It’s been a crazy year, and the task for government has just gotten harder

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Friday September 11, 2020

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In looking to the future, we need to think carefully about the society we want to create. The task ahead is not just a technical one for experts, it is one that involves defining a clear forward-looking bargain between citizen and state, write Sean Innis and Ryan Young.

It has been a crazy year. Bushfires, floods and a virulent virus have shocked Australia’s largely comfortable society. We are not alone of course. Around the world, the pandemic has caused nations to change quickly and dramatically – whatever their approach to controlling the virus. As we look to the future, the road forward looks hard for everyone.

Two months or so ago, Australians could have been forgiven for thinking that the worst was past us. Australia, in an exclusive club of nations, looked to have stopped the virus in its tracks. Our land, girt by sea, provided a natural protective barrier to future infections. The task ahead was a difficult, but somewhat more familiar, economic one – restarting an economy placed into hibernation, albeit against the head winds of a closed off international border and a disrupted world.

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It is easy to forget that at the beginning of the pandemic no one – not the experts, nor government and the public – knew what to expect. The modelling presented to government was dire, and the images from other places (Italy and New York) haunting. This environment saw Australians respond to government actions with great tolerance and understanding. An authoritarian response by Australian standards was accepted as necessary and the high priority placed on protecting lives, particularly of older and more vulnerable people, strongly supported.

As a nation, we held our breath, only to be pleasantly surprised by how quickly infections were brought under control. The additional trust we had placed in government through the crisis looked well justified. Governments had, for the most part, worked collaboratively together and, for a period, national interest and an increased role for expert advice had replaced politics. A sense of relief and pride emanated from the halls of power.

A broader sense of pride could also be felt. Australians had come together to defeat a viral threat. Aided by generous government policies, many willingly gave up personal freedoms and their livelihoods to support the greater good. Individualism was tempered by a strong sense of communalism.  And a relatively quick, if not complete, return to normal seemed possible.

The emergence of community infections in Victoria has given the nation a frustrating and costly reality check. The disease has not been banished as we had hoped. Worse still, the government-centred game plan for reducing transmission which had served Australia well earlier in the year seems to have lost effectiveness. Stubbornly high infection rates in Victoria induced an even stronger authoritarian response from government, which only now seems to be delivering results.

The Victorian experience marks a new and different challenge for Australia and its federation. The virus may not have changed, but the community and policy context governments must work within certainly have. Four issues are particularly important.

First and most important is that global infections are rising not falling. As recent events emphasise eliminating the virus is tough to do, even when you want to and have the natural advantages of being small and isolated. Expectations that an effective vaccine will be found remain high but are tempered by expert advice to not expect a silver bullet. And international positioning suggests hopes that any vaccine will be distributed quickly and fairly across the globe are naïve. It is possible the pandemic will peter out on its own, or a vaccine/treatment will nullify it as a threat, but there is also a possibility COVID-19 will become an endemic part of our lives.

Second, the drivers of the community’s initially supportive response to government actions are shifting. Fear and communal focus are receding – at least in some groups. Health outcomes from the virus are becoming better known as are the economic and social costs. Members of the public are forming stronger personal views on the appropriate approach to protecting community health and supporting livelihoods and freedoms. Higher levels of individualism have returned, as has a stronger public contest of ideas over the best way forward.

Third, cracks have emerged in some responses from government. Manifest delivery failures in quarantining and aged care in Victoria have affected the whole country. Community perceptions of government have shifted from understanding to concern, and tolerance for delivery failure is falling. Nothing erodes public trust more than government failing to meet the expectations it has created.

Finally, we have moved from a period where state governments faced similar challenges to one where the challenges look very different across the nation. This is atomising public sentiment and government behaviour. States with low or no infections are fiercely protecting their borders, with the general support of their state citizens. Far from being in it together, we have become a nation of states. The collaborative influence of the national cabinet has weakened. And politics, rather than expertise and public interest, has returned as a decision driver.

These challenges sit alongside the obvious impact the pandemic is having on our lives and livelihoods. Far from hibernation, the Australian economy is on life-support. The economic oxygen provided by our usually open international borders — a key fuel for the livelihoods of many Australians — will not be available any time soon. State border closures, while protecting the health of some, are impeding the freedoms and livelihoods of many others. Strong (and expensive) government action is preventing a worse economic disaster but the dynamism needed for a healthy economy is hard to see.

The lives and livelihoods of young Australians have been particularly affected. Our already precarious intergenerational bargain now looks broken. This shatters a fundamental aspiration of our society – to deliver better lives to our children than we have enjoyed ourselves. This outcome is not deliberate. The nature of COVID-19 inevitably means that the protective benefits of our response largely accrue to older Australians, while the costs largely accrue to younger Australians. But the long-term impact is real and creating the building blocks for a stronger future for young Australians must be a priority moving forward.

Australian governments now face an acutely difficult task – managing the overlapping crises while bringing the community along with them.

Governments must continue to manage the pandemic so that Australia sits on the right side of the exponential curve. A longer-term and more nuanced game plan is needed, which more clearly contemplates the types of scenarios we are likely to face and sets realistic expectations about what can be achieved and at what cost. This needs to include the possibility of an endemic virus without an effective vaccine.

Early action has bought us time to better understand the virus and community responses. It is important to take advantage of this and act in a considered way that will work over the longer term, rather than react to the noise and speed of modern society.

As part of this game plan, governments need to re-engage their communities in the decision-making processes that are defining their health, lives and livelihoods. Democracy must be fully restarted. Governments need to continue to communicate clearly, honestly and persuasively, but they also need to start listening to the people whose lives have been most affected.  One clear lesson from Victoria is the need to bring a broader range of expertise and views into the policy design and implementation process. Expert health advice should remain a key driver of decision making. But it is no longer enough.

The pandemic, and government actions in response, are affecting different groups in our community in very different ways. There are the clear inter-generational differences, but also significant occupation, class and regional gaps. Perceptions that those with secure white-collar jobs, including the politicians and public servants making decisions, are more protected than others in the community could prove poisonous to community cohesion and trust in government. The very real disparities in experience of the pandemic across our society needs to be acknowledged and given more weight in decision making.

Beyond the game plan for managing the pandemic, governments need to start putting some serious, and collaborative, effort into developing and implementing a longer-term vision for our nation. The shocks we have faced mean that snapping back to a pre-pandemic normal is no longer an option, if it ever was.

Recessions inevitably result in a shakeup of the structure and nature of the economy – and this one is a biggie. To see the task ahead as purely economic would, however, be a mistake. The pandemic has exposed some deeper questions about how our society works and what it delivers for its citizens – challenging some of the policy paradigms that have served us well in the past.

Our experience through the pandemic leaves some positive lessons. The focus of Australians on pursuing the common good is a powerful national asset. The speed with which many people and businesses adjusted to working remotely suggests a capacity for innovation almost unimaginable in 2019. But we have also been reminded that effective delivery on the ground, most notably quarantine, aged care and contact tracing, is hard work that requires attention to detail and an ability to adjust to the unexpected.

The process of thinking about the future has, it must be said, already started. Both inside government and outside, people are turning their minds to changes they would like to see.

Often this has involved people promoting their ideal policy settings from before the pandemic. Some old ideas and paradigms are good of course, but the challenge ahead will require some genuinely new thinking – not just old thoughts in new clothes.

In looking to the future, we need to think carefully about the society we want to create. It is a process that needs transparency and community engagement. The task ahead is not just a technical one for experts, it is one that involves defining a clear forward-looking bargain between citizen and state. Importantly, it is one that involves defining an intergenerational bargain that provides hope that younger Australians will be able to live lives at least as good as those enjoyed by their parents.

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Chris Johnson
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Geoff Edwards
Geoff Edwards
2 months ago

There are two drivers absent from your analysis, Sean Ennis and Ryan Young. The first is the tirade of abuse that the Murdoch press is directing towards its non-favourite governments. A segment of the population will be influenced by the divisive rhetoric coming out of the dominant news organisation in the country and constructive policy formulation is all that much harder.

The second driver is the continued apparent lack of interest in the national government in heeding advice from a diverse range of people with knowledge and insight about how society and the economy can be restructured. The government’s determination to press ahead with tax cuts that are bound to increase inequality, it’s refusal to direct a stimulus package towards social housing and above all its determination to destroy the ABC are examples. It’s difficult to imagine any action less likely to foster “community engagement” than knee-capping the ABC.

The public debates during the past 18 months over tax cuts, negative gearing, franking credits and early-access to super have clearly drawn to public attention the likely consequences of these policy changes for intergenerational wealth imbalances. The evidence seems quite strong that the government’s intention to increase inequality in general and intergenerational equality in particular is quite deliberate.

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