Published in The Quarterly Essay 83, September 2021
Reading Exit Strategy as most of Australia went back into lockdown with one of the world’s worst vaccination rates made me wonder whether the title was an oxymoron.
When historians examine Australia’s response to COVID-19, the absence of a clear strategy to steer Australia beyond a pandemic into a brighter future may well be the most mystifying part of the whole episode. Our inability to plan and implement a response to a known systemic risk could be one of the biggest own goals in our nation’s history. If repeated on climate change, we are doomed to fail.
None of this discounts George Megalogenis’s essay, which offers a dose of history on how Australia has tackled systemic shocks, the latest of which is COVID-19. His story of the distinctive values and culture of Australia’s public services and the widespread acceptance that they should be able to offer frank professional advice without fear of losing their jobs provided a ray of light in an otherwise grim time, as did his snapshot of the new lease of life in Joe Biden’s America, where strengthened social infrastructure and a $450 billion investment in early childhood development are central tenets of the response.
Australian policymakers have known about the devastating regularity of pandemics for some time, and they were warned about the risk of coronaviruses specifically nearly a decade ago. A Senate Estimates hearing in federal parliament way back in June 2013 was told the possibility of a “novel coronavirus” was “very scary.” Among the participants in that exchange was Jane Halton, then secretary of the Department of Health, who was appointed to the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) in March 2020 and was a key adviser as Australia explored suitable vaccines.
When the prime minister established the NCCC, he said it would “coordinate advice to the Australian government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of the global coronavirus pandemic.” This was, he said, “about mobilising a whole-of-society and whole-of-economy effort.” The NCCC sounded like a “red team” for COVID-19, and it should have been, yet by 3 May 2021 its work had concluded. “We have moved past the emergency phase of the COVID-19 response and are now on the path of economic recovery,” said the prime minister. “Australia’s strong health and economic circumstances and our strong outlook make it the right time for the Board to conclude its work.” With Australia then at the bottom of global vaccination rates, and the Delta strain having just been used to justify a ban on Australians returning from India, it beggars belief the NCCC was told to down tools early. One wonders what it actually did, and whether it offered up anything other than smoke and mirrors. Whatever the NCCC spent time on, it does not appear to have war-gamed different strategies on quarantine hubs or vaccination rollouts, or to have tested various tactics to keep Australia one step ahead of the virus.
The grim short story of COVID for Australia is that we were caught napping at the start and have been reactive throughout. While some of our reactions have been inspired, overall we have lacked the courage and creativity to use the crisis to imagine a better future for Australians and for our region. The initial flurry of national collaboration has been replaced by a fractured Federation. According to the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, Australia now has some of the most stringent restrictions among OECD countries. That is a predictable consequence of sticking with last year’s strategy, not chasing and securing multiple vaccines, being too slow to add new technologies to our arsenal, like rapid lateral flow tests, and not preparing effectively for the inevitable future waves and different strains.
Megalogenis is spot-on about Australians placing their faith in government being the story of the pandemic. I am willing to believe the desire Australians have for more active government was growing before COVID-19. Two years ago, in the Quarterly Essay Australia Fair, Rebecca Huntley wrote that Australia is a nation of democrats. The Centre for Policy Development’s research on public attitudes reinforced this, revealing that, as Australians, we share a unique resolve to make democracy work, solve big problems and improve the lives of others. The 2019 federal election did not disprove Huntley’s thesis. The twin crises since, the bushfires and pandemic, have put it firmly back in the frame. When CPD asked Australians in June 2020 what the main purpose of their democracy is, the answer now three times more popular than any other was ensuring all people are treated fairly and equally, including the most vulnerable. This answer was chosen by 45 per cent of respondents, up from 36 per cent in 2018, far ahead of other answers, such as ensuring people are free to decide how to live (15 per cent) or electing representatives to make decisions (13 per cent).
The other key takeaway from this attitudes research was how voters across the political spectrum are at the end of their tether with contracting out services. On this, Australians are united. Ninety per cent now think it is important for government to maintain the capability and skills to deliver services directly, instead of paying others to do it. This is up from 75 per cent in 2018. In a sign of the times, Coalition voters are now the strongest supporters of rebuilding an active role for government in service delivery. The failure of private contractors to roll-out COVID-19 vaccines efficiently will only reinforce this view. Let’s not kid ourselves: when lives are on the line, you want someone to take responsibility, not outsource it.
Megalogenis nails this issue, although I wish he had given us more on the central question he poses: can Australia restore faith in good government? His essay dares to dream that Australia can adapt its model of governing and delivering services “to the new consensus for a more active government” and “reconceive the political economy of the nation.” I agree that the answer lies in reconnecting with communities, just as Lynelle Briggs found in the aged-care royal commission, and that one part of the answer is a more effective approach by the Commonwealth to partnering with (and funding) state and local governments to deliver services in communities. But I want to suggest the challenge is more profound, for at least two reasons.
First, the how is not for the faint-hearted. As Megalogenis writes, “The gaps in the safety net which the coronavirus exploited will become poverty traps in recovery if the government continues to defer to the market.” A new approach requires a reorganisation of government and a commitment to regional and community deals involving levels of government alongside business and the community. That’s very difficult with anaemic public-sector capability and depleted memory at the national level, especially in social policy. Even if it prefers to fund than to deliver, the Commonwealth will need, and the community will expect, more feet on the ground. Digital delivery helps but is no substitute for interpersonal relationships and knowing what it takes to run things well at neighbourhood level, whether this is in early childhood development, aged care, disability or employment services. Each of these service systems faces acute challenges. Take employment as one example. As of 30 June 2021, there were 1,013,452 Australians on the employment services case load. Around three-quarters have been there for over twelve months. More than a third have been there for more than two years. We were asleep at the wheel.
Second, this century demands a richer understanding of what a sustainable economy looks like over the long term. Unless we change tack, it will be impossible to disentangle Australia’s strategy to exit the pandemic from our future approaches to care, climate change, and growth. In each, we see danger signs of the old model: reactive, not proactive, policy development that is based on events, not on evidence and foresight; the government not valuing or nurturing work in the “caring and brain economies” for Australians young and old; and a fossilised approach to boosting economic and social participation in communities in desperate need of new energy and fresh horizons.
Since Megalogenis wrote his essay, the federal government has published its 5-yearly Intergenerational Report, with rosy projections for productivity growth. But at the same time, we have seen a drain of international students and skilled migrants, and a stubborn lack of national planning for carbon transition. Optimistic forecasts are no substitute for an exit strategy.
This future has caught up with us. It demands that Australia change now, or be steamrolled by events. In the run up to a federal election, the prime minister and opposition leader need to answer the questions Megalogenis poses. Otherwise, to use a word deployed by the prime minister during the current lockdowns, we will “squander” the natural advantages and opportunities already open to Australia and be on a road from which there is no exit.