Andrew Giles & Ryan Batchelor
Sunday, 5 April 2020

How we want our tomorrow to look

The unexpected has become the new normal.

Each day presents new challenges as this coronavirus pandemic spreads. Each day we see new action, new initiatives, new rules, all aimed at protecting those we love and preserving our society. 

Most of us are struggling to make sense of our day to day lives just trying to keep up, even those fortunate enough to be financially secure. But the future can’t be just about surviving. 

The choices being taken now, by individuals, organisations and governments affect actions well beyond the transmission or incubation timelines of COVID-19. 

We should all have a say in how we want our tomorrow to look. 

As we write, we are witnessing our governments – local, state and national – swing into action to take measures aimed at protecting us all. And if at first it’s not been enough, our leaders have acted again, and again. May that continue. 

The ability of our Australian governments to take the required action has been possible in no small part to the strength of our underlying social safety net. Often in the past we have seen it fraying, and there are times when it has been deliberately unpicked. Sometimes by those who now extol its virtues. Many over generations have valiantly tried to keep its stitches together. Now, in times of crisis, we are all seeing its value. 

Make no mistake, Australia’s social safety net exists because of the strength of Australian social democracy. Our social safety net didn’t get there by accident, it was created by design, borne from an earlier crisis that forced Australians to rethink who we are. Over the years it has been protected out of a collective – if not always universal – recognition of the strength it gave us all.  

In late January – before COVID-19 – we wrote about the challenge that the disconnection from each other, and from the exercise of power, has alienated many from the benefits of our social democratic project. 

On the left, we have borne witness to those who sow division taking attention and support from those of us who strive to build connection and purpose. 

We wrote about the need for a society that works as a society.

The need for a shared understanding about what it means to be Australian that’s about how we relate to each other, and to our government.

A sense that we do have interests in common, which we can advance collectively and through government.

Fundamentally, we wrote about the need for a renewed social compact that unites Australians and gives everyone a greater sense of security and agency in their lives.

Little did we know what was coming. 

Little did we know just how important this would be. 

As our nation is being shut down to stop the spread of this deadly virus, we are seeing its human toll. Particularly on those who are sick, and those whose lives are being damaged by the disconnection, uncertainty and unemployment that far too many will now face. 

We have seen the consequences of years of cuts and neglect to our public service as Centrelink struggled to cope with the demand put on it by increasing unemployment. 

We have seen the government belatedly accept the inadequacy of support given to unemployed Australians. 

The crisis is amplifying inequalities.  Overwhelmingly it’s those near the top of the earnings scale who can effectively work from home. Scarcities matter much less to those with the capacity to stockpile. It’s hard to self-isolate when you don’t have a home. 

The exclusions of lockdown will shape people’s capacity to benefit from recovery too. From work, from learning, from connection to the social capital that will seamlessly link some of us back to economic opportunity.

Government is right to be supporting individuals and supporting business through the crisis.  

But action that socialises risk and privatises profit and allows a system to re-emerge where there is no accountability from those businesses taxpayers have supported risks further alienating those who feel decisions made by governments have not been made for them. 

The Prime Minister and the Treasurer have, in the end, been making the necessary decisions for our nation. As have our Premiers. 

However we didn’t get off on the right foot, especially when the current federal government spent too long distracted by the rear view mirror – most evidently through their critique of Labor’s response to the global financial crisis.

But arguing about the last war won’t win this one. Or, equally importantly, win the peace that follows.

We can’t allow the injustices the crisis will leave behind to be baked into our future. Nor can we let the rationale for providing necessary support to those who need it most be defined only by a time of unprecedented crisis. 

But some are already showing that they are determined to resist an enduring enlarged social compact.  

Two days after a $130 billion announcement, and with stimulus alone over the $200 billion mark, several Commonwealth ministers make clear their commitment to income tax cuts, as if nothing has changed.

As if this is a blip on the radar, and neoliberal normal will, inevitably and quickly, reassert itself.

But this isn’t some law of nature, and the underlying thinking must be challenged.

This is the critical democratic argument we need to make.

Millions of Australians are thinking about the sort of safety net that secured a decent society in a way that hasn’t been so pressing for several generations.

As the space in which we live shrinks, our appreciation of the fundamental importance of connection to the quality of our lives grows. Alone, unhurried but anxious, we think about what’s needed to hold onto the things and values that matter so much but are too rarely articulated, like how do we maintain connections through this time of physical separation, keep our children learning, ensure older people retain dignity and agency, and that the vulnerable can access services and supports they need. 

Nearly 30 years of economic growth has just come to an end. It is naive to think that we will just wake up in six months and everything will be back to normal. That won’t be the case and we can’t think that over the next period damage won’t be done.

For too many the effects will be devastating and long-lasting.

While we wait out our isolation, now is the time to plan for our community and economic recovery. 

We should focus on strengthening both, through a clear sense of our relationship to one another as Australians.

That will form the basis of a renewed social compact that strengthens our social democracy. 

So we are better prepared for the next set of challenges, and to see future opportunities shared, fairly.

Small state orthodoxy should be dead. It must be. If the last six months have shown us anything, it’s that it is the nation state that Australians look to when times are hard – and it’s the nation state that still wields the power to withstand forces of destruction and of division.

Tomorrow’s normal should not be unexpected. We’ve had enough of that.

Tomorrow’s normal should be one where we know what to expect, and we can rely on each other and government to secure a future that makes us all more connected and prosperous.

About Andrew Giles & Ryan Batchelor:

Andrew Giles is the Federal Labor Member for Scullin in Victoria. Ryan Batchelor is a director of the Chifley Research Centre.