Coronavirus recovery: former premier John Brumby’s three lessons in dealing with crises

By David Donaldson

Friday July 31, 2020


World War II and 9/11 led to permanent social shifts. The coronavirus will too, says the man who led Victoria through Black Saturday.

John Brumby
John Brumby

During John Brumby’s time as premier of Victoria, he dealt with several major crises: when the state nearly ran out of water in the millennium drought, the global financial crisis, and the Black Saturday bushfires, which claimed 178 lives.

Speaking at a University of Melbourne event on the COVID-19 recovery on Wednesday, Brumby highlighted three lessons he learned from these experiences.

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“Firstly, when you’re dealing with a crisis, if something goes wrong, it’s normally in the implementation phase,” he says.

“In Australia, generally, our governments at federal and state level during crises work well together. Generally the policy settings are well-informed by evidence-based policy, but my experience is that if things go wrong, it’ll be in the implementation phase.”

The second lesson is that “when you’re recovering from an economic recession, things take a lot longer to get done than you think,” he argues.

“This is particularly important when governments are looking for economic stimulus.

“Many of the big physical infrastructure projects, by the time they’ve gone through their approvals — environmental approvals in particular — it can be many years before you get the stimulus effect.”

The third lesson he learned, “particularly through the through the bushfires, was that for many people these events can be not just life changing, but quite traumatic.”

“So for many individuals — indeed for many communities — the scars of a major recession, or a bushfire or a major disaster, or loss of life in the family, can be with individuals for many, many years.”

The legacy of crises past

Historically, crises on the scale of the coronavirus pandemic have led to long-lasting changes in society, Brumby notes.

After 9/11, security became a major concern and significant growth industry. One of the legacies of the Second World War was large numbers of women joining the workforce.

“The interesting question is, what’s the big change that’s going to arise from COVID? I think the big change is going to be working from home.”

Working from home is a “game changer” with “huge effects”, Brumby argues. Organisations have discovered it’s possible for many people to work remotely with a few tweaks, but also “people like working from home.”

It might just make life easier for governments, too.

“I think back to when I was treasurer and then premier of Victoria, where our workforce growth put extraordinary strain on our public transport system, with patronage growing 5%, 6%, 7%, 8% per year, and we just couldn’t keep up.

“If I could have decreed that everybody has to work one or two days a week from home, I think we would have seen profound changes in the way our cities were organised, and profound reductions in time to travel to work, in congestion.”

Brumby believes the shift will improve housing affordability and increase liveability, particularly for those who commute long distances from the outer suburbs.

“If just 30% or 40% of those people can work from home, the improvements in their quality of life — the time available they have every day for family or leisure — is again quite profound.”

He recommends combining increased working from home with active transport pricing — increasing fares during certain parts of the day to smooth out trips — to get more out of existing transport infrastructure.

There’s already been an increase in the number of people moving to regional areas, Brumby argues.

“I spoke to two real estate agents last week. One in Bendigo, one in the Macedon Ranges. Their May, June and July sales are all up markedly — like two or three fold on this time last year, and most of the customers are young couples from the city.”

This raises questions for the central city.

“Will we ever see the number of people back in the CBD, that we saw pre-COVID?” Brumby asks.

“Before the pandemic one million people a day would be coming into the city. Figures on Monday show that number has dropped by 80%. Public transport patronage is about 10% of where it was.”

Brumby also pointed to some other big trends he sees occurring.

Localism is accelerating — in politics and the economy.

“We’re seeing already the reshoring of some manufacturing and that’s because international supply lines have been disrupted. That’s not a bad thing for Australia — we’ve lost a huge amount of our manufacturing in recent decades.”

China is also an inescapable player in Australia’s future, said Brumby, a former member of the Huawei Australia board.

“For us in Australia, whether we’re talking about exports of minerals, beef, wine, barley, or wool, or whether we’re talking about research partnerships, or whether we’re talking about overseas students, this relationship is far more important than any other relationship that we have, and mending it, and getting it right, is I would have thought right up at the very top of the list for Australia if we want a strong recovery from COVID-19.”

It’s going to take a while for unemployment to go back to where it was, he warns — especially if government doesn’t focus on it. Brumby recalled how long it took to get joblessness under control after the recession of the early 1980s.

“It took the best part of the best part of a decade for unemployment to get back to the level that was at the start of the recession. And the same story if you go to the recession in the early 90s. Despite the big stimulus package, Paul Keating’s One Nation, it took the best part of a decade to get unemployment back to where it was. And of course, if you think of the GFC, we’ve never got back to the unemployment rate we had before the GFC.”

During his time as federal member for Bendigo under the Hawke government, he saw the effects of unemployment in the high teens in many regional areas.

“There’s been really no discussion in Australia today about programs targeted towards the long-term unemployed. But we are definitely, categorically going to need them, and they’re going to be programs like community employment programs, building bike paths, building walking tracks, revegetation, tree planting and environmental projects. They have a really vital role to play.”

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