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Coronavirus exposes a broken society

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From the editorThe reality of the threat posed by coronavirus really seemed to hit home this week. At
 

SundayFocus

March 15 · Issue #34 · View online
Your weekly wrap of national affairs, society, culture and politics, published by UnionsACT.

From the editor
The reality of the threat posed by coronavirus really seemed to hit home this week. At the time of writing three Australians had died while another 200 – including Peter Dutton – had tested positive. Scott Morrison, meanwhile, spent most of the week stubbornly insisting he would attend a football match before common sense prevailed (his team, however, did not 🤭).
This issue we look at the government’s COVID-19 stimulus package and explore the economic philosophies that have left us ill-prepared to respond to such an emergency. We also find out how much money the government doles out to consulting firms, and celebrate the release of Chelsea Manning.
And please remember that SundayFocus can only survive if those of you who can afford to send us a few dollars every month. If you can spare the money, please consider subscribing or perhaps buying a Gift Solidarity Subscription for a friend. Click here to find all of our subscription offers.
Enjoy the issue!
Guy Mosel, editor

Coronavirus exposes a broken society
by Guy Mosel
The prime minister’s explanation of his government’s $750 stimulus payments to welfare recipients says all you need to know about its priorities:
The cash payments have two purposes but they’re both important. Of course, for those that receive it that is obviously a benefit to them, but more importantly, frankly, it is about a cash injection into the Australian economy which supports small businesses and supports medium businesses.
Welcome to Australia in 2020, where bottom lines are “more important, frankly” than the literal survival of those who will invariably bear the financial and health brunt of the coronavirus pandemic.
Neoliberalism’s failings are now being laid bare. Four decades of privatisation, financialisation and casualisation have left Australia in a poor state to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. Our public service is weakened, our health services are underfunded and our community bonds have been shredded by an economy that rewards naked self-interest above all else.
Fist-fights in the toilet paper aisle may seem hilarious for some, but when people have lost confidence in the ability of public institutions to protect them when they need it most, is not panic – as irrational as it might seem – not actually rational? “Hoarding toilet paper might be odd,” writes Dr Cristy Clark in Eureka Street, “but it’s nothing compared to the hoarding of money and property in a world where people are homeless and living below the poverty line.”
Austerity and a fixation on fiscal rectitude has left millions of unemployed and precarious workers, welfare recipients and elderly Australians vulnerable – and that was before the pandemic. One in three workers can’t get access to paid leave. Forty per cent of workers are living pay cheque to pay cheque. What happens to them when they can’t work and the money runs out? Go into more debt? We’re already the second-most most indebted population on Earth.
A piece by Dawn Foster in Jacobin titled “Austerity is the patient zero of Coronavirus” describes the UK’s predicament, although it could just as easily apply to our own: “Gutting vital services and leaving millions of people just about managing financially has created a precarious society, socially and economically, and coronavirus looks set to cause the fine threads holding everything together to snap.”
Indeed. You and I have been telling governments – of all stripes – for years that Newstart is too low, that wages are too low, that worker entitlements are not a disposable perk and that private health cover is too expensive. Now that the slow decline into hyper-inequality is at risk of accelerating into full-blown societal collapse, will they now start to listen?
The government response
The COVID-19 stimulus package was… meh. Which, given the standards set by this government of late, is actually a nice surprise.
While there was some relief, albeit temporary, for the most vulnerable Australians, the bulk of the $17.6 billion package was reserved for business. Only a quarter will be go directly into the pockets of living, breathing human beings. As the Australia Institute put it, “the size of the stimulus is right, but the shape is wrong”.
The package still leaves many casual workers and sole traders not on welfare without any support if businesses shut, shifts are cancelled and people are forced to self-isolate on mass. And if the pig-ignorant comments about casual earnings by Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter are any indication there’s no help coming.
For a government not captured by the IPA and corporate lobbyists, a crisis like this might be an opportunity for structural reform. Maybe expanding the social safety net, restoring health spending and kickstarting a massive social housing program?
But the surplus, in which the Coalition has invested almost all of its political capital, remains tantalisingly close, and you can be sure they’re already looking at ways to get back on the path towards one. This philosophy will almost certainly condemn our economy to a prolonged downturn, as Adam Triggs explains:
Trying to protect the budget by short-changing fiscal stimulus can be false economy: insufficient stimulus sees a bigger economic downturn and a bigger economic downturn causes a budget deficit anyway by reducing government revenues. Record low interest rates and government bond yields make it an ideal time to increase spending.
In other words, we needn’t be in the hole we’re in but we sure as hell know how to get out: spend, spend, spend.
How you can help
With many people likely to face the impossible choice between going to work sick and not being able to pay their bills, Australian unions are calling on the Morrison government to guarantee two weeks of paid special leave for all workers affected by COVID-19. In this excellent piece in Overland, United Workers Union executive director Godfrey Moase makes the case for special leave, saying Australia faces “a stark choice between social solidarity or the barbarism of the status quo”.
Sign this petition to make your voice heard!
The week in review
👎🏽 On the road to nowhere
Whatever you might think about Team Morrison’s response to COVID-19 it’s hard to imagine someone more uniquely ill-equipped to handle America’s own pandemic response than Donald Trump. A walking empathy vacuum who has spent a career failing upwards, Donald has spent three years in the White House disembowelling the precise services and infrastructure that any competent response to such a crisis demands.
The reality is that it probably wouldn’t have mattered which neoliberal ghoul was in the hot seat at the time; the US is structurally incapable of dealing with this situation. As Alex Pareene in The New Republic writes, “These are all the predictable consequences of giving power to people whose only understanding of the role of government is to protect investment portfolios.”
It is interesting to note, however, that with social and economic collapse a very live threat, the “strength of a collectivist ethos” is beginning to be recognised across the country. Meanwhile, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman (he of Davos fame) argues that “disasters and crises bring out the best in us”, something we should hope for in the months ahead.
👍🏽 Rooftop solar boom continues
New data from solar industry statistician SunWiz shows that February was a record month for rooftop solar with 218MW of new capacity installed across the country. NSW and Queensland led the way but Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia all broke their month records. Australian Energy Market Operator CEO Audrey Zibelman told an energy summit in Sydney in December that 25 per cent of all Australian electricity will be produced by rooftop solar systems by 2040.
👎🏽 Consultants laughing all the way to the bank
Consulting giants have reaped massive rewards from seven years of Coalition government with public service spending on the top eight firms tripling in a decade [$]. In 2018-19 eight firms, including PwC, KPMG and McKinsey, banked $1.2 billion in government contracts, up from under $400 million in 2009-10. The massive increase in spending on external firms has coincided with the slashing of 19,000 public sector jobs since the Coalition came to power in 2013.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that this government is not fond of wealth redistribution.
👍🏽 Manning freed
It took an attempted suicide to finally convince convince a federal judge to free whistleblower Chelsea Manning after a year behind bars. Manning, who is resisting appalling and criminal coercive tactics by the US government to force her to testify in a grand jury against WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, now faces having to pay more than $250,000 in contempt-of-court fines, despite being broke and homeless.
Longreads
Our thirty-year culture wars
How Big Oil and Big Soda kept the plastics crisis a secret for decades
For your bookshelf
We Can't Say We Didn't Know, by Sophie McNeill
The Long Deep Grudge, by Toni Gilpin
Shop
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