from each other, and from the exercise of power, has alienated many from the benefits of our social democratic project. We argued for a new social compact to help our nation and our fellow Australians with the sense that we do have interests in common, which we can advance collectively and through government. As the corona-crisis engulfed Australia and the world we wrote further on the importance of giving everyone a say in how we want our tomorrow to look. As we plan for our community and economic recovery, we must argue for tomorrow’s normal to be one where we know what to expect, and we can rely on each other and the government to secure a future that makes us all more connected and prosperous.
Getting there is the challenge. And that’s where we all have a part to play.
Just as we have supported public health experts to lead our response, and listened and learned from what the science was telling us, we now need to activate and mobilise our political response to help shape the community and economic recovery.
Conservatives and neo-liberals have started returning to their policy puddle because they’ve never really left it.
In responding to the crisis the Morrison Government deserves credit for doing what was required in many policy domains even if it didn’t conform to their ideological pedigree - free childcare, cash stimulus, increasing benefits, a wage subsidy. None perfect but all required.
Planning for the recovery won’t be the same. The conservatives and neo-liberals will have their long held policy wishlist top of mind.
We’ve already seen the calls for more tax cuts as being the way to increased growth and job creation, despite the fact they never are.
There will be calls for fiscal austerity to salve the debt bogey they try to create.
They will argue (again) you can create jobs by making it easier to sack people.
All of this is folly. As a nation, we would all be fools to repeat it.
We must argue back. We must argue that cutting services won’t rebuild our stretched social infrastructure, that cutting corporate taxes won’t get people back to work, that local industry needs support and an active plan, and that our workplaces are safer and more productive when we stand together with our union.
We must relentlessly make the case for a strong and active government that is there for us when the next crisis hits.
We can’t hope that someone else will make the case for our progressive policy agenda. It’s up to us.
Though the labour movement.
Through working with community organisations.
Through discussions with researchers and think tanks.
Through talking with our friends and neighbours that we have waved to on our regular (sanctioned) iso-walks.
Today our politics matters more than ever. The recovery will be shaped by the debates we are part of. Let's make sure our voice is heard.
Ryan Batchelor is a Board Member of Chifley Research Centre. Twitter