Carving With the Grain

Andrew Leigh

Carvers asked to make a bowl from a piece of timber don’t simply pull out their favourite blueprint, says philosopher Peter Singer. Instead, they examine the timber and adapt the design to suit the wood. Likewise, anyone looking to reshape society cannot simply begin with abstract ideas. Reformers must understand the values, aspirations and needs of the public if we are to make change that does not run against the grain.

Globally, COVID-19 has infected over 14 million people, and claimed over 600,000 lives. The International Monetary Fund expects it to cause a 3 percent drop in global GDP in 2020, the sharpest contraction since the Great Depression. In Australia, nearly 600,000 jobs were lost in April, with hospitality workers, arts employees, women and young people the hardest hit. Unemployment could yet peak at 10 percent, and the promised Morrison ‘snap back’ seems unlikely. Rather than a V-shaped recession, the best we can hope for at this stage is a recovery that looks like a Nike swoosh.

Coronavirus has shaken the cosy nostrums of the right. All that Ayn Rand nonsense about rugged individualism and contempt for the government has been exposed as straight-out selfish greed. Would any conservative now dare to quote Ronald Reagan’s claim that ‘government is the problem’, or Margaret Thatcher’s suggestion that ‘there is no such thing as society’? Imagine the outcry if Scott Morrison was to present the budget proposals he supported in 2014, including a Medicare co-payment, reduced CSIRO funding, cutting pension indexation, and abolishing unemployment benefits for under-25s.

But the pandemic should also shape how progressives respond, and not just because we hope it will create the circumstances for a big left turn. After World War II, Labor didn’t yearn for a return to the 1930s. Instead, Curtin and Chifley made the case for full employment, and democratising home ownership. The 1970s stagflation showed the need to control inflation and boost productivity. When Hawke won office, Labor forged an Accord with the union movement, and expanded the social wage.

On many issues, progressives now have the wind at our backs. Trade unions that have long campaigned for sick leave, and warned of the risk of unstable work, have been proven right. If the gig economy is to become a substantial part of our economy, it needs to make life better for employees and customers. Sharing economy platforms should thrive because they offer new connections, not because they stiff their workers and underpay their taxes.

Quality health care has long been a Labor priority. Labor created Medicare, expanded dental care, and prioritised mental care. None of this looks like a luxury today. Compared with other nations, Australia’s public health system responded swiftly to the pandemic – providing authoritative briefings, containing outbreaks, and rapidly expanding testing. None of this was perfect, but it stands in stark contrast to the United States: a country that spend