by Ebony Bennett
[Originally published in the Canberra Times, 18 April 2020]

There is hope in sight for the COVID-19 crisis. Australia’s curve appears to be flattening, and the numbers are looking so promising that the Prime Minister is talking about what needs to happen for restrictions to be eased – though the current rules will stay in place (like all of us) for the next four weeks at least.

I’m not going to advocate for an early end to the shutdown for the sake of the economy. But, because Australians have largely adhered to the physical distancing restrictions and advice to stay at home, the reality is that Australia has options other countries do not.

That means it’s time to start thinking about what our society will look like after this crisis. Scott Morrison says he’s not interested in “business as usual”, so let’s use this time to think wisely about what we can leave behind, what we want to bring with us and what we want to build anew.

The risk is that things go back to the way they were before: the slowest wages growth since World War II, rampant wage theft by business, more and more Australians reliant on insecure work without paid sick leave or holidays, a public health system under strain, unaffordable childcare preventing people from participating in the workforce and a resource-extraction industry that freely pollutes our air, land and water.

Just as those who lose their homes to bushfires or floods don’t usually rebuild the exact same house, but instead better, more resilient houses, Australia should rebuild its economy to work better for all Australians. The fact is, if our economy “snaps back” to business as usual we will have missed a huge opportunity.

There’s nothing like a pandemic to make you re-evaluate your priorities. I’m certain the Prime Minister and Treasurer never thought they’d preside over the largest public spending spree in Australian history, a policy of free childcare or taking Australia far further into debt. But they rightly judged that saving lives, and keeping unemployed Australians out of poverty and connected to the workforce, were of utmost importance. The promise of delivering a budget surplus – a meaningless goal in itself – was quickly abandoned.

This crisis has elevated certain issues to a level of importance they struggled to gain before the pandemic: affordable childcare and housing, the fragility of insecure work and workers’ rights, and the importance of advanced manufacturing, the arts, a strong public health system and listening to scientists and experts.

As we step out of this crisis, let’s bring free childcare and a significantly increased Newstart payment with us. Affordable childcare, once seen as a “women’s problem”, has now proven to be crucial to the wellbeing and functioning of our whole community and economy. We should think about how we can keep free childcare, the way we already provide public education from kindergarten to year 12. After all, that’s how it is in many Nordic countries – some of the happiest and richest places on earth.

And it would be cruel in the extreme to condemn all the Australians who won’t be able to find a job after this to living below the poverty line by cutting Newstart back to the pittance it was.

Let’s leave behind insecure work, which has always been dressed up and disguised as “flexibility”. This crisis has exposed that for the lie it always was. Australia has millions of people in precarious and insecure work with no paid leave provisions, and when the virus hit our shores all insecure work did was make those people even more vulnerable. Without Sally McManus and the ACTU pushing the government to implement a wage subsidy scheme – imperfect though it is – millions more Australians would be without any type of income security.

If the Prime Minister is right and “every job is an essential job”, then it is also essential that we prioritise rebuilding an economy that delivers secure jobs, with good pay and conditions. That means getting rid of the ridiculous restrictions unfairly put on unions that diminish their abilities to organise and bargain on behalf of workers. Already the government has weakened protections for workers at the behest of corporate Australia with an enormous attack on representation and bargaining rights, and the Attorney-General’s changes to Fair Work regulations mean perfectly viable firms now have free reign to cut wages and lock them in for years to come. Employers will already have all the bargaining power as the economy recovers; it is madness to further weaken protections for workers right now.

In fact, let’s ditch neoliberalism altogether, once and for all. It’s an ideological failure that even conservative governments abandoned at the first sign of serious trouble. We don’t need it.

Let’s rebuild Australia’s manufacturing sector, which was already staging a comeback after years of decline. Suddenly, advanced manufacturing is (rightly) seen as critical to a functioning economy. Building new submarines we will likely never use seems much less strategic right now than being able to manufacture our own medical and PPE equipment. As the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work’s research has shown, “manufacturing is the most important source of innovation in the economy. It supports higher-than-average productivity growth and good jobs … and it anchors far-reaching supply chains spreading throughout the domestic economy that support hundreds of thousands of jobs in other sectors (including resources and services).”

But overall, support for manufacturing will require a shift in thinking from a Coalition that was content to let Australia’s auto manufacturing industry die just a few years ago.

Scott Morrison and the state premiers have got us this far by working more co-operatively than ever before. Let’s keep that too. Let’s hope it doesn’t falter as we move into this next stage.

Let’s bring with us the reverence for our public health system, but match it with the funding and support it needs. Let’s bring with us the enjoyment of the outdoors and our public parks, walking tracks and cycle paths. Let’s bring with us our love of the creative and performing arts, which turn out to be essential services while in isolation. The arts industry will need us after this crisis as we’ve needed them during this lockdown. Let’s bring with us our newfound respect for science and expert scientific advice, and apply it to the existential threat of climate change.

Lastly – and this is a personal one – let’s make elasticised pants acceptable work attire. I’m not sure I can go back to skinny jeans after this.

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

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Originally published by The Canberra Times on April 18, 2020

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