Three months since Australia’s first infection, Sweeney says the case for ambitious nation rebuilding is stronger than ever. But are we ready to become a more equal and prosperous nation than before? Sweeney shares his reflections.
This episode in our nation’s history has highlighted the true value of previously forgotten groups within the Australian workforce. These groups have not suddenly gained value, rather have suddenly been recognised for the value they possessed all along.
Earlier in April, both major parties endorsed the single most expensive piece of legislation in Australia’s history, the Coronavirus Supplement. The ‘back in black’ budget surplus now seems like a distant flicker. Normalcy for many Australians today is defined not by our freedoms and ambitions, but by our access to an intricate and disenfranchising welfare system.
However, despite the $130 billion price tag, it would be wrong to assume that the federal government’s JobKeeper package was all-encompassing.
In addition to the omission of casual workers, carers, artists and disability pensioners, a fundamental feature of recent parliamentary operations which we must also scrutinize, is the nature of scrutiny itself.
Parliament was not scheduled to resume until August (though after considerable backlash a number of dates in May were announced). There was no new legislation set to be introduced before that time. This was a clear directive to the Australian people that the government believed their job was done.
When childcare workers, supermarket workers, cleaners, healthcare workers and transport workers are risking their lives for the betterment of society, elected officials deemed themselves unessential in a time of vast social change.
Transparency during crisis governance is crucial. In the past year, the Australian public witnessed horrendous mismanagement and underfunding of bushfire services, followed by a series of deeply corrupt sports rorts scandals. We must demand transparency and visibility from our politicians.
Attorney-General Christian Porter’s “better things to do” rationale is at best sloppy negligence, and at worst, an insidious attempt at sheltering from criticism under a bureaucratic invisibility cloak.
We expect to see our leaders in the public eye, fielding questions, proposing legislation, and engaging with the general public. We expect to see them doing their jobs.
Despite this rattling of public faith, the spirit of bipartisanship has been strong between states, and between major federal parties in the COVID-19 response. This has seemingly been propelled by the Voltairean sentiment, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”.
It would be remiss to say, however, that this is not the time for reflection, revaluation and critique of our current society and economy. We see it occurring already. Policies such as government-funded childcare that the Coalition labelled “communist” during the last federal election, are now law. Their law.
With the drastic socialisation of our economy, the government has the chance to correct what opposition leader Anthony Albanese described as “market failure”. Earlier this month, Mr Albanese referred to the indispensable contributions of our typically underpaid and undervalued workers—those in healthcare, childcare, supermarkets and sanitation. He contended that “Price does not represent value … because their value has been shown to be absolutely essential to literally keeping us alive during this period”.
It has taken a pandemic for the JobSeeker payment to be increased to a sum that didn’t impose relative poverty on its recipients. It has taken a pandemic for welfare rates to be increased to a level that actually ensured welfare. It has taken a pandemic for Services Australia (formerly Centrelink) payments to cease being for ‘dole bludgers’ and become a true lifeline for people who have nowhere else to turn.
The quiet part was finally said out loud. That before Coronavirus forced normal, hard-working people to go on welfare payments, they were a disincentive, rather than a salvation.
It is plainly obvious now, that if Scott Morrison’s messages of unity are to be actioned, we must be judged by the level of our floor, rather than the level of our ceiling.
Our ceiling is a celebrity talking about how they’re coping in their three-storey homes with swimming pools. Our floor is the approximately three million Australians still living in relative poverty.
In recent years, Australia has struggled with the notion of investment. We have come to expect immediate returns. We have failed to plan further than the next election, prioritizing cursory tax cuts over funding public services. We have struggled to see the value of cultural capital as anything other than a means to transfer it to economic capital.
We have left behind our artists, who are always the first to work for free when fundraising after a crisis. Sydney comedian Celeste Barber raised $52 million for the bushfire relief effort through a viral online campaign, and that is but one example.
As young people in this country, we are brought up in a society where we have little hope of owning a house and graduate from higher education saddled with debt. It is from this platform that we are told that we will be expected to carry the economic rebuilding of the nation on our shoulders in the decades to come.
Many people these past few months have anxiously asked “How do we return to normal?” and on first reading, it’s the obvious question.
However you choose to answer, I believe we will begin the process of rebuilding, armed with newly realised perceptions of value and well-being within our modern Australian society.
Perhaps the more pressing question we must be ambitious in asking is: are we poised to become an even stronger, more equal and more prosperous nation than before?