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 spends nearly twice as large a share of GDP on health, yet provides patchier care. Coming out of the crisis, there will be a strong demand for telehealth, particularly in regional Australia. Preventive health will become a greater priority. The vulnerability of nursing homes has given new urgency to calls for serious reform in the way we manage aged care.
Science, too, has been ascendant. Medical researchers have been teaching us their lingo, with terms such as ‘R0’, ‘flattening the curve’, ‘incubation period’ and ‘self-isolation’ making the transition from hospital seminars to suburban dinner tables. Everyone is now acutely aware that the lack of an effective treatment or vaccine is the biggest handbrake on the economy – and the only people who can find a cure are scientists.
But it’s not only medical scientists whose work should be taken more seriously. For years, climate scientists have been sidelined by Australian conservatives, who have sowed climate scepticism and denial. COVID-19 ought to provide a reset. As the Amazon recommendation engine might put it, ‘if you like medical science, you’ll love climate science’. Australia is the advanced country most at risk from climate change. Yet the Coalition has sidelined the science, failed to implement the necessary emissions cuts, and dragged the chain in global negotiations. This needs to change.
In the workforce, we all like to think that we are ‘essential workers’. But when coronavirus hit, it suddenly became evident who were the real essential employees. Australians united to cheer our nurses, garbos, posties, police, teachers, supermarket workers, frontline public servants and cleaners. The ‘Good Beer Always Helps’ delivered packs of craft beer to more than 10,000 essential workers. Yet it was also a reminder that what we pay essential workers is often a poor reflection of their true worth to society. Cheers and beers are beaut, but they don’t pay the rent. Workers in these sectors are likely to find a more receptive ear when they demand a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.
In the community, Labor has a natural role as the champions of localism, volunteering and civic engagement. For seven years, the Coalition has waged a war against charities – trying to axe the charities commission, discouraging social service charities from advocating on behalf of those in poverty, attempting to prevent internationally engaged charities from having a voice. Yet when coronavirus hit, it was charities that were called upon to provide food relief, mental health support, disability work, family violence support and much more. The upsurge in neighbourhood organisations has helped to offset the fall in traditional volunteering. Harnessing this civic energy is a task that echoes the work of the post-war decades, in which returning soldiers and their families helped found many of the important civic organisations that still serve the community today.
Egalitarianism is at the heart of the progressive project, but we need to think anew about how to couch the problem and craft the solutions. Two months of home schooling will have widened the educational divide between children from rich and poor families. Job losses will be felt most keenly among traditionally disadvantaged workers. Indigenous Australians, people with disabilities, those without post-school qualifications and younger Australians will all be hit hardest in the downturn. And, as always, assets provide a buffer against unexpected shocks. While affluent Australians can ride the share market rollercoaster, more than a million people without sufficient assets have pulled money out of superannuation. Inequality in retirement savings just got larger. The case for increasing the minimum superannuation contribution rate just got stronger.
Some commentators have argued that COVID-19 proves that the project of fighting inequality is dead – or at least that it needs to quietly sit in the corner. Growth, the argument goes, is all that counts now. But this misses the fact that GDP growth only raises wellbeing if it flows through to low-income and middle-income households. If the bulk of the economic gains are captured by those at the top, national averages will exaggerate the benefits of growth to the typical family.
This isn’t a theoretical argument. Take the total wealth of the twenty richest Australians. It tripled from 1990 to 2000, doubled from 2000 to 2010, and then tripled from 2010 to 2020. In just one year – from 2019 to 2020 – the wealth of the top twenty Australian billionaires surged by 32 percent. All this at a time when wage growth is stagnant, home ownership is at its lowest level in half a century, and real household incomes have barely budged since 2013. There’s a reason it isn’t called flow-down economics.
Egalitarianism has long been part of the Australian project. Even after a generation of rising inequality, ours remains a nation where people prefer ‘mate’ to ‘sir’, often sit in the front seat of taxis, and don’t abide private areas on our beaches. To say that the recovery from coronavirus should be egalitarian is simply another way of saying that it needs to be Aussie.
There are also other reasons why equality particularly matters today. As a growing body of research has shown, more equal nations enjoy higher levels of social mobility. If you think we should aim to be a nation where anyone can move from rags to riches, then you should prefer that the gap between the top and bottom doesn’t grow excessively wide. Much as Americans believe that ‘anyone can make it’, their country is actually a place in which it is exceedingly difficult for people to jump from one class to another. If the American Dream is defined as social mobility, then you’re more likely to realise the American Dream in Sweden than the United States.
Lastly, progressives should emphasise the link between community and egalitarianism. As Robert Putnam shows in The Upswing, trends in civic engagement and income inequality have tracked one another surprisingly closely. In the 1950s and 1960s, Putnam argues, the United States increasingly became a country of ‘we’ rather than ‘me’. But since the 1980s, ‘me’ has prevailed over ‘we’. A post-COVID-19 world needs social solidarity more than ever. And as the evidence shows, strong communities and fair economies go together. As progressives look to carve a better society from the timber of the pandemic, this should be our starting point.
Andrew Leigh is the Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Charities, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.