The COVID-19 tragedy will drive a transformation of Australia

The COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a worldwide health, economic and social crisis, while the threat of climate catastrophe and ecological collapse still looms over the planet. The issue before Australia and the world is what road to recovery will be taken out of the crisis and towards what destination? ‘Normal business’ cannot be resumed – now is the time for real and effective change.


The pandemic is a tragedy for the hundreds of thousands already killed by the virus, and their families and friends. It is a tragedy for countless millions worldwide who have lost jobs and income, and are stressed by debt, poverty and fear. It is highly stressful for many thousands of health, welfare and service workers who have laboured long and hard to care for the sick and maintain essential services. It is a ‘great disruption’ of the social order. It poses ongoing threats and challenges to the global community…but it can also drive the shaping of a different social order, a better world.

Pandemics have often changed human history and created conditions for far-reaching social changes. This pandemic has already underlined the inequality of humanity’s economic, trading and social systems, the limits and failures of its political systems, and the fragile relationship with the natural world on which it depends. The havoc wreaked by one virus, though huge, would be minor compared to the clear and present dangers of runaway climate change. If COVID-19 justifies the current scale of emergency measures, the threats of climate catastrophe would justify far more.

As governments, organisations and communities deal with the crisis, alternatives for a post-pandemic world are being thrown into sharp relief: towards a more open, democratic, egalitarian, united and international society that cares for and preserves the complex ecology of Planet Earth; or towards an even more authoritarian, unequal, divided and nationalistic society that ramps up the very policies that have caused so much of the world’s ills.

In Australia, the Coalition government’s talk of a ‘snap-back’ clearly means back to an even more dystopian neoliberal capitalist future that suits corporations and the wealthy. Progressive movements must resist this push and promote the opportunity to shift gear and shape a radically different future of economic and social justice, and urgent action to avert climate catastrophe.

Political responses and the need for a broad progressive alliance

The pandemic has exposed the incapacity of the current global order to provide for human needs and preserve the planet’s ecosystems. The crisis has exacerbated existing gross inequalities between classes, genders, races and nations. It has also highlighted the differences between reactionary and conservative, and progressive and socialist policies to address the crisis and prepare for the future.

The authoritarian, racist, anti-immigrant and neoliberal threat comes from business lobby groups pushing to further attack workers’ rights, maintain profits at all costs, and ensure corporate interests ahead of public interests. Right-wing politicians are stoking the embers of nationalism to blame-shift and scapegoat, rather than promote the international cooperation that is essential to end this pandemic, protect against future ones, and address the wider problems of economic decline, social inequality, and ecological catastrophe.

As unemployment has soared beyond Great Depression levels, governments have been forced to respond with emergency measures that shatter the ideological myths of market fundamentalism and the supposed virtues of ‘small government’. Even so, many measures maintain the inequalities, inequities and injustices that typify the neoliberal system, both within and between nations.

The insanities of hard-line right-wing leaders around the world, notably Trump in the US, Johnson in the UK, and Bolsonaro in Brazil, have been underlined by their denials of the pandemic’s dangers. Their complacency and reckless failures to act swiftly, decisively and sufficiently have already imposed tens of thousands of needless deaths and suffering on their nations, with worse to come.

Trump is deflecting from his own gross failings by fanning the flames of anti-Chinese racism and US nationalism. The Australian government all too readily took up this tune, endangering Australia’s interests. Whatever its initial faults, China also suffered great loss, and did act decisively. Its constructive role will be crucial for any international effort to overcome this pandemic.

In Australia, Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews took the policy and action lead, pushing against the Federal Coalition government’s initial reluctance, and forcing some required action. At the same time, the Coalition government’s calls for people to follow expert medical advice starkly contrasts with its continuing failure to heed and act on the urgent warnings of climate scientists.

Progressive parties, organisations and movements need to mobilise and build a broad alliance to campaign for their vision of a better world if they are to thwart the plans of a rampant Right. While defending existing gains and rights, and campaigning for immediate reforms, they should also work for more far-reaching changes that advance the interests of the 99 per cent over those of the 1 per cent. Left and progressive movements should seek common ground and minimise differences rather than exacerbate them. Solidarity of purpose and action is now even more crucial than ever.

Towards a left and progressive policy framework

There are already many left and progressive proposals to transform Australia, rebuild its economy
and social infrastructure, and assert wider social interests and ecological sustainability over the narrow private interests of corporate power and individual wealth.

In particular, the Australian Council of Trade Unions has put out a comprehensive briefing paper: Rebuilding jobs and our economy beyond the COVID-19 crisis. Its eight-point plan is summarised in this media release. The United Workers Union also issued a COVID-19 Response with key proposals around income, ownership, investment and social demands.

Social welfare, First Nations, environmental, women’s, migrant, refugee, and other organisations are also issuing statements and proposals on behalf of the people whose interests they represent.

Think tanks such as The Australia Institute and the Chifley Research Centreare holding Zoom forums that analyse the crisis and present progressive policy alternatives. The SEARCH Foundation has also hosted a range of speakers in its own ongoing series of Zoom forums during the crisis.

Economist Jim Stanford (Centre for Future Work) said early in the crisis that: “A shock of this scale cannot be solved with normal ‘counter-cyclical’ measures. It will require an ambitious, aggressive, government-led effort to rebuild the economy and put Australians back to work.”

Over time a broad progressive framework can emerge that many organisations and campaigns can share and draw from, building solidarity between movements and campaigns. The union movement’s significant victories in the JobKeeper scheme, assisting over six million workers, showed the possibilities to intervene and influence events, despite the government’s final refusal to cover about three million casual and temporary migrant workers, the arts, university workers and international students.

SEARCH will work with others to develop and promote a broad progressive policy framework, firstly to campaign for the basic needs of working people in healthcare, food, housing, income, secure jobs, and good education for children and young people.

We will also campaign to change the current capitalist framework and promote radical reforms in keeping with our democratic ecological socialist aims by, for example: strengthening workers’ and union rights; increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations; expanding and democratising the public sector; rebuilding manufacturing industry under public-sector leadership; and setting 100 per cent renewable energy and water conservation as key national development targets.

We will circulate soon a separate document with some initial proposals for immediate reforms and longer-term aims, for comments and suggestions from SEARCH members and others.

SEARCH Committee – 20 May 2020

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