Life and politics will be very different for all of us under the restrictions demanded by the pandemic. Mostly they will need to be endured, but there are some changes which may turn out to be not just bearable but positive. Many questions will only be answered by us as individuals and as a community during and after the experience. We have already had a small taste of some of these questions during the bushfire disruptions and the subsequent recovery efforts.
The most important life questions, in addition to financial and economic ones, appear to be the impact on our daily lives. Many of us will be more reliant on interactive technology such as the web and television for work and relaxation. Many of us will be leading quieter, less hectic, lives, as professional commitments and recreational activities are removed. The changes will be hard to endure but they may also bring with them opportunities to reflect upon our modern lifestyles.
The most important political questions relate to our institutions and our culture. The institutional questions relate to the twin pillars of federalism and parliamentary government which underpin our political system. They are both under stress. Leadership is also under the spotlight at many different levels.
The cultural questions relate to the embedded party-political competition and to the place of open critique and freedom of expression in our public discourse. There is also the larger question of how our national commitment to egalitarianism and fairness holds up as we cope with sharing the burden and protecting the most vulnerable in the months ahead.
Federalism as a political mechanism is once again under strain as it has been under the drought and the bushfires. This is an even bigger test.
The existence of nine federal, state and territory governments in Australia produces many benefits in terms of good governance, including government closer to the people, government suited to a variety of different state needs and government which allows different responses to similar questions.
But federalism also creates inevitable difficulties in co-ordination within what is known as "co-operative" federalism. The competitive elements and the silo effects produced by division of powers and financial capacity mean it is much harder for governments to speak with one voice and to tackle a big national problem like a pandemic together. There are any number of intergovernmental mechanisms to achieve co-operation, but the combined effect is still a patchwork.
The formation of the national cabinet, made up of the nine political leaders, is testament to the limitations of federalism in coping with a crisis, as was the war cabinet created in World War II.
The pandemic also tests the Westminster system of government. One of its characteristics is winner-take-all government. The Coalition government, just like Labor when it is in office, reigns supreme, its executive power only moderated by the Senate. Full authority brings with it the full responsibility for government actions. The opposition is reduced to very secondary status, which is why the Opposition Leader has the worst job in politics.
Leadership is also thrown into the spotlight. Just as the bushfires were a key moment for Scott Morrison's leadership, so the coronavirus pandemic will either make or break him. He will either rise to the occasion or be shown up for his limitations.
But we need to cut our leaders some slack in such times, while demanding they be wise and decisive in their decision-making. The same is true of second-level leaders at the front line, like fire chiefs and medical chiefs. They all become household names given their role in issuing daily reports via the media. They bring good or bad news. Their challenge is to provide consistent and reliable advice, while personally exhausted by the unfamiliar 24/7 pressures.
The cultural test during the pandemic is how we manage to balance having a unified national strategy with being open to robust democratic expression. Both at the political level and at the community level, there may be pressure against asking reasonable questions and calling out inadequate and confusing government responses.
Federal-state conflict will be frowned upon, even when it is rational. Anthony Albanese will have to tread carefully to avoid being accused of "playing politics". The latter mantra is frequently used to shut down open discussion, as climate-change activists found during the bushfire emergency. Already, questioning journalists are being derided by the Minister for Health as armchair experts. The ultimate putdown.
The pandemic will test our commitment as a nation to the fair go. That is always the case during national crises. During the GFC the welfare community had to fight hard to be included on an equal basis in the various stimulus packages. The danger is that the big end of town gets greater support than the vulnerable, on the grounds that the support will "trickle down" into the community. That assumption must be questioned whenever stimulus packages are designed.
When belt-tightening is undertaken, such as suggested cuts in salary and wages to maintain employment, it must be based on protecting the most vulnerable. Equal treatment does not necessarily mean fair treatment.
The biggest question is whether our previously hectic life will ever be the same again after lengthy self-isolation. Perhaps organisations, including Parliament with its excessive number of political staff, will find that they can operate perfectly well with leaner operations? Perhaps the pandemic will turn out to be a key moment in ushering in working from home and distance education? Perhaps we will learn to do without lifelong habits like sporting crowds, church attendance and gym membership.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.
- For information on COVID-19, please go to the ACT Health website or federal Health Department's website.
- You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
- If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)
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