Many years ago, when I was in the throes of getting a longish discussion paper finished and finding myself unnecessarily tangled in knots, I was lucky to be given some stern advice. "The perfect is the enemy of the good," my mentor, a retired diplomat, growled at me. "Just finish the bloody thing." It was a moment of liberation.
I was reminded of this as I watched the must-see video message on COVID-19 from the World Health Organisation's Health Emergencies Programme executive director, Dr Michael Ryan. "If you need to be right before you move, you will never win," he warns. "Speed trumps perfection ... the greatest error is not to move. The greatest error is to be paralysed by the fear of failure. If you need to be right before you move, you will never win."
Dr Ryan's comments were specific to health emergencies, and based on his experience in responding to Ebola outbreaks in Africa. There are, however, some salutary lessons we can take from his intervention in relation to shaping the kind of society that is better prepared for, and less at risk from, the states of emergency we are currently living in. In a non-emergency period, speed is not necessarily of the essence, but what we have seen since the global outbreak of neoliberalism is what can only be described as a deliberate slowing down of social progress. COVID-19, not unlike the recent bushfire crisis, peels the ideological veil away, exposing how we have failed to move in the direction of a more equitable society over the last few decades and how we are now paying the price. I think there are three major examples of this.
Our problem is not that we have failed to move decisively for fear of making mistakes - but that we have moved decisively in the direction of weakening the public institutions that we so urgently need during a pandemic.
First, our social security system has been exposed as a social insecurity system for the people who are forced to rely on grossly inadequate payments. You don't need a pandemic to tell you this if you are one of the people who are waging a daily battle for survival from below the poverty line, especially if you have witnessed successive governments either denying that there is a problem with income adequacy or faffing about with so much bullshit talk of the need for interminable deliberation about getting it right that nothing ends up happening and the rate of payment slides ever lower relative to prices and wages.
The recently announced doubling of the Newstart (now "JobSeeker") payment for six months is a welcome recognition that this payment had degenerated into a means of humiliation, rather than a means of support. If it is the case now that the $565 a fortnight base rate is grossly inadequate, then it will continue to be inadequate in six months' time, especially when compared to the minimum wage ($1481.60 a fortnight). But, of course, casual workers (even with casual loading) and contractors are never guaranteed an adequate weekly income. It all depends on the hours of work available to them, hours which have already declined dramatically, further erasing the already false dividing line between underemployment and unemployment.
Which leads to the second example, namely the inherent insecurity experienced by increasing numbers of workers in Australia's labour market, including many who should be treated as permanent employees but who are deliberately locked into casual conditions or sham contracting arrangements. The ACTU has long campaigned for a reconfiguration of this structural tendency towards precarity. With the coronavirus outbreak, it is urgently calling for the guarantee of 10 days' paid leave for all workers, including the one in three who currently have no access to paid leave.
Thirdly, there is a fundamental principle that has been systematically whittled away by neoliberal governments - the idea, exemplified by the original framing of our Medicare system, that you should put in what you can and be able to count on getting what you need. "From each according to their ability and to each according to their need." Is this really a radical idea?
Yes, if by radical you mean going to the root, as its etymology suggests, rather than the later notion of deviating from the social norm. Is it a deviation? Certainly not. In fact, it appeals so profoundly to our collective sense of justice that we regard its opposite as the deviation (think about how we feel when confronted with the ruthless profiteering from aged care, for example). Most of us would hate to see healthcare only being available to those who can afford it, or school education only being available to children whose parents can pay private fees. Public health and public education are both examples of this principle. Neither are considered radical. It is actually one of the most acute failings of our society that we do not have the same attitude to housing.
Most of us welcome the fact that we contribute what we can through a relatively progressive taxation system (although this too is being radically flattened) and that we can use our systems of public health, education and social security as we need them, rather than on the basis of how much we have contributed. Most of us. Prime Minister Morrison prefers the counter-principle of "if you put in, you get to take out". For all his talk of "Team Australia" and pulling through a crisis together, the neoloberal ideology he espouses is diametrically opposed to the simple but powerful (and healing!) notion of solidarity.
In response to COVID-19, the federal government has moved neither decisively nor quickly. But in terms of the broader issues I have listed above, our problem is not that we have failed to move decisively for fear of making mistakes - but that we have moved decisively in the direction of weakening the public institutions that we so urgently need during a pandemic, institutions that we actually need whether there is a pandemic or not.
If we had not been so thoroughly infected by the neoliberal disease over the last few decades, if we had not been presented with the diminution of social protections and the structural disdain for working people as a fait accompli by the purveyors of neoliberal austerity for the many coupled with largesse for the wealthy few, our preparedness for COVID-19 and its social and economic repercussions would look very different today. But it is never too late. As the Turkish proverb reminds us: No matter how far you've gone down the wrong road, turn back.
- Dr John Falzon is a senior fellow of inequality and social justice at Per Capita. He was national CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia from 2006 to 2018. Twitter: @JohnFalzon
We have removed our paywall from our stories about the coronavirus. This is a rapidly changing situation and we want to make sure our readers are as informed as possible. If you're looking to stay up to date on COVID-19, you can also sign up for our twice-daily digest here. If you would like to support our journalists you can subscribe here.