COVID-19’s lessons for Australia’s post-pandemic governance

Aug 24, 2020

The notion that government is the problem not the solution for the political failures of the late twentieth century was the most devious and destructive attack on representative government, ever.  It’s time to bring government back to centre stage.

The deluded mantra of neoliberalism continues to influence governments in thrall to the toxic libertarianism underpinning policy-making in the so-called liberal economies.

The 2007/8 Global Financial Crisis should have taught our country’s leaders that Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher wielded a particularly blunt policy axe when they set about vandalising the structures of modern government (and, incidentally, laying the foundations of a political tradition in which Donald Trump has been able to wallow like a pig in mud). The sad fact is that many of our current leaders have ignored the lessons of the Reagan/Thatcher era.

And now we have the COVID-19 crisis which has brought to the forefront three crucial lessons for all Australians to think about very deeply.

First, consider some of Australia’s leading private aged-care providers and their responses to the COVID-19 virus spreading through their facilities. As Mungo MacCallum recently pointed out, some are “rich entrepreneurs who have built financial empires over the graves of their victims.” These people have caused unforgivable suffering to their “clients”, families and friends. On their responses to the virus alone, they should be facing severe legal penalties, including imprisonment, because they place profit-making above the duty of care they owe to the vulnerable seniors in their poorly-run institutions.

From what we’ve seen emerging, so far, from the Royal Commission into Aged Care Services, staffing levels, inadequate staff training, low pay and exploitation of casual staff, a lack of resources and protocols for dealing with infections, poor food, and shocking levels of cleaning and hygiene in too many of those facilities have been woefully inadequate. The dignity and wellbeing of the residents in the age-care facilities has been ruthlessly trampled underfoot by the merciless avarice of the private providers of their “care”.

And lest we forget, it is the federal government that is responsible for this terrible mess. Yet the Morrison government is ducking, weaving and buck-shoving as it tries to avoid blame for its delinquent incompetence in this vital policy area.

Combined, COVID-19 and the aged-care crisis constitute what is currently the most glaring tip of the neoliberal policy iceberg. There are numerous other policy failures directly linked to it: for example, the failure of childcare policy, stagnant wages, the bludgeoning of the manufacturing sector, the crisis in higher education, a disastrous approach to climate change, the mess that is the TAFE sector, the housing crisis, the casualisation of the workforce and unemployment, the gender wage gap …

This points to the second lesson. Throughout the years of dead-hand neoliberal economics, governments have been either negligent, or absent altogether, in laying the ground rules for service providers of all kinds to ensure that public wellbeing (the public good) should always be the first priority in wise policy-making and service provision. It ought to be clear by now that the profit motive almost always runs counter to the provision of effectively targeted and conducted essential services. The few regulatory frameworks that have managed to survive the neoliberal holocaust have mostly been weakened by under-resourcing and creeping corruption.

The third lesson is about the current state of Australian federalism.

The perennial blame game, in which state and federal politicians accuse each other of making a mess of things, is on bitter display as the COVID-19 crisis ploughs on, worsening by the day.

For example, confusions about which level of government was responsible for the Ruby Princess debacle is not only indicative of massive incompetence at all levels, but it also highlights the byzantine manner in which Australian federalism operates. The Walker Report has described failures by the NSW department of health officials as “inexcusable”. What those failures point to is bureaucratic incompetence and political deceit. Once again a state government has been shown up as lacking the administrative expertise and principled political leadership that is the right of all Australians – a right that is observed increasingly more in its breach than in its observance.

Another example: In Victoria it is not yet clear who or what has caused the terrible “second wave” of coronavirus infections being endured by Melbournians and across the state. There has been much obfuscating as we wait for the findings of yet another public enquiry. What is so depressing about it all is the jejune political point scoring between state and federal politicians as they all duck for cover.

What can be done?

First, the federal government must take full responsibility for making and administering a national health policy. State health departments have shown that they are simply not up to it. Their expertise is too thinly stretched when the nation’s health policy specialists should be concentrated at the federal level. It’s time to close down all the state health bureaucracies, merging their resources into the commonwealth’s department of health.

Secondly, a comprehensive review of the consequences of the de-regulating all the health care systems across the country and the down-sizing of public service expertise within them is now essential. The review must also be tasked with recommending how re-regulation and appropriately resourcing a national health system is now utterly crucial, not only to deal with the aftermath of the current pandemic, but to deal with future pandemics. For there will be more pandemics, more frequently. Ask the experts!

Above all else, the COVID-19 crisis shows that Australia’s ramshackle federal system is in dire need of root and branch reforms. The ineptitude of state governments is in plain sight for all to see. The confusions, paralleling and competing between the levels of government are responsible for a collapsing federal system that would be risible if it were not so serious. It is a system designed for the nineteenth century which makes it totally out of touch with what is needed in the twenty-first century.

The days of state governments must come to an end. The sooner the better.

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