Any objective assessment of public policy in Australia would readily concede that there has been little genuine reform for the last couple of decades, at least. At best, the most challenging issues and problems have been "patched up", but mostly just "kicked down the road".
Unfortunately, it is true of most areas of public policy - tax and welfare, industrial relations, energy, climate change, affordable housing, health, education/training, productivity, China, bushfires and drought, just to mention the most obvious.
Many rationalisations have been offered for this policy drift - reform fatigue, the negativity of political oppositions, hostile parliaments, internal factional pressures, threats of leadership challenges, fear of electoral backlash, budget constraints and so on.
As the policy drift has seen challenges become so large, and in many cases so urgent, voters have increasingly begun to throw their hands in the air and, in desperation, lament that "It will take a crisis" before our politicians will actually do what they were elected to do, namely take a lead and begin to seriously address these challenges.
Well, the time and opportunity has come. We have a crisis - COVID-19 - for which we were totally unprepared. This has shaken up our medical/hospital services, seen our governments take measures such as border restrictions, lockdowns and social distancing that have ensured the greatest collapse in national output/income since the Great Depression, and at least a doubling of unemployment, and seen all of us "adjust" our behaviour and lifestyle in ways we never imagined, and very quickly indeed.
While the disruption has been significant, the biggest challenges are yet to come ...
However, while the disruption has been significant, the biggest challenges are yet to come in terms of an effective, and sustainable, recovery.
It is not real life to imagine that our governments can just "stop" the assistance that has been given. They simply can't expect a quick "bounce/snap" back, to the way we were, especially given the structural changes that have occurred in consumer and business attitudes, behaviour, and confidence.
The economic and social consequences of measures taken to date will continue to flow through for some time. For example, unemployment won't just snap back to around 5 per cent, industries like education and international tourism won't easily reverse their collapse, and failed businesses won't suddenly rise again.
More importantly, why would we want to go back to what was a weakening economy, with living standards and job security at risk, with a majority struggling, week-to-week, to meet their costs of living, with flat wages and record household debts?
Although it will take time, our governments should seize the moment to think and plan longer-term and strategically, to undertake genuine reform. They need to take (say) a view to mid-century, clearly specifying the main objectives for the sort of economic, social and environmental structures - that is the shape our society - that we should strive for, and then go through each major area of public policy attempting to identify deliverable pathways to achieve it.
Clearly, this would not be the sort of process that could be delivered in a series of sound bites on the evening news. It would be fundamentally important to get all levels of our society to understand and accept the "vision", and to sign off on the process, at each stage of the process, to encourage debate within families around the kitchen table, within and across communities and institutions, at large and small events, and so on. Sure, this would require a seismic shift from their political behaviour in the 24-hour media cycle, defined mostly by negative, short-term, point scoring and blame shifting. This has been mostly counterproductive to our national interests, although the major parties act as if this is somehow to their perceived political advantage.
I am encouraged that, in a sense, they have pretty much proved that they can make such a shift, as they have done in responding to the COVID-19 crises by forming a National Cabinet co-ordinating an approach, with almost daily briefings by both the federal and state governments, while clearly "learning by doing" along the way.
The institutional framework is there - although it could be improved by including the opposition in the National Cabinet. What is required is the will to provide the leadership that voters reasonably expect.
John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.
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