Editorial Peter Whiting
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 it is here, 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, improving outcomes for people and the environment.
Covid-19 presents us with an opportunity: increased equality in society, resilient to the challenges ahead, or a society ruled by power imbalances, struggling to cope with natural and man-made disasters.
Into this power and income imbalance charges Covid-19. As one might expect, it hits the powerless hardest, the aged in residential aged care, the poor in crowded labour hire firm-arranged accommodation, workplaces in which it is almost impossible to maintain physical distancing, and the poor in inadequately serviced crowded housing commission accommodation. But the virus has no respect for class, power, or income.
Few of us could have imagined that a virus invisible to the human eye could bring the world economy to its knees. Rich countries like Australia and New Zealand have cushioned the blow with modest support for businesses, workers, and the unemployed, but many poor countries are struggling even to keep people alive.
On 19 July, the UN secretary general Antonio Guterres robustly urged major reform to address global inequalities so evident with the pandemic, especially in healthcare, “gaps in social protection, structural inequalities, environmental degradation, and the climate crisis”. He particularly attacked “the lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all … the delusion that we live in a post-racist world, the myth that we are all in the same boat”.
Ken Henry’s logic makes eminent good sense – the Commonwealth should take primary responsibility for the environment in the interests of preserving the continent. But it is not helped by the recent scathing report by the Australian National Audit Office on the failings of the Federal Department of Agriculture Water & Environment in administering the EPDC Act.
At one level, this is a depressing litany of incompetence and mismanagement which goes some way to explaining Australia’s appalling environmental record. At another, it is understandable, given the politicisation and emasculation of the public service over recent years. With continual political pressure to accelerate development, in the current climate, there is not great mileage for any public servant to take a stand on the environment.
Beyond Zero Emissions has launched a new vision for an Australian economy that embraces investments in zero emissions technologies that could create more than one million new jobs in Australia over the next five years.
The plan, which proposes up to 90 gigawatts of new wind and solar projects be constructed, along with investments in improving housing energy performance and public transport systems, and a rejuvenated Australian manufacturing sector based on green exports.
This could include continued ramping-up of Australia’s renewable hydrogen export capabilities, and shifting energy intensive manufacturing processes like steel production to zero-emissions alternatives to coal traditionally used by Australian industry, such as the use of green hydrogen as a source of heat.
We live in the most interesting and uncertain times ever. This can be stated with certainty, because the rate of change today is an order of magnitude faster even than a hundred years ago. So let’s try a new economic policy mindset.
Fast-forward to today’s pandemic-stricken world, and we have the Morrison government abandoning what is presumably a sincerely held belief in a demonstrably misguided neoliberal economic philosophy which compares national economies to grocery stores, in that they have to balance their budgets. Hence, until recently, budget surpluses have been hopelessly pursued to pay down government debt.
In this mindset, social welfare for the poor and disadvantaged must be rationed, in order to fund higher (political) priorities than this, even during the reign of Labor governments.
It’s painfully clear that nature is buckling under the weight of farming’s demands. In the past decade, the federal government has listed ten ecological communities as endangered or critically endangered, as a result of farming development and practices.
So how can we accommodate the needs of farming as well as nature? Research shows us how – but it means accepting land as a finite resource, and operating within its limits. In doing so, farmers will also reap benefits…
Farmers can be profitable, while maintaining and improving the ecological health of their land. It’s time to look hard at farming models which respect the limits of nature, and recognise that less can be more.
SPC video selection
In this compelling speech. UN secretary general Antonio Guterres urged the world to learn lessons from the extent to which Covid-19 crisis has exposed human inequalities, especially in healthcare and education, along with the racism revealed in the Black Lives Matter protests. “COVID-19 has been likened to an X-ray, revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built.” Guterres was delivering the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg on 18 July 2020.
Photo World Bank Madagascar. flickr cc.