Nature creates viruses.
But poor politicians and politics create and sustain pandemics.
And pandemics create new politics and transform societies.
Every new month of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates how the Australian government is using a serious but manageable health crisis to engineer a radical “New Deal” for Australia.
On 2 July 2021, Scott Morrison announced a “National Four Phase Plan to Transition Australia’s COVID-19 Response”. The Plan was devoid of numbers, facts, targets or commitments. But Scott Morrison declared it to be a “New Deal”.
It would be tempting, but mistaken, to pass this off as just one more politician riffing off President Franklin Roosevelt, who coined the phrase in 1932. But Morrison’s ambitions for his New Deal extend far beyond extricating Australia from the increasingly onerous response to COVID created by his government. Inspired by American Republicans, Boris Johnson and our home-grown libertarians, the Morrison New Deal aspires to be every bit as radical and ambitious as FDR’s.
Now, as in 1932, politicians are using an all-engulfing crisis to reshape their societies.
In 1932, President Roosevelt was confronted by a social and economic catastrophe caused by unregulated free-market casino capitalism. In 1929, the stock market imploded, plunging first America and then the world into the Great Depression. For three years, severe austerity and balanced budget policies pressed on governments by the same interests who had brought about the disaster in the first place had created only mass unemployment, business failures and social unrest.
By the time of Roosevelt’s election in 1932, a manageable crisis had morphed into one that threatened the foundations of capitalism and liberal democracy. Roosevelt’s genius was to understand that the time for timid half-measures had passed. A bold and radical reshaping of the American economy and society was required to overcome the crisis and forestall the rise of domestic alternatives to American democracy.
The core of Roosevelt’s New Deal was redistribution of wealth from the few to the many. Roosevelt ran large budget deficits, increased government spending and taxation, imposed regulations to rein in the worst excesses of the banks, broke up corporate monopolies and commissioned massive public and social works programs. Roosevelt’s New Deal shifted the balance from profits to wages, created millions of new and better-paid jobs and stabilised American society at a higher and better level.
The New Deal spent big to save on the grandest scale.
All-encompassing crises erode order, trust and confidence. Whether caused by Depressions or pandemics, by exposing systemic flaws and failures, such crises can clear the decks for radical reform and renovation. The question is in which direction and in whose interest.
Roosevelt’s New Deal left America and the world a better place. Roosevelt’s New Deal was socialist in instinct, redistributive in practice. It shifted hundreds of millions of people from poverty to sustained prosperity all within a commitment democratic, liberal and open democracy.
Strong, democratic government provided public goods – national defence, education, welfare, infrastructure, regulation, rule of law and health care. In this framework, people, families and businesses could thrive and prosper while a strong safety net supported those in need. The reality never quite matched the aspiration, but the direction of travel was clear and supported by the people.
After 1945, the New Deal’s public health principles created a complex of new national and global health structures, institutions and policies. Most western countries, including Australia, re-built their health services based on the model of the socialist National Health Service implemented in the United Kingdom.
However, the resurgence of casino capitalism in the 1980s reinvigorated the free-market opponents of the New Deal settlement, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom. In the United States, the neoliberals laid waste to much of the New Deal public health system. In the United Kingdom, decades of “market reforms” to the National Health System steadily eroded the principles of public health provision.
These reforms were prosecuted in the name of providing choice and efficiency and went largely uncontested by the public. But they had long-term and serious consequences that the COVID pandemic cruelly exposed.
Neoliberalism undermined the ability of public health structures and institutions to provide independent and open scientific advice. When COVID emerged, the responses of the world’s governments diverged rapidly between the neoliberals and the rest.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the United States, United Kingdom and Brazil were run by neoliberal governments, committed to free markets, small governments and budgets balanced by massive reductions in outlays on education, welfare and, ominously, public health in all its forms.
In those countries that moved rapidly to apply tried and tested public health principles through long-established and resilient structures, COVID deaths and illnesses were, with difficulty, contained. They dealt with the realities of COVID as best they could and strengthened their responses as dictated by the accumulation of facts and evidence. Broadly, science dictated the response.
But the governments of the United States, United Kingdom and Brazil put politics first. They subordinated once-fiercely independent scientific and public health advisers to walk-on roles to support the ideological imperatives of neoliberalism as applied to a viral emergency. They proclaimed that politics could prevail over the iron laws of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics.
The facts reveal the truth.
Eighteen months into the pandemic, the US, UK and Brazil together recorded 57.2 million cases and 1.25 million deaths directly from COVID-19 and many more indirectly.
When the virus hit, they refused to shut their borders, impose domestic movement restrictions, mask mandates or swift national lockdowns. The point of moving rapidly at the early stages of any pandemic is to buy time, reduce illness and death in the hope that applied science can come up with treatments, vaccines or cures.
But in the name of “freedom”, the governments of the US, UK and Brazil initially abandoned their people to the consequences of “letting it in and letting it run”. For neoliberals, the coronavirus was apparently just another participant in the viral free market.
At the other end of the spectrum, collectivist, though not necessarily liberal democratic, countries galvanised to contain COVID. With geopolitical consequences still to become apparent, China moved fast and eliminated the threat of a COVID pandemic derailing its politics and social equilibrium. China has thus far recorded 92,000 cases and 4,636 deaths.
In Australia, the split between traditional public health principles and the new neoliberal response to COVID was apparent from early 2020. The initial response of the Morrison government and its planning for COVID was deeply influenced by their neo-liberal colleagues in the United Kingdom and the United States. The Morrison government did not accept that the Commonwealth government had over-arching national responsibility for public health outcomes.
As cases occurred in the states and territories, the responsibility for the response rested with them. In 2015, the Federal government devolved its border protection and quarantine functions to the states and territories. In practice, the Federal government abandoned its Constitutional responsibility for quarantine entirely.
In the critical early months, the Morrison government kept most borders open, limited surveillance of incoming travellers, shipped off PPE packs in bulk to China and let aged care operators follow free-market self-regulation principles in the hope of reducing risk to aged care residents and staff.
This laissez-faire approach provoked dismay and incredulity within the robust public health system.
Propelled by public health professionals and the Australian people, on 22 March 2020, Australia locked down and, after a rocky few months, brought about COVID zero. This bought time and options to build effective quarantine and organise vaccine supply. But the Morrison government squandered the gift.
As COVID has played out in Australia, the radicalism of the neoliberals strengthened. As in 1930s America, the crisis allowed the government to hack away at impediments to deep and radical political, economic and hence social change.
The Morrison government did not create COVID, but it has skilfully magnified the impacts of COVID in Australia to clear the decks for its own “New Deal”.
The only thing of substance that Morrison’s New Deal has in common with FDR’s is massive deficit spending.
From March 2020, it was clear that a lockdown and other behavioural changes applied by State Premiers against the wishes of Morrison would bring transmission rates under control relatively rapidly. Letting the virus in and letting it run, as so catastrophically applied in the US, UK and Brazil, was precluded by the Australian lockdown.
The mass dismissals of employees that occurred in March 2020 and much of the huge stimulus packages required to support the newly unemployed were driven by the fear that Australia would be engulfed by COVID, as was happening in the United States and Europe.
But that never came to pass. To the astonishment of the neoliberal fatalists in the Federal government, application of public health principles stopped the virus in its tracks.
Yet the disruption caused by the fear of COVID delivered the Morrison government an unexpected opportunity for rectification of Australian politics and society along neoliberal lines.
The Federal government precipitated an unnecessary unemployment crisis. The sharpest blows and cuts fell on the universities, arts sectors and casual and gig economy workers. JobKeeper arrangements largely excluded the hundreds of thousands employed in these sectors, while redistributing taxpayer funds to the rich and well-connected. Once the Melbourne second wave had been dispatched and COVID zero achieved, by October 2020 COVID-19 was as over in Australia as it was in China.
From mid-2020, the economic and social disruption caused by the COVID response should have begun to dissipate. But instead, in mid-2020, the Morrison government made the critical decision that prolonged and intensified the misery of the COVID response.
In a series of meetings in July and August 2020, the Morrison government declined to pursue options that would have secured the delivery of vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna by the beginning of 2021. In doing so, the Morrison government rejected the better strategy of reducing risk by multiplying suppliers. It chose to back only one vaccine candidate – Astra Zeneca.
They then tied the delivery of AZ to a manufacturing deal with CSL, a deal that CSL reluctantly but eventually was obliged to embrace. Alone of the OECD countries, the Australian government failed to procure a range of vaccines that would have allowed rapid, mass vaccination of the population by mid-2021. And after the more infectious Delta variant emerged in December 2020, the Morrison government adamantly resisted all entreaties, pleas and scientific evidence to build Delta-proof quarantine facilities.
The effect of the two decisions on vaccine procurement and quarantine has been to prolong Australia’s emergence from the botched COVID response until at least sometime in 2022. Inbound travel has been slashed.
In July 2021, the application of “lockdown as a last resort” libertarianism shut down Sydney for at least two weeks and perhaps longer. It is not possible any longer to give the Morrison government the benefit of the doubt and ascribe these decisions to bad luck or incompetence. Rather, the cat was belled by the New Deal announcement on 2 July.
On the present trajectory there is no way that most Australians will travel abroad again until sometime after March 2022 - the second anniversary of the lockdown that saved Australia.
The Morrison government’s New Deal is a blueprint for a post-COVID Australia that will be radically different in every way from the Australia we left behind in January 2020.
It’s not a New Deal but an Old Deal.
An economy run for the benefit of the wealthy and well-connected. And the abandonment of national government responsibilities across the board – including public health. It is deeply wrong that such a blueprint is being put together in secrecy, with the input of like-minded politicians, sectional interests and lobbyists, but without the involvement of the Australian people.
All the goals, assumptions, modelling, advice and arguments should be published in a White Paper.
Let the Morrison government make its best case for opening Australia to COVID without full vaccination of the population and variant-proof quarantine. Put on the table the plans for vaccine passports and how the international travel system might be reconstructed to let people travel and not the virus. Rather than concentrate on the benefits of “freedom” also outline the many and varied costs in lives, illness and jobs that will accrue to vulnerable and less-wealthy Australians in the ‘new’ neoliberal Australia.
Let’s have a full and frank discussion of the increase in surveillance and the erosion of rights and liberties that are being planned in the name of containing COVID. And be told what, if anything, is being planned to ensure that the next pandemic will be managed far better than the Australian government has managed COVID.
Only a process based on the values of truth, transparency and debate can rebuild the confidence and trust shattered by the Morrison government’s mishandling of the COVID response.
The New Deal Australia wants and needs is not the Old Deal being resurrected in Scott Morrison’s Canberra office.
Bill Bowtell AO is a former senior advisor to the Keating Government and remains one of Australia's foremost health policy strategists. Bill was instrumental in Australia’s successful response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. @BillBowtell
Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 2
Author: Bill Bowtell