Peter Whiting Editorial. Enabling people to flourish after Covid-19.

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The Covid-19 crisis has deepened sharply in Australia, with Victoria going into Stage 4 lockdown, and other states on edge. The situation in many other countries is far worse than this, and the prospects immediately ahead fill one with dread.

Last month, our editorial noted that various of our articles were ‘urging policy makers to move from the narrow focus of improving GDP per capita to the broad goal of enabling people to flourish, to live their lives in safety, with dignity, and able to fulfil their potential’.

This August newsletter carries on this theme. Many commentators are looking to a post-Covid world in the hope of altering the economic priorities which have featured so pervasively over recent decades, and to improve outcomes for people and the environment.

The Australian experience of the Covid-19 pandemic must surely have put to bed that famous statement of Margaret Thatcher’s in 1987, “… and who is society? There is no such thing”. Our federal and state leaders have been keen to convince us that it is responsible behaviour to respond urgently to the pressing needs of the whole of society, and not simply act only in our own narrow self-interest.

If this is true in a Covid world, it is equally true in the post-Covid recovery period. Indeed, depending on the duration and severity of the crises, we need to maintain our awareness of the circumstances of others, and support significantly changed policy priorities and responses.

Tim Woodruff writes that this is a chance to scrutinise the power imbalances in our society. His assessment of the current situation is damning: “Neglect describes it well.” He works from a broad palette, sketching out taxation reforms, increased spending on mental health and aged care, and improved regulation of labour hire firms and employers. As a doctor, he sees these needs through the lens of improving the health of those who most need assistance. He doesn’t use the term, but surely he is looking to post-Covid policy settings which will help the powerless ‘flourish’.

Ray Bricknell takes up a similar theme, describing poverty as “a policy choice made for the poor by the affluent”. He calls for tax reform and altered spending priories to underwrite a compassionate and cooperative approach. He sees the current review of the Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act as an opportunity to “reset the dial”. He reminds us of the enjoinder by Herman Daly that “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse”.

Bruce Duncan also argues for change in economic policy. He contends that the neoliberal settings have not achieved many of their supposed objectives. The so-called trickle-down effect has not eventuated. Instead, increased inequity has resulted in many if not most people enjoying little of the economic gains of recent decades. The neoliberal agenda should be abandoned, and more equitable policies adopted.

Ian Dunlop reflects on Ken Henry’s views on how to design a fair tax system in Australia, and particularly on the fact that solving the environment issues is critical. Dunlop criticises the free market ideology in governments which has allowed special interests, notably in fossil fuels, to capture political influence. Despite the natural disasters, efforts to tackle climate change are undermined, resulting in mismanagement and politicisation of the public service. The pandemic is a wake-up call for Australia to lift its game.

Michael Mazengarb sees this time as a unique opportunity to plan for a different future. For him, energy policy should focus on renewable energy sources. He identifies with the new vision launched by Beyond Zero Emissions for an Australian economy which embraces investments in zero emissions technologies and reforms to help generate more than one million new jobs in Australia over the next five years.

Sue McIntyre is concerned that the rapid increase in intensive farming in Australia is producing adverse impacts by damaging the land and increasing greenhouse gas emissions through mechanisation, use of fertilisers and chemicals, and tree clearing. She proposes a change in farming models which will result in sustainable practices and encourage bio-diversity.

These contributors remind us that ‘enabling people to flourish’ is importantly about attuning economic priorities to the ‘battlers’, but also about providing a sustainable environment in which to flourish. The Covid-19 crisis is forcing governments away from trying simply to balance the budget, as in one’s household; governments have to give increased support to those people in need. These initiatives will have to be sustained, and governments must resist the temptation to rush back to previous inequitable policies.

Now is an opportunity to re-focus on priorities to address the inequities in wealth and access to services, while also responding effectively to climate and sustainability goals.

Photo Immunising the world. Jernej Furman. flickr cc.

6 August 2020

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