Originally published in The Canberra Times on June 27, 2020

by Ebony Bennett
[Originally published in the Canberrra Times, 27 June 2020]

The Morrison government did a great job managing the pandemic, but where Scott Morrison has really excelled is making the recession worse.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic the Prime Minister said that “everyone with a job is an essential worker”, and more recently he said that “where the government’s focus always has been is on creating jobs, keeping people in jobs where we can”. But that’s plainly false.

If the Prime Minister is so concerned about keeping people in jobs, he could start by letting public servants keep theirs.

The government might not be able to restart the global aviation industry to prevent Qantas from axing 6000 staff, but Scott Morrison could save a lot of jobs if he just stopped firing public servants via efficiency dividends and budget cuts.

These last few weeks we’ve seen up to 250 jobs lost at the ABC and 70 jobs gone at the National Gallery of Australia. The CSIRO has seen 619 jobs go this financial year, including 40 from its energy division just this week – because it’s not like we’ll need some experts to help us transition away from fossil fuels or anything. These are all jobs quite within Scott Morrison’s power to save.

In fact, between February and May the number of public sector employees (at all levels of government) fell by a staggering 63,500, according to the ABS.

Teachers, nurses, garbage collectors, postal workers, ambos, Centrelink staff, ATO staff, firefighters and council workers work all over Australia as public servants, not just in Canberra. And they all spend their decent wages from their (relatively) secure jobs in their local economy, just like the rest of us.

Australia Institute research shows that just freezing the pay of NSW public servants would lead to more than 1100 job losses and harm regional areas, even if we spent the savings on infrastructure. Imagine what the loss of 63,500 steady incomes across Australia is doing to the economy – and to regional economies in particular.

Instead of public sector wage freezes, there should a freeze on public sector job cuts. In fact, there should be a public service hiring bonanza, because the private sector will not be able to lead us out of this recession. Government will have to.

For a start, come September when Scott Morrison ends JobKeeper and halves JobSeeker in one fell swoop, Centrelink is going to need a lot more staff to answer the phones.

But the Prime Minister and the Treasurer are more worried about debt and deficit than unemployment. And just as there was no “budget emergency” when Tony Abbott declared one in 2014, there is absolutely no reason to worry about debt and deficit right now when interest rates are near zero and inflation is negligible. Unemployment is the emergency, not the debt.

But it’s not only public servants the government is punishing, though they seem to be the most public target. The government has gone out of its way to exclude university staff from JobKeeper. And while conservatives are telling us to that government debt is bad, this week Education Minister Dan Tehan announced that pushing students further into debt is just dandy, particularly if you’re studying an arts degree.

Women are already suffering disproportionately from this recession yet, so far, the government has only made things worse for women. Between February and May, about 450,000 women lost their jobs and 350,000 left the labour market all together. In response, the government axed free childcare, excluded childcare workers from JobKeeper months early and announced a series of infrastructure spending and construction packages that will overwhelmingly employ blokes. The Morrison government’s “jobs for the boys” approach will set Australian women back decades.

The other key pillar of the Coalition’s plan for a longer, deeper recession? Cutting red and green tape-otherwise known as protections for consumers and the environment.

Which is a joke in itself. Australia’s environmental laws are already broken and barely stand in the way of any development. In a scathing review, the Auditor-General found the Morrison government has “failed in its duty to protect the environment” and can’t properly manage assessments and approvals, partly due to staff cuts at the Environment Department.

This comes just weeks after Rio Tinto blew up 46 millennia of Aboriginal history and heritage at Juukan Gorge, entirely legally of course. Just imagine how fast mining companies will be able to blow up Aboriginal heritage, mine above aquifers and raze endangered species – what’s left of them after a billion native animals were incinerated in the Black Summer bushfires – once the Morrison government has gotten rid of even more environmental protections and the public servants who are supposed to enforce them.

Any student of history (though studying history is no longer encouraged) knows the government can’t “austerity” its way out of a recession. Imposing austerity measures will only make the pain of recession worse, as previous recessions have shown. But that seems to be the Prime Minister’s plan. The Morrison government’s approach of reducing spending to avoid debt and accelerating deregulation will only deepen and prolong the recession, which is bad news for all of us.

But here’s some good news to finish. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are amongst the most vulnerable populations during the pandemic. Yet thanks to the rapid response and hard work of Aboriginal community-controlled health services like WA’s Derbarl Yerrigan health service and the South West Aboriginal Medical Service (SWAMS), there have only been 60 cases of COVID-19 among Indigenous people nationwide, only a few of which required hospitalisation, and no deaths. The gap was not only closed, was reversed. And tens of thousands of Australians came out to protest for the end of Aboriginal deaths in custody without a single case of community transmission, thanks to the excellent planning of organisers. All of it done on the smell of an oily rag. It’s a massive, globally significant achievement, one that should be both lauded and rewarded with more resources.

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

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