COVID-19 has been a shock to the political system, the ramifications of which will be felt for many years to come. While we know there will be significant implications, exactly what they will be is very much open for debate. Indeed, we progressives have to seek to influence them.
The last big shock to the system was the Great Recession of 2009. The aftermath of that was meant to be the ‘social democratic moment’. It was thought that given deregulation and a laissez faire attitude had brought the crisis about, parties which believed in sensible interventions and regulations would be well placed. It hasn’t turned out like that. Grievance and resentment about the Great Recession and inequality has been a more fruitful field for right wing populists than economic progressives.
Plenty of people have pointed to the parallels with World War II. Labor in Australia and Labour in the United Kingdom in particular saw a unique opportunity to improve community standards and support, arguing that returning soldiers and their families deserved a better peace given the sacrifices of the war. They also made the compelling economic case that strong government investment was necessary to build the bridge to the future from the economic dislocation of the global conflagration.
Social democrats used World War II to argue for a reset; for a completely fresh approach. Chifley and Attlee didn’t just argue for better answers to the questions of the time. They posed a completely new set of questions; they reset the political debate in each country.
In today’s context, COVID-19 gives us an opportunity to similarly reset the political discussion - to draw a line under many of the toxic debates of the last decade or so and offer a new covenant to the people.
There’s an opportunity for Labor to argue that things that were in the ‘too hard basket’ should be no longer.The response to COVID-19, particularly in Australia, shows what is possible when governments actually apply force of will to seemingly intractable problems.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Governments decided it was important enough to quarantine overseas arrivals that they did so at
government expense in hotels. Very nice hotels, often five star. It was implemented at very short notice and at very great expense, with no quibbling about which government should pay. Right call. Despite the issues in Victoria, compulsory quarantine has been a vitally important factor in Australia’s comparative pandemic success.
But yet women’s refuges remain under-funded, over- crowded and all too often reliant on charity. Imagine if the same force of will and sense of urgency was brought to bear on providing adequate accommodation for Australians fleeing domestic abuse as was brought to bear on hotel quarantine. With two women a week dying at the hands of their partner or former partner, it would be justified.
A few other examples. Australia’s governments laudably worked to increase the number of ventilators available from around 2,000 to more than 7,000. Again, it was done quickly. It is a remarkable achievement.
What if the same urgency was applied to improving service provision through Aboriginal medical services? Given the life expectancy gap between First Nations and other Australians is stubbornly unchanged, wouldn’t that be warranted?
Or let’s take an international example. In Britain, the Conservative government had a target of reducing homelessness by 90% in five years. Sounds ambitious?
When the COVID crisis hit and Whitehall was concerned that rough sleepers would become a vector through which the virus would be spread, this target was met in two days. When the force of will and power of government action was brought to bear, an ambitious government target was met in forty eight hours.
It is a similar story in Australia. Out of the estimated 8,200 rough sleepers in Australia, an impressive 5,000 were temporarily sheltered in the early weeks of the pandemic.
When the fierce of urgency of now is applied, when ideology is put aside, when prime ministers and premiers of good will work together to fix an urgent problem, a lot can achieved.
It takes sustained focus, effort and investment – but we should accept no less on the great challenges of our time.
The other lesson is that these things have been possible because governments have ruthlessly prioritised. For centre left parties in particular this is key. As believers in activist government and with big ambitions to improve the country, it is even more important we prioritise our ambitions. If we try and do it all at once, we’ll fail. We can’t ‘boil the ocean’, particularly from Opposition. If we pick our areas of focus and apply a focus similar to that which has applied during this crisis.
While parties of the right advocate for a ‘snapback’ and return to pre-COVID policy settings as a matter of urgency, Labor can and should take a more imaginative approach. We can use the pandemic as a reset, to point out the power of appropriate, well-calibrated government interventions on an agreed set of priorities. It’s time to empty the too- hard basket and begin building a better post-COVID world.
Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 1
Author: Chris Bowen MP