Deeper thinking, even during this critical impasse we are facing, must underlie the monumental decisions being made about where to splash the cash, where to invest in skills development, which industries to encourage and which to phase out.
As humanity moves towards a new post-COVID paradigm, the Australian 2020 budget is in many ways a desperate attempt to ‘save’ what remains of an ‘old’ economy. The world that economy drove, now no longer exists.
During COVID, industry, economic growth, and world trade have shut down, not completely, but to a dramatic extent, with people (workers and spenders) isolated at home, unable either to produce or to consume as before. Will the populace ever again be in, or want to be in, a position to work and spend in the same way? Should we be aspiring to go ‘back to pre-COVID economic normal’? After all ‘business as usual’ has for decades been steadily sickening the planet, and steadily contributing to a loss of human flourishing for many Australians caught up either on the frenetic economic treadmill, or lost between the cracks of an uneven distribution of the country’s ‘wealth’. A sound economy will always be needed to make the nation hum, but not at the expense of the life systems and social relations that sustain our very existence.
Many Australians found lockdown a time to pause, to rethink, and reassess. Do I really need all those consumer goods made somewhere else where people are underpaid and where large corporations make obscene amounts of money on the backs of the poor? Does my family want to be a spoiler of the earth by wasting energy at home? Do I want to spend hours each day in my car or on a plane for work purposes? Can I continue to work from home after this? If so, who will help pay for my ‘office expenses’? What will happen to all those overseas holidays we were planning? To that administrative infrastructure we’ve built, now forlorn and half empty? Will my children have clean air to breath and a meaningful job to do? These are all questions with budgetary relevance as we reemerge from our COVID cocoons.
The development of an urgent budget offers scant time to ask hard and embarrassing questions that might delay publication. And there is room for some sympathy for those charged with such weighty responsibility. But if those hard questions cannot be asked as we are now emerging into this ‘brave, new world’, when will they be addressed? The time is now, and we are the generation who must do this.
If jobs, jobs, jobs was the catch cry of the 2020 budget, what sorts of jobs? Many people would now say, upon reflection, not the sort of jobs that pollute the seas, the fresh water sources we all need to survive, the soils that grow our food and the air we need to breath. Not the sorts of jobs that will dig up yet more fossil fuels to infect our eco-systems and spread our home-grown pollution around the globe. Why not innovative ventures with jobs that extend renewable energy, replant forests, preserve our wildlife, make our travel more sustainable, produce foods that are less harsh on eco-systems, create new topsoil, provide more creative ways to care for the weak and the elderly, and support young parents in forming families and caring for their children? What about jobs that build more homes for the destitute, and daring ventures to encourage the creativity and inventiveness of people with the intellectual and creative flair to envision and build a better world?
Short-termism is the enemy of all good governance. It is understandable that our leaders want to get people back to work NOW. But deeper thinking, even during this critical impasse we are facing, must underlie the monumental decisions being made about where to splash the cash, where to invest in skills development, which industries to encourage and which to phase out. Pragmatists under pressure are not often good at deep thinking. And it takes time. Just as we are taking the time it needs to develop a safe vaccine, we need time to work out a safe and sustainable future that warrants spending the billions we are borrowing in 2020, and that our descendants will have to repay. How wisely we have spent that trillion dollar debt will be a key question for future Australians. And the question will go way beyond the GFC critique of ‘school halls’ and ‘pink batts’. Building gas plants? Extending roads? Investing in airports? Business as usual? It’s all hard, and takes wisdom, learning, and best available scientific, humanitarian and economic advice to discern a positive pathway forward.
Pope Francis’ October encyclical Fratelli Tutti (putting aside, just for now, the controversy surrounding the title) is timely. The Pope is beseeching humanity to act wisely and lovingly, respectful of all at this critical time. He wants the economy of each nation and the global economy to be strong, but in ways that seek justice for all, especially the most vulnerable people with the weakest life chances, and an economy that is respectful of earth’s eco-systems. He wants nations to dialogue and cooperate with each other, exercising forgiveness where necessary. He wants individualism as an ideology to be replaced by the goodness of the Good Samaritan, through love of one’s neighbour, wherever and whoever that neighbour turns out to be. No-one is to be overlooked in Francis’ global economy, in the community of humankind. Strangers are to be welcomed.
I get the impression this is an old man speaking boldly, wanting to impress on the universal ‘family’ the most important lessons in life, if planetary and human flourishing are to be given a chance at all in this century. Of course the cynics will say once again he’s a hopeless idealist who knows nothing of ‘real’ economics. We humans need massive shots of idealism, self-sacrifice and love for each other right now. These are the foundations, in any time and any circumstances, on which a sound and genuinely ethical budget/economy can be built if it is to serve the interests of the common good, and not be skewed towards wealthy, powerful interests. Over-simple in a complex world? There was never a better time for a ‘Good Samaritan’ approach to policy-making, the approach offered again to the world by Francis as a rallying call to goodness, ever ancient and ever new. It can find resonance in the reawakened post-COVID conscience of our nation as we budget for an unknown future.
Development must not aim at the amassing of wealth by a few, but must ensure human rights – personal and social, economic and political, including the rights of nations and of peoples. The right of some to free enterprise or market freedom cannot supersede the rights of peoples and the dignity of the poor, or, for that matter, respect for the natural environment, for if we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. (122)