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
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”.