Originally published in The Canberra Times on March 21, 2020

by Ebony Bennett
[Originally published by the Canberra Times, 21 March 2020]

After a summer of unprecedented bushfires and a billion animals dying, Australia now finds itself in the midst of an unprecedented public health pandemic with an economic crisis to match.

While the $17.6 billion economic stimulus program was welcome for an already sluggish economy, it barely touched the sides of what will be necessary over the coming months, and within two days it was old news. The next economic response will be closer to an economic survival package, and needs to be unprecedented in size and scope.

Roughly parallel with the COVID-19 pandemic has been the Morrison government’s unprecedented and hasty retreat from neoliberalism, and not a moment too soon.

It turns out that in times of crisis the market does not “know best”, and is incapable of “sorting it out”. You can bet that telling 20,000 workers from Qantas – people who had good jobs just two days ago – that “the best form of welfare is a job” would be greeted about as warmly as a fever and cough right now. The government will be required to prop up people’s incomes as the private sector flounders. Instead of neoliberalism’s “every man for himself” approach, we will need to work together as a community to get through this.

While “technical recessions” are measured by a contraction in GDP, most people experience a recession through job losses and unemployment. When Qantas stood down two-thirds of its workforce on Thursday, approximately 20,000 people effectively lost their jobs, and definitely lost their incomes. That figure is as sobering as the daily COVID-19 case updates from Italy, because just as there are cases of coronavirus hiding in the community, the Qantas job losses obscure much larger job losses in the wider Australian community.

Australia’s tourism industry just suffered its worst summer ever and now everyone is going to stay at home for the next few months, just when we were all preparing to take our empty Eskys to visit and spend our money in bushfire-ravaged areas.

Australia’s arts and recreation sector employs 255,00 people, five times more than coal mining. But we don’t tend to think of it as a powerhouse industry that supports hundreds of thousands of Australians and allows them to put food on the table. When the government issued health advice to avoid any gathering of more than 500 people (or 100 indoors), Australia’s arts and recreation sector was forced to shut its doors virtually overnight. Festivals, theatre productions, dance companies, music gigs, concerts, the footy and comedy festivals all shut down through absolutely no fault of their own – taking the jobs of musicians, actors, dancers, comedians, lighting technicians, producers, directors, set designers, venue operators and countless others with them. The job losses in the arts are invisible to most Australians in the way job losses from Qantas are not, but they are just as important. Skills don’t disappear when audiences do, but will the theatre companies, footy clubs and festivals still be solvent on the other side of this crisis?

Neoliberalism and the Prime Minister have told us for years that the “best form of welfare is a job”. Implicit in this rhetoric is that unemployed people are too lazy to find work – they are “leaners, not lifters”. This rhetoric is as unfair as it is untrue – as many people are about to find out first-hand. The truth is there just aren’t enough jobs for everyone. This is especially true in a recession.

The unemployment benefit, Newstart, is supposed to be a safety net, but it’s currently a poverty trap. The rate of Newstart has been well below the poverty line for years now, and there’s about to be many more unemployed people in Australia. Everyone who works at Qantas, everyone whose play, gig or shift got cancelled – all of them have a mortgage or rent to pay. All sole traders need to be able to buy food each week and to pay their electricity bills. And anyone currently on Newstart will tell you it’s not enough to make ends meet, not even close. More than 80 per cent of people on Newstart skip meals to save money.

When asked whether he would raise the rate of Newstart, Scott Morrison once said he would not engage in “unfunded empathy” – but I suspect Morrison is about to find some untapped empathy reserves. And if Morrison doesn’t increase the rate of Newstart, he will be condemning hundreds of thousands more Australians to live in poverty, perhaps for years.

For years we have been told we can’t “afford” to raise Newstart, or properly fund the public health system, public schools or the ABC (the clear, calm advice from the ABC’s Norman Swan has been a godsend for many people). This crisis is about to expose all of that as complete crap.

The New Deal brought the USA out of the Great Depression by bringing electricity to the 90 per cent of rural dwellers who had none, introducing unemployment benefits and social security for the first time, building a massive program of public works, and introducing labour laws that set maximum hours and minimum wages for most workers. After World War II, Britain built the National Health Service to provide free healthcare to everyone. In Depression-era Australia, the program of public works built dozens of gorgeous ocean pools that still dot our magnificent coastline today. They were built so well they are almost all still in operation almost 100 years later. Even better, they are all free to get into – a truly public amenity. That’s the kind of vision we need now.

The point is, neoliberalism’s idea of everyone pulling themselves up by their bootstraps doesn’t cut it in a public health crisis – or an economic one. It turns out we need a strong system of public services to confront crises, including public broadcasters, public hospitals, public schools and public science and research. Co-operation and community, not competition, is what is required now.

  • Ebony Bennett is deputy director of independent think tank the Australia Institute. Twitter: @ebony_bennett

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