A world turned upside down: Capitalists turning altruistic to do their bit for COVID-19 management


Barnaby Joyce announced in his lively Christmas Eve video message that he was ‘sick of the government being in my life’. How quickly things change. Today, more so than at any time in the past seven decades, the government is very much in our lives — and most of us are welcoming the intrusion.

Joyce’s cowfield appeal for smaller government was very much of its time. Alongside Milton Friedman, the Tea Party and the IPA, it belonged to a post-War discourse of neoclassical economics and ‘economic rationalism’. That discourse was always a straw man, and right now the straw man is on fire.

The COVID-19 crisis has shown the gross folly of underinvestment in public infrastructure such as healthcare and the welfare state. In a spectacular and remarkable way, it has also shown that the world of business is not separate from the community, or from ecology.

In Australia and elsewhere, governments are paying people to stay at work, and to stay at home. They are bailing out businesses on an enormous scale (nationalisation is a serious option). They are investing massively in a public health apparatus that is targeted first and foremost at our most vulnerable citizens. And governments are paying for much of this investment by printing money, which makes every dollar less valuable and therefore serves as a tax on wealth.

In our grandparents’ generation, people on the home front made gas masks, ration kits and woollen garments for soldiers deployed abroad. Civilian factories were repurposed to make fighter planes and rifles and artillery.

Today, instead of planes and guns, our repurposed car plants and vacuum cleaner factories are making ventilators and personal protective equipment. The UK government has ordered 10,000 Dyson ‘CoVent’ ventilators. Erebus Motorsport (aka Penrite Racing) is manufacturing full-face masks and a protective Perspex box to shield essential healthcare workers.

Prada is delivering 110,000 masks to help keep the coronavirus devil at bay. Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga are also frantically making masks, as is Shepparton-based Med-Con. That business has gone from making ‘maybe two million masks a year’ to as many as 50 million. Another local brand hoping to produce personal protective equipment is Nobody Denim, which makes its jeans in the Melbourne suburb of Thornbury.

Other businesses, large and small, are also rising to the challenge of COVID-19. Hana Assaferi, owner of the Moroccan Soup Bar in Fitzroy, gave an inspiring video message calling on us to call upon ‘our values, our principles and our convictions.’ The Soup Bar was one of the first restaurants to close its doors in Melbourne to protect its staff and customers. It is now providing support and nourishment for workers on the front line.

Rideshare business Uber has supported food suppliers with special deals via Uber-eats. Bundaberg Rum was one of the first manufacturers to switch from grog to hand sanitiser. Alcohol businesses have also got on board with conveying the #StayAtHome message to customers; Furphy beer took out full-page newspaper ads.

In a way that Barnaby Joyce could never have predicted, Australia’s governments, businesses and unions have joined forces. On 25 March 2020, Sally McManus told Patricia Karvelas on the ABC’s Afternoon Briefing that the union movement was having regular and productive meetings with Australia’s Attorney-General Minister for Industrial Relations, Christian Porter.

McManus paid tribute to Porter and the government, and emphasised their shared objectives. Karvelas said all this collaboration, which we’d not seen since Bob Hawke’s Accord, was making her feel good in a time of unfathomable crisis.

In an equally tectonic shift, the ACTU the ACCI have formed a corona alliance. As Nick Bonyhady of the SMH reported, ‘The country’s peak business body has joined the trade union movement, Labor and the Greens in backing an 80% wage subsidy for workers whose jobs are at risk because of the coronavirus pandemic’.

On 30 March 2020, the federal government hit the big red button and revealed a $130 billion ‘job-keeper’ lifeline for millions of Australian workers. Welcomed by business and unions, the initiative received bipartisan support from the outset.

Appearing on the ABC’s Q&A program that evening, Business Council CEO Jennifer Westacott commended the ACTU on the cooperative way in which it had approached the initiative and its design. Opposition spokesperson Linda Burnley said the government package was a ‘welcome surprise’.

Earlier that day, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg struck a distinctly bipartisan tone. ‘Politics plays a very distant second, third or fourth to what is really the focus for all of us right now, which is to get Australians to the other side of this health and economic crisis.’

At the height of the crisis, Australia’s banks have taken an admirably pragmatic approach to debt relief. They’ve even shown a compassionate side. A post-Hayne redemption is on the cards.

Deepening the compact between labour and capital; dropping our prejudices about public investment; and reaching a better understanding of the roles of government and business in the community. These are the silver linings of the COVID-19 crisis so far.

The leadership shown by our companies, unions and governments bodes well. The major parties should maintain their bipartisan course, and set their sights on even higher goals, such as using the forced downtime to invest in skills and training; and retooling our economy around clean energy, green steel and fair trade.

The COVID-19 crisis is taking a terrible toll on communities around the world. In public policy circles, the crisis is a time for agility, compassion, and laying the foundations for a new, fairer, greener, post-Friedman, post-partisan liberal democracy.

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