Published in The Guardian on 05 May 2020
The steps Australia takes after Covid-19 can’t take us back to the way we were. The prime minister’s message after briefings from treasury and the Reserve Bank has been clear: we need to grow differently. Here are 10 steps to do that and build a stronger nation.
1. Never underestimate systemic risk again
Pandemic or coronavirus weren’t new words when Covid-19 began. This risk was foreseen. Australia had a script but lacked dress rehearsals. Pandemics aren’t the only risks that can cripple our social, economic and political systems. Climate change, water scarcity, ecological collapse, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, infrastructure failure, cyberwar and antibiotic resistance are others. We ignore their cascading impacts at our peril. On some we have held joint exercises. But we must do more to understand Australia’s vulnerability to systemic risks and boost mitigation efforts.
2. Don’t focus on the last war
The war analogy used for Covid-19 can help us plan a better future. We need a post-war legacy like the one after the second world war – investments in the nation, human services and global institutions – not the sort of legacy that followed the first world war. Beware a “no more Covids” mindset ruling us like “no more Munichs” and “no more Vietnams” infected previous post-war planning. We should document what we learned in response to Covid-19. We must improve and practise more because pandemics come in all shapes and sizes. But we cannot fixate on pandemics and devote deficient bandwidth to risks with similar or greater orders of magnitude.
3. Align our growth agenda with a zero carbon future
The first two steps will reinforce what should be obvious, that locking in carbon-dependent growth is a recipe for greater disaster. The experts we’re relying on have also told us climate change will cause first order economic and health impacts. Growth will be a shared national priority, but its composition and direction matters. National missions can spur innovation, new industries and skills, underpinning collaboration between government, industry, universities and vocational training. Most importantly our post-Covid growth agenda must be aligned with decarbonisation. Embedding Ross Garnaut’s superpower story into Australia’s recovery story will create jobs immediately and accelerate the transition of our lives and livelihoods to a zero carbon future.
4. Revalue care
Covid-19 has exposed the Faustian pact our society has made with our carers. Nurses, teachers, childcare, disability and aged-care workers are among the many whose work has been undervalued. More often than not these carers are women. Just as carers and essential services have underwritten Australia through this crisis, revaluing the service they provide must be at the centre of our national recovery. We can restructure our federation to guarantee care for all, especially in early childhood education. This is the moment to secure a new consensus for care.
5. Rewire business for the long term
Business models were broken before Covid-19. The banking royal commission should have signalled the end of shareholder primacy. The 2020 Edelman trust barometer found inequity continued to undermine trust. Over half of respondents globally thought capitalism was doing more harm than good. Australians want business to back long-term value creation for a larger set of stakeholders, especially their employees and their suppliers, and to broaden what we mean by capital. Covid-19 has signalled a capacity to do both. We must sustain this spirit to rewire capitalism for good.
6. Work differently
Those of us still in jobs are lucky. But most of us are working differently – even medics. Parents are seeing more of their kids. We’re convening improbable virtual meetings without costly flights, catering and logistics. The last thing we’ll want after Covid is to run our lives via Zoom, but many employers – public and private – will be able to give staff more flexibility, expect less travel, and foster a healthier work-life balance. We can go further. Sally McManus and Christian Porter have shown what can be done to protect jobs in the national interest. Now it’s time to create more secure work and job guarantees through a Covid-inspired accord between government, unions and business.
7. Back places, people and the public service
Efficiency dividends and gutting public sector capability came home to roost in March. Watching the Australian public service respond to Covid-19 was like watching a footy team starved of first-round draft picks for a decade and using software written for amateur leagues buck the odds and make the finals. Never again. We need to invest more in our public services and grow talent across them. The common thread in national reviews of our public service, employment services and settlement services has been to double down on place-based responses. “Community deals” can do this, connecting funding sources in local networks to boost economic and social outcomes.
8. Get serious about substantive equality
Covid-19 has exposed big inequalities in Australians: between women and men, young and old, for people with disability and for Indigenous Australians. Ours is a polity of paradoxes, chief among them that we want our democracy to boost equality, especially for our most vulnerable, yet we struggle to achieve substantive equality for them. Indigenous Australians over 50 being singled out as a key risk group for Covid-19 shames us all. So should our ranking in the bottom third of OECD countries for employing people with disability. An Australia that strives for equality not just of opportunity but of outcomes will be a healthier, more prosperous nation. Walking together, as Megan Davis has explained, starts with realising the potential of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
9. Influence the world stage
A moment from 2018 has stuck with me. At the end of a roundtable on trade and climate change an EU official said, unprompted: “You Australians, you don’t lead any more – you just wait.” Our foreign service is tremendous but it is true that we have stood back this past decade as megatrends reshaped the globe. Partly because of resources, but largely because of political instructions, Australia is too often a bystander or obstructer on the world stage. We have a one-track foreign policy that lacks balance and invests insufficiently in our region. That must end. The world wants Australia to lead because of our competence, geography, history, openness and relative prosperity. We must be on the right side of history and seek to shape it positively, helping to reform institutions to tackle 21st century challenges.
10. Walk the talk
We can only lead if we know what we stand for. A retired leader from another foreign service told me this year that Australia is viewed as a chameleon in world affairs – saying one thing and doing another. That’s a problem. “You’ve got to walk the talk,” Justin Langer told Barrie Cassidy recently. “If you talk excellence and walk mediocrity, you’re nothing but a common liar.” Langer was talking about our men’s cricket team but the same holds for Australia. How we act during and after Covid, whether it’s for sporting stars or international students, will speak volumes for our national integrity.
Covid-19 has exposed fault lines and frontiers for Australia’s future. We should roll up our sleeves and start paving a new path – actions will speak louder than words.
Travers McLeod is CEO of the Centre for Policy Development.