We are all off balance. From the moment I open my eyes in the morning, I feel the discomfiting sensation of being suspended between the set of propositions that existed before the pandemic and the set of propositions that exist now.
I suspect everybody is encountering this out of kilter sensation frequently in normal life. Thousands and thousands of Australians were employed last week but aren’t today. Businesses have gone bust, or teeter on the brink. Kids are not at school. Socialising is curtailed. Unless you are young and sanguine enough to believe coronavirus is either a beat-up or a “boomer remover” and therefore it’s business as usual, you are either ill or deeply anxious about getting ill and infecting others.
As the great Australian poet Kenneth Slessor put it in Out of Time, time is flowing like one hundred yachts flying behind daylight, foxed with air. Hour by hour, there is more propulsion. But we aren’t yet far enough away from pre-pandemic life to have forgotten what it was like to think of something other than am I standing too close to that person, and when was the last time I washed my hands?
This acceleration of time also suspends the Morrison government between its pre-pandemic identity and the weight of present responsibilities. There are a million ways to chart this. I used one small example last weekend, where the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, laughed raucously at wellbeing only a few weeks ago and now thinks of nothing else.
Robodebt is another issue that strands the government between old mantras and present realities. Five minutes ago, chasing a surplus was so important to this government that it wrongly issued, as my colleague Luke Henriques-Gomes reported this week, more than 400,000 welfare debts to vulnerable people that it will now have to refund. Five minutes ago, chasing those debts was more important than checking whether the income averaging method it was using was lawful.
Now, the debt ceiling has been lifted, and we are all Keynesians. The very same government has retooled the welfare system and doubled the unemployment benefit for the next six months, because the health crisis demands that large swathes of the economy go into a period of suspended animation. It is a terrible time to be a small government ideologue.
All this shape shifting creates significant questions about what the future looks like. In the moments I can think, which are fleeting right now because of the relentless pace of events, I wonder what Australia and the world will look like five years from now, because only one thing is certain: this crisis will put the world on a different axis.
The global financial crisis, which was the biggest global economic shock since the Depression, triggered a fundamental realignment. Nativism and protectionism resurfaced. Cheap jack populists expressed fatigue with experts. Americans, God help them, chose Donald Trump as their president. The far right resurfaced in parts of Europe. Britain retreated from Europe after a convulsion that paralysed one of the greatest democracies in the world for several years.
Current indications suggest this pandemic will inflict a more substantial economic shock than the GFC, because our capacity to pump prime domestic economies is curtailed. In the Depression, the government could pay people to go out and build roads and bridges. In the GFC, the government could give people money in the certainty that they would hit the shops and spend for Australia. But in this event, stimulatory measures have to be balanced against public health risks, unless you are a leader like Trump who makes a virtue of endangering his own citizens.
The thought exercise I’m embarking on this weekend is necessary, but mildly mind-blowing – what is the post-pandemic outlook for democratic governments?
Driven by the pro-market economic orthodoxy that existed pre-GFC, liberal democracies have spent decades shrinking governments. As governments have ceded power, many societies have also lost faith in the political class – in Australia, particularly over the past decade. The share of the vote going to the major parties has declined. Trust is low. Voters are disillusioned.
Yet it has been striking in this crisis how citizens in this country have looked to government as a deeply ingrained reflex. There is a hardwired collective expectation that government will provide a safety net during the economic shock, and also to tell people in clear terms what they should do to minimise the risks of infection.
So even though we are disillusioned, there appears to be a durable expectation that government will lead, and there is fury if leadership doesn’t materialise.
Also striking over the past 10 days has been the rolling dialogue within the Australian federation. In places like the United Kingdom or New Zealand, national governments just assert that various things will happen, and they happen. In Australia, responsibilities are divided, so the various tiers of government in this countries are forced to engage in an old-fashioned policy deliberation. They are forced to consider, in full public view, the health response and the economic response; as Morrison is fond of putting this exercise, weighing lives and livelihoods.
This is actually a good thing. While I’ve criticised the chaos and incoherence in the public presentation over the past week, I have felt some level of comfort as a citizen watching Victoria and New South Wales force a public debate about whether we should be locking down the country faster, and Morrison making a counter case that every day of fitful economic activity in this country is a day where another form of societal catastrophe, namely double-digit unemployment, is averted.
I’m glad these weighty calculations, the calculations of life and death, sustenance and terrible hardship, are not playing out as an internal, undisclosed monologue in the head of a sleep-deprived national leader who doesn’t have to negotiate with anybody, or explain his or her reasoning.
I’m glad our system forces that dialogue, in the process, forcing the nine governments we elect in this country to knuckle down and do their jobs; to learn what can be agreed and what can’t. In that high stakes deliberative dynamic that is supposed to form the core of representative democracy, everybody has to play their hand, out in the open, and history will judge the quality of their judgment calls.
I also read in some publications now is not the time for Labor to be questioning government decision making, because apparently that’s playing politics. I mean, how bloody ridiculous. We all need to be questioning every decision as constructively as possible rather than lapsing into placid groupthink. The opposition, the media, all citizens.
Now is the time for everybody in this nation to care about one another sufficiently to show up and play our respective roles in a democracy, particularly at a time when parliament is suspended, and civil liberties are being curtailed in the service of of saving lives.
Oppositions and journalists need to engage in good faith and clear heads with the reasoning behind the decisions that are being made, and stress test the various propositions. Governments also need to be transparent about why they are making calls at particular times. For example, neither Morrison nor the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, would give a plain English answer to a question on Friday about what the specific trigger points would be for further lockdowns.
While political leaders are acutely conscious at the minute of not pushing deeply anxious people into a full-tilt panic by talking about scenarios of surges of infections as if it were an academic seminar, building confidence in decision making will be assisted by transparency, not by secrecy.
Let’s end our thinking this weekend this way. When I ask the big question – what is the outlook for democratic governments post pandemic – implicitly, there’s a much simpler question in the interim, and it’s this.
Will governments prove their worth by managing this crisis to the best of their ability, or will they fail their citizens? I don’t know the answer, but I know a lot hangs on it; lives, livelihoods, and the future of liberal democracy.