Covid-19 has had a relatively mild impact in Australia. But the political response to it has changed everything. Governments have thrown their operating manuals – and their political compass – out the window. As those profound television commentators keep saying to us, ‘nothing will be the same again’. We are seeing a reconfiguration of political alliances and interests unfold before our eyes. This is a privilege reserved for one generation in every four or five. In modern times, we’ve only seen two or three political eras like this – the 1840s was one, when liberals, secularists and socialists combined to end the ancien régime in Europe; the 1890s was another, when socialists broke with liberals to go their own way and set forth a socialism versus capitalism paradigm.
2020 is likely to reveal another, courtesy of Covid. The clash between socialism and capitalism is being superceded by another equally significant rupture which will rearrange our party politics.
The drivers of this change are not of our creation and are not in our control, but they are pushing us towards a re-configuration in Australian politics. There are ten of them, and they are driving a new constellation of alliances and interests which are in conflict with those of our established contending elites.
- Lockdowns as a Covid management strategy are a healthcare, social and economic disaster. They unite the federal government, state premiers and their bureaucracies in a National Cabinet, now effectively all in the same party.
- The Australian economy has been trashed. Even before Covid it was fragile, excessively dependent on trade with one country, but now without high immigration, international tourism and foreign students and a continuing trade war with China, the Australian economy is on its knees and cannot be revived without fundamental change. The architects of an economy that makes nothing have been exposed as vandals. Those who ordered the lockdowns cannot rebuild an economy they trashed with their own hands.
- Small business has been devastated. The full extent of business closures will not be known for 12-18 months since many small firms will try to hang on and trade their way back. Most will not succeed. Bigger firms will benefit from reduced competition in every sector. The social fabric of smaller communities will be disproportionately hit. The desertion of small business by Liberal and Labor is now a matter of widespread community existential crisis, but is largely unfelt by our ruling elites.
- The high immigration/property Ponzi scheme is over. In recent decades, Liberal and Labor governments have propped up the economy with mass immigration, real estate speculation and inflated housing values, driven by property developers and incentivised by negative gearing. Covid has burst this bubble, but Liberal and Labor will be unable to overcome their addiction to high immigration.
- More than 3.5 million of us have withdrawn $20,000 from our own super so we can use our own money for our own priorities. The entitlement mentality of the finance sector in holding onto our super and eating up $36 billion in fees each year out of our money has now been punctured. The genie is out of the bottle. Super should be voluntary. If 20 per cent of us withdraw from compulsory super, an annual stimulus of $132 billion would be unleashed into a trashed economy, but both factions of our ruling class will refuse this stimulus.
- Institutionalised aged care is a disaster for older people. We de-institutionalised mental health and disability in the 1990s but governments have retained it in aged care. Congregating frail ageing people with multiple co-morbidities is not only an unnatural and isolating way for older people to live, it has made them sitting ducks for Covid. Governments and service providers have used the language of ‘person-centred care’ for years now, but they have no idea how to implement it. We now have a mounting death toll in nursing homes as lasting testimony to the failure of institutionalisation.
- The media has failed the country during the Covid crisis, promoting fear and panic to drive headlines and online clicks. The ABC and commercial media are equally to blame. Both failed to represent the diversity of Australian opinion or facilitate serious national debate on how to best manage the crisis. Both chose to barrack for their preferred politicians. Neither served an inclusive public debate when we really needed it.
- Metropolitan and country interests have moved further apart. Most Covid cases have been in capital cities but lockdowns have been imposed in regional and rural areas even when they are Covid-free. There is growing dominance of metropolitan power over country Australia which is driving renewed aspirations for country autonomy and increased regional decision-making power.
- Universities and schools have served the public interest poorly during the crisis. Having resisted calls for greater parental partnership in their kids’ education for decades, education departments and teacher unions imposed home-schooling on families amidst unprecedented stress and mental health concerns across the community. Universities have continually lobbied for handouts from taxpayers to offset their foolish dependence on foreign students. The detachment of schools and universities from mainstream society is a structural divide that is growing. Liberal and Labor governments cannot acknowledge the rift let alone reverse it.
- Panic over our security situation and fear of China is doing great harm to our national security planning. Many Liberal and Labor politicians spent the last 20 years grovelling to China and selling off national assets instead of managing our relationship with China soberly in accordance with our national interests. They have now flicked the switch to fear and panic, as with the virus. Instead of panic, we need to plan for the independent defence of Australia, without psychological reliance on a declining America, while maintaining a mature and balanced economic relationship with China.
There will be no going back to business-as-usual after COVID. The social, economic and psychological damage inflicted on the country by the political class has been too great. This is the biggest self-imposed calamity ever imposed on Australia by its governments. The emerging political shake-out is an opportunity for Australians across the old political spectrum to renew our democracy, dispel some of our longstanding demons, and revive our sagging Commonwealth for a new century.
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Vern Hughes is the Director of Civil Society Australia
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