When we finally emerge from the pandemic, we will have a rare opportunity within our reach to recover, reset and renew, rather than rewind.
We need an economy that works for people, not the other way around.
We need more secure work.
We need to invest in job creation through infrastructure, social housing and services from early childhood education to aged care.
We know we have what it takes. Even as the pandemic pushes us apart physically, our sense of all being in this together only grows stronger. When we come out of this crisis, we must not leave that sense of togetherness at the exit.
While the Coalition needed a pandemic to jolt them into pondering the future, Labor was already thinking ahead.
When I began delivering a series of vision statements in 2019, corona was just a beer, not a virus. Yet even then we knew it wasn’t business as usual. The so-called ‘Black Summer’ bushfires had been burning since winter.
As the smoke spread across our continent, then across the globe, it was just one more sign that the world was changing and that the one thing we couldn’t afford to do was to stand still.
One of the central themes of my vision statements has been that wherever there are challenges, there are opportunities - as long as we plan for them.
That first vision statement was on Jobs and the Future of Work.
In it I outlined a future that builds on our potential as a clean energy superpower, which would deliver the trifecta of more jobs, lower emissions and lower energy prices.
Thanks to our rich lithium reserves, for example, we are edging closer to the development of a battery manufacturing industry.
Brisbane-based company, Tritium, has developed the world’s fastest charging stations and is fuelling the shift to electric vehicles in Europe and the US.
Among the energy opportunities that science is bringing within our reach, Chief Scientist Alan Finkel sees a hydrogen export industry that in ten years could be worth $1.7 billion.
My vision is also of a future that leverages our expertise, quality and skills to provide services in tourism, education, infrastructure, urban management and human care. But also a future that demands productivity renewal.
Productivity is the key that unlocks faster economic growth, greater international competitiveness and higher living standards. The productivity debate, however, has to be much more than a one-dimensional focus on industrial relations and work practices.
Instead I want to focus our productivity debate on managing the next wave of challenges.
Challenges such as:
- Strengthening the skills and capacities of our people
- Building a fair tax system that incentivises work and investment;
- Making quality, affordable childcare universal and overturning the current situation, which actively discourages those families where both parents want to work;
- Managing population growth, growing our regions and building productive, sustainable and livable cities;
- Tackling climate change and lowering energy costs;
- Supporting and encouraging older Australians;
- Making the most of our natural endowments and geographical position; and
- Maximising the opportunities of our region and natural endowments.
These challenges confronted us before the coronavirus and will continue to test us long after the pandemic crisis has passed.
Our post-coronavirus actions must confront the weaknesses in our pre-coronavirus world.
We will look to regional job creation, to benefit not only those communities but to take pressure off the capital cities — not so much decentralisation as regionalisation.
I want to see business confidence restored and investment renewed. I want to see clean, cheap energy and a modern energy grid to carry it. I want to see the policy confusion, which has very much become the calling card of the Coalition, swept away and replaced with certainty. I want to see a tax system that gives businesses incentives to invest in their equipment and in their workers.
And I want to see a skills and education system that takes on the skills shortages that are placing a handbrake on productivity growth.
We have a responsibility to repair our ailing vocational education and training system, after the Coalition government neglect has produced 140,000 fewer apprentices and trainees.
We need a VET system that not only trains people for current needs, but which provides workers with transferable skills, and the capacity to upgrade them. To do that TAFE needs to be the centre of delivery.
I have announced Labor’s plan for Jobs and Skills Australia. It is a body that will be a genuine partnership across all sectors, as well as one that is designed for the times — collaborative, networked and responsive.
In stark contrast to the Coalition during the Global Financial Crisis, Labor has acted responsibly from the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.
We scrutinised the Government’s actions and put forward constructive ideas. The most important was the wage subsidies at the heart of JobKeeper, opposed by the Coalition until logic and pressure overwhelmed them.
We criticised the Government for leaving a million Australian casual workers behind as well as sectors including the arts and creative sectors, university staff and visa holders, whilst giving some more than they earned before the pandemic.
I have always said that our approach to economic policy will have a soft heart and a hard head. That is the only way we can go forward.
Social mobility is born of opportunity. Opportunity needs a strong economy, and a strong economy needs growth in productivity. And growth in productivity needs intelligent budgets and a progressive tax system that incentivises investment in capital and people.
The Labor Party was founded at a time when your destiny was anchored to your class. Our historic mission has been to sever that anchor chain: no one held back and no one left behind.
In that spirit, another of my vision statements was about older Australians. If anything, the pandemic has further sharpened our focus on them - not least when you consider those voices in the media who spoke of older Australians as though they were dispensable.
I couldn’t disagree more. After long lives of contribution and playing their part in the building of our nation, older Australians deserve a fulfilling and secure retirement.
We should all be concerned by the Government- facilitated raid on superannuation during the pandemic. It will substantially reduce the retirement savings in the future, as well as undermine the capacity of funds to invest in job creating infrastructure.
In contrast, a future Labor government will move quickly to develop and implement a Positive Ageing Strategy. It will outline a plan to help Australians in their final years of paid work, to build the nest egg that will let them retire when and how they want. It is a plan that will ensure that when Australians do retire, they have access to quality healthcare.
It’s a plan that gives all older Australians a roof over their head and lets them access quality aged care when the need arises.
And it’s a plan that means that those who want or need to stay in the workforce longer can upgrade their skills. According to Deloitte Access Economics, a 3 per cent increase in workforce participation by Australians aged over 55 would generate a $33 billion boost to the economy each year.
I have also spoken out to rebuild our capacity to have constructive national conversations about the big issues. It’s a capacity that has been corroded by culture wars — but it is not beyond repair.
The starting point in strengthening the health of our democracy is inclusion. We must be respectful, open and accountable.
And a core part of inclusion must be the creation of a First Nations voice to parliament, consistent with the historic Uluru Statement from the Heart. Reconciliation will strengthen our nation.
Of course, one of the biggest issues we need to be having a grown-up conversation about is climate change.
The brutal fire season of 2019-20 is something we hope to never go through again — although hope will have little to do with it. Only preparation can help avert further tragedy.
Recent events have given some cause for optimism on that front. Indeed, if there is a good thing that’s come out of the pandemic, it’s the sharp reminder of the value of listening to and respecting experts.
Science took a pounding in the culture wars, but this pandemic has snapped us back to reality.
COVID-19 has reunited us with our respect for science. And with that has come an understanding that science is what can take us from lockdown to unlocking our potential.
And as we get better at recognising that innovation is central to competitive advantage, science will be at the core of our future economic growth, our new industries and the jobs they will create.
What we have is nothing short of a chance to create a better Australia, and it is powered by science.
Respect for science should be a given, but many scientists are exhausted from being derided by quacks and conspiracists. And some of those are in Parliament, politicians who tell us they don’t believe in climate change.
But science is not an act of faith. Climate change is no more a matter of belief than the coronavirus is. It’s about heeding the evidence – and it is overwhelming. We cannot allow opinion to trump truth.
But amid all this, the pandemic has been a wake-up call and the Government begrudgingly shelved ideology in favour of expertise.
The Government has even been jolted into the belated realisation that the union movement, on which it waged war for so long, will actually play an essential role in the recovery.
We all came together. The values that saw us through this crisis are the values that will let us flourish when it is behind us.
Compared with most countries during the pandemic, Australia has been fortunate. Some of it has been the lottery of geographical isolation and low population density.
But it is also thanks to our high level of scientific and medical expertise — and crucially, the fact that it was listened to and acted on.
It has also been a victory of the Australian people. It is testament to our instincts to pull together and co-operate — and to respect actual experts rather than the instant experts, who spring up on Facebook like mushrooms and thrive on the same fuel.
Armed with hope and determination, we can begin picturing what a post-pandemic Australia can look like.
Labor is doing what we always do: looking to the future with clear eyes, open minds and optimism.
Consider two Labor leaders, who faced another of our nation’s turning points. With the world in conflict around them, John Curtin and Ben Chifley spoke not just of Victory in War but of Victory in Peace.
Curtin didn’t live to see the peace, but Chifley worked hard for that second victory. Among his priorities were enlarging the CSIRO and establishing the Australian National University. As Chifley said: ‘Scientific research is a necessity for the maintenance of our standard of living and even for our survival.’
The pandemic has brought that truth even more sharply into focus.
When we have flattened the curve of the coronavirus, the curve of climate change will still be waiting for us.
Just as Curtin and Chifley are Labor’s light on the hill for reconstruction and nation building, Josh Frydenberg has been explicit about Thatcher and Reagan being the inspiration for the Coalition Government. Tellingly, the Budget he handed down in October will put us in debt to the tune of a trillion dollars – but it still somehow managed to ignore more than half the population.
Frydenberg’s hero Margaret Thatcher argued there was ‘no such thing as society’, and she fought mercilessly against the union movement. But the pandemic has reminded us of how wrong she was on both counts. It has shown us once again how interdependent we are. Australians have made sacrifices for each other and demonstrated compassion and care. We are a society, and unions are an essential part of it.
Let’s not snap back to where we were before. We have a chance to chart a way towards a strong economy that works for people, and build a path towards a fair society.
We need to point the country towards growth, because only inclusive economic growth can raise our living standards. We cannot keep putting the greatest burden on the narrowest shoulders. We owe Australians the vision and courage to imagine and create a better future underpinned by the togetherness that is getting us through the coronavirus.
Then one day we can look back with pride at how it was together that we saw off this crisis, and emerged from it stronger.
That’s what Labor’s plans are all about: creating jobs for today – and training our people for tomorrow; making quality childcare a right for all, not a luxury for some; rebuilding our manufacturing sector; and powering our recovery with clean energy.
We can make this once-in-a-century crisis the beginning of a new era of Australian prosperity and Australian fairness. Guided by Labor values, we can build a future in which no-one is held back, and no-one is left behind.
Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 1
Author: Anthony Albanese MP, Leader of the Opposition and Australian Labor Party