Brett Gale
Wednesday, 3 June 2020

IN PRAISE OF PUBLIC SERVICE: The Case for Collectivism

As the world has reeled from the impact of dealing with COVID-19, the crisis has both illuminated the positive benefits of government action and starkly highlighted the dangers of running down state institutions. 

Countries with a strong social compact, a strong safety net and an abiding belief in the power of the state to work for the common good are emerging from the crisis, battered and bruised but functioning.  

The complete opposite is also true.  

If you want to see what it looks like when a population loses confidence in the fact that government institutions are there to help them and when the social fabric of a nation gets frayed to breaking  point, look no further than the cities aflame across America.   

If you want to see what contempt for government institutions brings you, then look to the United Kingdom.  

In both countries, at exactly the point in time that strong government institutions were needed to bring societies together, the bitter harvest of forty years of neo-liberalism took its toll. The long term ideological and fiscal assault on the very idea of public service, and public service expertise, in the US and the UK has now reaped a deadly reward.   

Surely there is no one on the planet who doesn’t believe that the death toll from COVID-19 in both the US and the UK would have been substantially less had more robust institutions and more competent governments been in place. 

The NHS may well be lionised in the UK but that didn’t stop successive Tory governments from downsizing its budget to the point where frontline health workers have had to beg for PPE in this crisis.  It’s all very well to clap the plucky doctors and nurses every Thursday night but how about having had them properly kitted out in the first place?  

That’s on top of the Tories’ years long war on their own expert advisors, best encapsulated by senior Minister Michael Gove’s comment that the people of the UK “have had enough of experts”. Then of course, there is the utter disregard for the norms of proper governmental behaviour exhibited by the Prime Minister’s most senior adviser in blatantly disregarding the lockdown rules of his own government.  

The less said about the non-existent public health system of the United States the better.  And we now know that President Trump not only disbanded the White House’s pandemic response unit but repeatedly tried to defund the Centers for Disease Control as well.  

Make no mistake, for 40 years it has been a deliberate strategy of the global right to delegitimise the institutions of the state and to denude them of their ability to function.  In Australia by contrast, we should count ourselves lucky that the war on government and government services had not reached the end point of our closest allies, and that our right wing think tanks would like it to.  

It is clear that one of the reasons our country has done so well in this crisis (and in the bushfire crisis before it) is because in Australia we still have a robust public service and we still have strong public services.  

It was those working in public service who; nursed the sick, protected our elderly, taught our children via Zoom, delivered our online packages, commanded the effort to put out our fires, kept us informed through public broadcast, and devised and delivered the stimulus measures that so many of our citizens are relying on to keep afloat.  

Indeed, despite years of efficiency dividends and outsourcing of tasks, when the crunch came, it was those workers paid by the government who provided the expert advice that flattened our curve.  

And it was our strong and vibrant public health system that enabled many to live who in other countries have died.  

In comforting news for those who believe in the positive power of the state a recent ANU poll that confidence in the public service rose from 48.8 to 64.8 per cent over this crisis. However, embedding this newfound sense of community and appreciation for solidarity and government action will take a herculean effort. While the crisis may well have opened people’s minds to the positive role that government action can play in promoting the common good, we shouldn’t take this changed state of affairs for granted.  

A few weeks ago, a certain sense of triumphalism had crept into social democratic circles.  

As we faced the most significant global challenge in 75 years it was to government that we had turned for solutions. 

Governments around the world, including conservative ones, embarked on unprecedented policy and fiscal interventions to save lives and save economies

We were finally all believers in big government.   

Except, of course we weren’t. 

Even as the fiscal interventions were yet to take full effect, the knives of Australia’s right wing zealots were out there, arguing for cutting back stimulus, less regulation, less intervention, cuts to public sector wages and outsourcing of services.  Those calls should snap any dewy-eyed social democrats back to reality. 

Australia will emerge as a different place to the way it entered the crisis.  It can be different better or different worse.

Government can have a major role to play in ensuring that the society that emerges will be for the better.  That’s why the time is now urgent to paint a positive picture of the role that government can play in improving people’s lives and society as a whole.    The fight for a social democratic future is in no way over, in fact one could argue that it’s only just begun.

About Brett Gale:

Brett Gale is the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre.