Metaphorically, the pandemic has cast a very oblique light across our apparently flat policy terrain. Many seemingly solid and settled policy positions are now revealed as wafer-thin ideologies. Deep unbridgeable chasms between implacably opposed world views now separate what used to seem like mild differences of opinion.
Some even consider that the pandemic has triggered social discord so extensive that whole political systems are under threat.
Now merging with other crises, these still-unfolding events are finding global expression in “great power rivalry” – principally a struggle between democratic and authoritarian tendencies.
Seeking to legitimise their coercive polities, illiberal regimes have been quick to highlight the failures of many liberal states to handle the pandemic coherently.
Our eventual recovery won’t just be measured by the improved health of our citizens but in the quality and depth of broader environmental, economic, social and governance renewal
If in recent years national and urban policies have tended to increase social, environmental and economic divisions in many nations, the pandemic has significantly amplified these fractures to the levels of crisis now seen, for example, in America.
Thus, evidence of our eventual recovery won’t just be measured by the improved health of our citizens but in the quality and depth of broader environmental, economic, social and governance renewal that will in turn be expressed and understood in terms of fundamental political legitimacy.
Previous and current global disruptions
Fearing equal or greater global conflagration, some have compared the current depth and breadth of social, political, and economic rupture to the conditions following World War I that led to World War II.
Borrowing an epithet attributed to Mark Twain – “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” – Margaret McMillan observes that the two world wars developed relatively predictably from the good and bad decisions of a few key individuals.
If those events were principally expressed through instruments wielded only by states – international diplomacy, national alliances, armed conflict, and the like – the current rivalry differs in a few key respects.
Firstly, the merits of competing political systems are now pressed on populations directly.
Even pervasively authoritarian states exercise a kind of democracy; they are acutely alert to threats to their political legitimacy posed by masses of suppressed but disaffected publics.
Secondly, information flows and their control are the defining instruments of this rivalry.
While freedom of expression is a fundamental feature of liberal democracies, autocratic states control and mould information to bolster perceptions of their competence in controlling the pandemic and lay claim thereby to state legitimacy.
Thirdly, competing systems are compared not by references to their relative foundational values and attributes but by directly highlighting the symptoms of each.
A foundational feature of liberal states is weaponised. The free exposure of incompetent and chaotic pandemic management and collateral social unrest, which in many liberal democracies is taken as a valuable signal to provoke improvements, is equated instead as grounds to de-legitimise liberal states when compared to the smooth paternalistic beneficence of autocratic control – stability above freedom.
For supporters of liberal democratic values, the message is clear.
If the legitimacy challenges triggered by the pandemic are to be satisfactorily met then demonstrable competency in recovery across all policy areas has to improve – dramatically.
The end of history?
“The end of history” was the notoriously triumphant catch phrase popularised by capitalist fan-boys (and occasional girls) following the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
Drawn from the title of a book by Francis Fukuyama, the phrase came to embody the idea that the apotheosis of human political development was marked by the triumph of participatory democracy (and its expression in free markets) over other competing models.
Of course this sweeping conclusion was and is heavily contested, particularly its enlistment by neo-liberal ideologues to propose the broad substitution of governments by free markets in the resolution of nearly all social contests.
The pandemic has exposed the folly of this approach; Fukuyama again: “The factors responsible for successful pandemic responses have been state capacity, social trust, and leadership. Countries with all three … have performed impressively, limiting the damage they have suffered. Countries with dysfunctional states, polarised societies, or poor leadership have done badly, leaving their citizens and economies exposed and vulnerable.”
Interestingly, given his approbation by neoconservative ideologues, Fukuyama considers the post-pandemic recovery should, “put to rest the extreme forms of neoliberalism, (exemplified by) the policies of US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, (which have) hardened into a libertarian religion, embedding hostility to state action in a generation of conservative intellectuals…”
These remarks contrast with those of the Australian treasurer. When asked to reflect how he might orient the forthcoming budget towards economic recovery Josh Frydenberg expressed admiration for the policies of Reagan and Thatcher, to the alarm of many.
No longer the lucky country
It is appalling to discover that when stripped of its obvious anachronisms Donald Horne’s “The Lucky Country”, published more than half a century ago, closely describes our country right now.
However, the value of the natural and human assets that sustained our enviably effortless lifestyle for decades, despite poor leadership, has evaporated.
Our impressive energy resources are rapidly becoming obsolete to a low carbon global future. Many of our mineral resources are also “carbon exposed”.
Both classes increasingly look like stranded assets. Meanwhile, our renewable energy bounty is only slowly being exploited, impeded by ideology.
We are now in the worst recession in 70 years or more but must now dig ourselves out into a very different world.
As a proportion of economic output, Australia’s manufacturing sector is one of the lowest in developed nations. The pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of our supply chains.
We preferred to treat universities like coal and iron ore – just another export commodity for consumption by overseas markets
Australia’s prosperity will now depend on knowledge-based value-add, yet we have largely underfunded our training and knowledge development sectors over many decades.
We preferred to treat universities like coal and iron ore – as just another export commodity for consumption by overseas markets. Since they have collapsed, we now treat tertiary eductation as a cost to be minimised, rather than an asset to be grown by investing in our own capacity.
We have become hostage to shrill belief; recent research on the relationship between environmental policy and expert advice reveals an ongoing systematic suppression of evidence if it contradicts entrenched ideological positions.
These ideologies have become toxic to our very wellbeing. The current Royal Commission into the aged care sector reveals the utter failure of market principles to deliver adequate care.
Cities are our most productive asset yet the next generation is effectively locked out. Elizabeth Farrelly has drawn attention to the hypocrisy of development control relaxation in favour of a private development industry that has spectacularly failed to deliver affordable housing; a clear market failure in the face of escalating demand.
At the same time, governments drag their feet on alternative delivery options like infill housing, social housing and accelerated growth of the not-for-profit sector.
As UNSW researchers observed, housing affordability pathologies are now so intense that they threaten our national productivity – at the very moment when we can least afford it.
Elements of a good recovery plan
It is generally accepted that a recovery plan that focuses only on economic measures – like bringing forward a few already legislated tax cuts – risks being derailed by other policy crises that have hitherto been “kicked down the road”.
Even if a vaccine or other effective treatment arrives soon, it now appears that the recovery may take a decade or more to achieve.
Any plausible recovery plan must therefore contain a number of features.
Firstly, budget repair will be the responsibility of the next generation. Any policies that hinder their future productivity, such as the cost burdens of skills improvements – will be counterproductive to their task.
Secondly, income and social inequality have both been rising steadily in Australia to levels that are starting to generate social fractures.
Women, the young in particular, have been disproportionately and further disadvantaged during the pandemic recession. Barriers to their full participation, such as child care costs, will impede our recovery. Increasingly, older women are also experiencing hardship as they approach and enter retirement.
Thirdly, as the recovery will occur over many electoral cycles bi-partisan support must be obtained from the outset and sustained in the long term.
Fourthly, the recovery time scale means that policies must be clear over the long term. For example, if it is proposed that a rapid transition to sustainable energy sources will entail the interim use of gas then a responsible recovery plan must also define when it will be phased out.
But finally, and perhaps most importantly, growing illiberal challenges to democratic legitimacy demands improvements in our own political performance.
Any return to the noxious political bickering, policy stasis, and ideological wars of the last decade will not only anger the electorate but will also harm Australia’s standing and security in an increasingly uncertain region.
If this nation considers its freedoms and system of government to be its fundamental defining attributes – qualities that distinguish us from illiberal states, a measure of our fundamental identity and worth – then the recovery plan will be viewed as a claim for the legitimacy of our polity, a claim for the superiority of Australia’s core values above those of illiberal detractors.
A political epiphany or a declaration of incompetence?
Comparing current events to those explored by McMillan, Fukuyama concludes, “It has often taken just such a huge external shock (as the pandemic) to break sclerotic political systems out of their stasis and create the conditions for long-overdue structural reform, and that pattern is likely to play out again…”.
The next budget is widely regarded as the most important to Australia in decades.
It is also crucial to our current government’s fortunes. As Waleed Aly has pointed out, by lambasting the Victorian government for that state’s recovery roadmap, the national government has elevated expectations that its own plan will be superior in every respect.
Any recovery plan that proposes, metaphorically, to lead us further into the desert of a carbon-rich neoliberal future will be rightly viewed as a declaration of gross incompetence by those that propose it.
If that plan fails to provide an accountable and convincing recovery roadmap that attracts widespread cross-party multi-generational support then the government will deserve to hang from a noose of its own manufacture.
The plan is due in early October. History buffs may note the symbolism of that month.
Just over a century ago, following persistent failure to address demands for structural and political reform, Russia was convulsed with what came to be known as the October Revolution that eventually led to the establishment of the Soviet state.
Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.