The bones of our nation's future will be set by our response to the coronavirus.
Of course our most urgent task as a nation is to ensure the health and safety of all Australians and stop the spread of coronavirus by acting quickly and decisively to protect the most vulnerable in our society. Everything must be done to keep people safe and the fabric of our society intact.
However, beyond the initial urgent response required to safeguard our families, children, grandparents and friends, our leaders have before them a moment of reckoning.
The vast disruption brought by COVID-19 has laid bare the cracks in our current system. For too long, our country has been on the wrong pathway. Lives, families and communities have been stretched to breaking point by insecure work, unaffordable housing and the withdrawal of public services. The very same system has been catastrophic for nature, driving numerous species towards extinction and bringing on the climate emergency that threatens civilization. The greed of vested interests has driven the cannibalising of the very foundations of our wellbeing and prosperity.
Stressed, stretched, casualised, unsustainable societies are deeply vulnerable to threats like the coronavirus. But just as the breaking points in our country were created by deliberate policy decisions to put vested interests before people and nature - so they can be repaired by changing direction.
The coronavirus has already had a terrible impact, but amidst the fear and the suffering, there's no denying the chance to shift course for the better - to put Australia back on a track that leads to a flourishing future.
The choice should be clear. Every stimulus dollar spent should meet the triple test of being economically effective, contributing to the rapid transition to clean energy and the restoration of nature, and increasing fairness and equality for all Australians.
Our leaders should act not only to meet the current crisis - but to create the foundations for recovery and future prosperity. And crucial to this is recognising the overlap between the coronavirus crisis and the climate emergency.
In 2018, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that limiting global warming to 1.5°C to avoid catastrophic runaway climate change would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Yet the clear-eyed truth is that the Australian government has done little to act since that blunt existential warning was given.
The urgent need to spend money to stimulate economic activity in response to the coronavirus has created an unprecedented opportunity for course-correction.
This is why three clear principles should govern how every Australian government dollar is spent in response to the coronavirus. First, will the money spent be economically effective in keeping as many people as possible healthy, safe, and certain of their future? Second, will the stimulus accelerate the rapid transition to clean energy and restoration of the environment that is so desperately needed to respond to the climate emergency and other threats to our natural world? And third, will these measures lead to a fairer society now and in the future?
At the same time as treating the immediate threat of coronavirus, our leaders must look long-term: now is also the time to end fossil-fuel subsidies and redeploy that capital to clean energy; to deliver a massive public schools investment program; to end the corrosive casualisation of work and to invest huge sums not only in the rapid deployment of clean energy infrastructure but in the areas of low-carbon, high-employment care work.
This is the moment for unprecedented investment in rural and regional Australia, including clean energy harvesting, transitioning to regenerative agricultural practices and massive investment in the custodianship of nature - our magnificent wild places, animals and plants that were so terribly damaged by the unnatural fires of the summer just gone.
Now is also the chance to rebuild our great public institutions after decades of neglect and degradation, reversing decades of cuts to the likes of the ABC, CSIRO, the universities and the arts. The moment has come for a rebalancing of the economy to serve the majority of the Australian people, through investing in the core economy of essential social and physical infrastructure.
All of these measures, in concert with a coherent and decisive national response to protect Australians from COVID-19, would not only stimulate the economy now, but build greater resilience and cohesion into our society, in preparation for the climate damage shocks to come, and to lay the foundations for a return to flourishing.
- David Ritter is chief executive officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific, an adjunct professor at the University of Sydney's Sydney Democracy Network and an honorary fellow of the Law Faculty at UWA.
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