Inside Story

Australia’s post-Covid moment

Is the time right for the sweeping reforms proposed in a new series of essays?

Geoff Kitney 27 March 2021 2023 words

Old battles melting away? National cabinet meeting in Canberra last October. Sam Mooy/Getty Images

In a turned-upside-down, Covid-stricken world we probably shouldn’t have been too surprised by this month’s Western Australian election result. Yet it really was an extraordinary vote of confidence in Mark McGowan’s Labor government.

The pandemic has posed immense tests for governments and political leaders everywhere, and many have failed them. Sharp divisions have opened in many countries over mishandled responses. Decades-long trends of declining confidence in government have accelerated as Covid-linked tolls of death and illness have grown, spreading feelings of loss, fear, insecurity and frustration.

The recently released 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reported that dissatisfaction with governments — especially in the English-speaking democracies — has risen steadily over the past twenty-five years. Australia was listed as one of the countries in which the trust deficit had grown most.

The finding was consistent with the ANU’s 2019 Australian Election Study, which found that public trust in government was at its lowest point in forty years. Just 25 per cent of respondents indicated that they trusted the government to do the right thing at the right time, a decline of almost half since 2007.

“Across Australia trust in our democracy is on the decline,” the Museum of Australian Democracy’s first Democracy 2025 report warns. “Trust is the glue that facilitates collective action for mutual benefit. Without trust we don’t have the ability to address complex, long-term challenges.”

Since Covid-19 arrived, though, Australia’s story has diverged not only from past trends but also from views across much of the world. The Scanlon Foundation’s most recent Mapping Social Cohesion survey reports that trust in government in Australia rose 54 per cent during 2020 — the highest rate since the survey began in 2007. More than 70 per cent of respondents said the system of government in Australia was working fine, or only needed minor changes.

The reason is obvious. The outstanding success of Australia’s Covid-19 response was politically transformative. Australia’s current mortality rate from Covid — 3.6 per 100,000 population — is lower than all developed countries except New Zealand (where Jacinda Ardern’s government won a landslide election in October). Rates in Britain and the United States, by contrast — at 190 and 165 per 100,000 respectively — are many times greater.

Approval ratings for governments and their leaders in Australia soared in proportion to their Covid success — as reflected in election results in Queensland as well as Western Australia. As the Scanlon Foundation concludes, “The key to the positive findings obtained in the survey appears to be the level of satisfaction with government, the widely held view that effective leadership is being provided in the time of crisis, including financial support to those who have lost their jobs and those whose businesses have been impacted.”

Dramatically lower infection and death rates in Australia, combined with a relatively rapid revival of economic activity after massive government spending, converted political leaders into saviours. The long decline of Australian political discourse into partisan bickering and conflict suddenly halted.

Scott Morrison’s decision to establish a national cabinet in which Covid policy was developed in coordination across all Australian governments was transformative. Australians, used to seeing important national issues bogged down in brawling and grandstanding at meetings of the Council of Australian Governments, suddenly witnessed fruitful intergovernmental relationships. Consensus, compromise and cooperation resulted in lightning-speed decision-making and policy implementation. Old ideological battlelines melted away.

It seemed that the consensus, multi-level government decision-making that had been almost impossible before was now dead easy. Trust between leaders and their governments working together in national cabinet created a new vision of what was possible. Voters’ confidence in the machinery of democracy soared. We were witnessing a new dawn.

Or was it just a moment of sunshine?

If the Covid-caused transformation in political attitudes offered hope of real change, what are we to make of increasingly loud warnings that the coming debates about the challenges ahead are likely to plunge us back into the ideological and partisan conflicts that frustrated national progress and disillusioned voters in the pre-Covid years?

For a new Monash University Publishing project, “In the National Interest,” prominent Australians have been invited to contribute essays about challenges facing Australia in the post-Covid era. Each of the essays is being published as a short book; taken together, they add up to a daunting range of problems confronting policymakers and the political system.

Ideally, these discussions could harness the surge in trust in politics for a new age of reform in Australia. In this new phase, we would not return to the long years of partisanship and the divisive cultural wars that hogtied the reform process after the Howard government’s tax changes early in the century.

The bitter and divisive debates about immigration, multiculturalism and identity unleashed by the emergence of Hansonism, seen as a reaction against the pace of change in the 1980s and 1990s, drove deep and painful wedges into Australian society that have resulted in a lost era of progress and a failure to adjust to a world fast changing around us. Southeast Asia’s growth in economic power and sophistication has created great opportunities for Australia, but also poses grave dangers if we fail to keep up.

In fact, Australia is already failing to keep up. In the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, which compares the performance of students at fifteen years of age, Australia has dropped fourteen places to twenty-ninth in the ranking for maths. Transparency International has reported an increased perception of corruption in Australia. In his new book, Reset: Restoring Australia after the Great Crash of 2020, economist Ross Garnaut points out that in the eight years between 2013 and 2021 — a period he calls “the dog days” — virtually no increase in household disposable income was recorded (a problem Australia is not alone in suffering).

And on climate change, the 2020 Climate Change Performance Index ranks Australia near the bottom. Scientists have warned that unless this country dramatically increases its policy ambition very soon, it will need to increase its effort tenfold in the twenty years from 2030 to meet the global target of zero emissions by 2050.

Each of the contributors to the “In the National Interest” series was invited to “make the case” for reform in areas where they had particular knowledge. The list of concerns is long. Some — particularly in Rachel Doyle’s Power & Consent, a powerful essay on the plague of sexual harassment — are urgently topical.

The four written from the perspective of having been at the centre of Canberra power — Kevin Rudd and Scott Ryan as politicians, and Martin Parkinson and Don Russell as advisers to prime ministers and heads of powerful government departments — present different perspectives on the same problems. But taken together, they outline an agenda for change that is not only daunting in itself but also a particular challenge for our political system.

Rudd opens his book, The Case for Courage, with the following statement: “Over much of the last decade, Australia’s democracy has been slowly sliding into disrepair and despair. Our major national policy challenges go unaddressed.” Warming to his theme, he sees little prospect of change while “the cancer on our democracy that is the Murdoch media monopoly” remains — and hence the need for urgent reform of media ownership laws as a prerequisite to adopting a bold reform agenda.

In Challenging Politics, Ryan warns that an essential piece of our political system — the art of compromise — is in trouble in the new age of social media and political tribalisation. “If we don’t find a way to re-enliven it, we will face deepening gridlock.”

In A Decade of Drift, Parkinson says that what he calls “the collapse of the political centre” over the seventeen years since the 2007 election has left Australia incapable of making vital decisions. As a result, Australians risk being consigned to “declining relative living standards” and “unable to grasp the opportunities provided by living in the most dynamic and exciting part of the world.”

In his contribution to the series, Leadership, Russell reflects on the difference between his experience working with Paul Keating during the great reform era of the eighties and early nineties and the current levels of frustration and disengagement in Australia. But he sees hope in the way the nation responded to the Covid crisis — as it did to the May 1986 “banana republic” crisis, he says. The unprecedented step of creating a national cabinet and the adoption by governments of a “problem-solving approach, not an ideological one” resulted in a quite remarkable acceptance by the community of lockdowns and other protective measures. “This was a complete break with Australia’s recent attitude to government,” says Russell.

The experience of the past year poses an obvious question: can the sense of shared responsibility be applied to the task of ensuring the future health and prosperity of the nation?

The Covid-induced pause in politics-as-usual certainly offered the chance to reflect on the failures of politics and policy during a decade in which the revolving door of political leadership spun six prime ministers in and out. As these books make clear, the backlog of unfinished and uncommenced policy work means there is much to be done.

Beyond the immediate task of getting the population vaccinated and life back to as normal as possible, the backlog of unresolved issues and yet-to-be-tackled reforms is eye-watering. The overriding challenge is the task of navigating the post-Covid economy to stronger, sustainable growth, higher productivity, lower unemployment, higher wages, better living standards and lower debt. Indeed, it is easy to come up with a top ten list of reform areas that need to be tackled urgently.

But there’s much more: the crisis in aged care, growing inequality and disadvantage, Indigenous disadvantage and representation, population policy, tax reform, education funding, water policy and the Murray-Darling basin, women in the workplace, domestic violence, national security, trade and relations with the increasingly argumentative superpowers, infrastructure, and government integrity and corruption. And these are just the most urgent, bar one very big one.

Asked by pollsters what they consider to be the most pressing issue facing Australia — after the Covid crisis — the majority of people consistently nominate climate change and the threats it poses. Climate change policy is the example that proves the point about the failure of politics over the past decade. The fierce but largely fruitless battle has been background noise to an era of stalled reform.

Martin Parkinson provides a depressing narrative of the twists and turns in climate policy failure. Decarbonising the Australian economy, he says, is the key to stimulating new jobs, industries and export opportunities. He dares to speculate that maybe the success of managing Covid — the transparency shown in describing the challenge, the creation of the national cabinet, the obvious recognition and embrace of experts’ advice — will help to embed these aspects in our policy debates and turn around the trust deficit. If so, it will be to the benefit of all Australians. “It would be an extreme irony,” he writes, “if a medical emergency created the circumstances for a renewed vigour in tackling the challenges ahead.”

Until a few weeks ago, Parkinson’s dream of a post-Covid return to middle-ground political consensus seemed to have a chance. But the ugly mix of sex and politics has plunged political debate back into the rancour and partisanship that have poisoned political dialogue for years. Marches by women demanding action have rattled the federal government. Scott Morrison’s judgement has faltered, and problems with Covid vaccine rollouts have begun to cast doubt over the notion that the next election is all but certain to return his government.

The opportunity to look well ahead and think longer-term about the most urgent reforms — especially climate change — may well have been lost. With the WA election result shaking the national political foundations, the government’s focus is likely to be no further than the next federal election. The political vibe of Covid crisis management — of rising trust in politics and leaders — may already have been wiped out. •

The first seven books from the “In the National Interest” series have been released by Monash University Publishing.

Funding for this article from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund is gratefully acknowledged.