MOTION: Beyond COVID - Creating a fairer Australia

Mark moved a motion today noting the impact of COVID-19 and recognising that we are now at a crossroad, giving us the choice to either go back to business as usual or take this opportunity to forge a new path for our collective future and Build Back Better.

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: I move:

That this council—

1. Notes the significant impact that COVID-19 has had on the people of Australia, our society and our economy;

2. Acknowledges the substantial policy shifts by the Australian and the South Australian governments in response to the current crisis, towards a fairer, more compassionate and cooperative approach;

3. Recognises that we are now at a crossroad, giving us the choice to either go back to business as usual or take this opportunity to forge a new path for our collective future and Build Back Better;

4. Notes that, as South Australian legislators as well as leaders, we have the ability as well as the responsibility to put people, communities and the planet at the centre of all decisions, giving everyone a fair go; and

5. Calls on the Marshall Liberal Government to continue to show South Australians that they matter by making choices and decisions that reflect care for each other, communities and the planet and investing in a renewed economy that works for people so that every one of us can thrive.

All of us contemplate how things will be after the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing number of people are reflecting imaginatively on the world that we want to rebuild. For many of us, the idea of going back to business as usual is unacceptable. We want to forge a new path for our collective future and Build Back Better.

The concept and the phrase 'build back better' is not new to COVID-19. It has been around for quite a while and it features as a guiding principle of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), which is a global partnership that helps developing countries better understand and reduce their vulnerabilities to natural hazards and adapt to climate change.

The response to floods and earthquakes has many similarities with the response to a public health emergency such as COVID-19. According to the GFDRR, building back better is an approach to post-disaster recovery that reduces vulnerability to future disasters and builds community resilience to address physical, social, environmental and economic vulnerabilities and shocks.

One of they key words here is 'resilience', and when it comes to COVID-19, one thing it has taught us is that a shift of just a few percent in various economic indicators has a disproportionate effect on our quality of life. It has shown us how lacking in resilience we really are.

Similarly, the Green New Deal is being promoted by many progressive voices. That, too, is not a specific response to COVID—it long predates the pandemic—but COVID shows us how valuable and timely this approach is in transforming our environment, society and economy.

As I have said many times in this place before, we are in a climate emergency. In fact, the majority of the Legislative Council agreed and they joined the Greens in making that declaration only last year. The science on climate change is in and it is clear: we must urgently move to a zero carbon society, yet our governments at both state and federal level continue to expand rather than phase out the biggest source of climate pollution, which is the mining, burning and exporting of coal, oil and gas.

To make matters worse, too many of us are not getting a fair go. Even if you study hard, you complete university or you complete TAFE, it too often ends up in underemployment, insecure jobs and low pay. If you are lucky enough to land a good job, chances are you still cannot afford a house because the government has rigged the housing market against you, but it does not have to be this way.

The Green New Deal is a government-led plan of investment and action to build a clean economy and a caring society. Under a Green New Deal, government takes the lead in creating new jobs in industries and delivering universal services to ensure nobody is left behind. A Green New Deal is a massive opportunity to solve the climate crisis and to ensure everyone has a good life.

It sounds big, and it is, but it is absolutely possible. Government responses to COVID-19 so far have shown us what is possible if we care enough about making change. We already have everything that we need to make the transition and create a fairer, cleaner future. When Donald Trump says that he wants his country to 'get back to normal' within three weeks, not only is he spouting nonsense that is contrary to all medical evidence and logic, but he is implying that how things were before was good and our objective should be to get back there as fast as we can.

Getting back to normal begs the question: whose normal are we talking about? Is it those people who normally sleep rough in the streets or the Park Lands because they cannot afford to pay rent? Is it people who normally do not eat properly or do not receive proper medical care because they cannot afford it on inadequate social security payments that keep them well below the poverty line?

Is it people who normally do very nicely, thank you, on the back of other people's low wages and insecure employment? Is it corporations whose profits depend on the very normal scenario of making the environmental problems they cause somebody else's problem? They make the single-use plastics and the wasteful packaging that pollute our marine environment and they exploit the fossil fuels that damage the climate. Is that the normal that we want?

One UK commentator whose views resonated with me is Simon Mair, who is a research fellow in ecological economics at the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity at the University of Surrey. Simon Mair invites us to reimagine our economic future. To help that process, he proposes that, from an economic perspective, there are four possible futures: (1) a descent into barbarism, (2) robust state capitalism, (3) radical state socialism, and (4) a transformation into a big society built on mutual aid.

He suggests that versions of all these futures are perfectly possible if not equally desirable. For example, the first, a descent into barbarism, is clearly unacceptable. Whilst a dog-eat-dog world might be the preferred model of a few arch conservatives, it is overwhelmingly abhorrent to most of us.

The second possible future, robust state capitalism, also has whiskers on it, because it perpetuates a reliance on and the dominance of markets to make decisions about economic activity and the distribution of wealth and resources. This view, as we all know, values everything in the world, except of course most of the things that make life worthwhile.

The third possible future, radical state socialism, raises some really interesting issues. In the context of COVID, this possible future includes measures like the nationalisation of hospitals and other essential services. It proposes that payments to workers are seen not as tools to protect markets but as a way to protect and value life itself. Citizens no longer rely on employers as intermediaries between them and the basic materials of life. Payments are made to everyone directly and are not related to the exchange value they create. In other words, the universal basic income is a possible outcome of this model.

The fourth possible future, mutual aid, is different in that the state does not take a defining role. Rather, it is individuals and small groups who begin to organise support and care within their communities. The main risks with this future are that small groups are unable to rapidly mobilise the kind of resources that are needed to effectively increase healthcare capacity, for instance. That is probably better left to government, like building hospitals, especially when you are in a pandemic.

But community groups not being able to quickly build expensive hospitals does not tell the whole story. In the context of the pandemic, mutual aid has provided a valuable service in effective transmission prevention by building community support networks that protect the vulnerable. Collectively, we have helped police the isolation rules. We know that community responses were central to tackling the West African Ebola outbreak that was largely the result of the failure of state responses; however, it can also be seen as a pragmatic, compassionate societal response to an unfolding crisis.

Simon Mair acknowledges that his four visions are extreme scenarios, caricatures, and likely to bleed into one another. He says that his greatest fear is the descent from state capitalism into barbarism, and his main hope is a blend of state socialism and mutual aid—in other words, a strong democratic state that mobilises resources to build a stronger health system, prioritises protecting the vulnerable from the whims of the market and responds to and enables citizens to form mutual aid groups, rather than working in meaningless jobs.

A few weeks ago, I conducted a Zoom webinar for nearly 100 constituents to explore some of these issues. What sort of society, economy and environment do we want to create after the pandemic has passed? Many participants took the trouble afterwards to share their vision with me of what they think should happen next. One constituent, Joanna, said:

COVID presents us with an unprecedented opportunity to make some very significant changes to the sort of society we are. Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost our bearings and got our priorities completely tangled up.

Government seems to have forgotten that its role is to provide services to the citizens, not to provide them with an amazing balance sheet every year. Not everything has to break even or make money.

Joanna is also a very big fan of the universal basic income, and she said:

We will know that things have changed when we no longer hear comments such as that recently by Minister Stuart Robert, when he commented that, as a result of COVID-19 there are suddenly lots of people, who 'through no fault of their own' now need support. The implication of this was clearly that if until now you had needed support, it was your fault. Let's face it, we all benefit from the existence of social security, even if we never need to access it ourselves. It's not called social security for nothing, is it?

I am a big fan of the universal basic income as well; however, I appreciate that others are not so sure. A fairly common response from many people is that they are not sure whether society is ready for it. I expect this is a combination of factors, including the constant messages from conservative forces about lifters and leaners and the deserving and the undeserving poor.

However, what I am detecting is a growing rejection of the soul-destroying and demoralising practices that are often rooted in mutual obligation requirements under social security laws. This requires people to undertake busy work in applying for non-existent jobs that they are unqualified and unsuitable for in order to satisfy officials that they deserve to receive a pittance from the state in order to live.

When the federal government doubled the unemployment benefit in response to the pandemic, it was not before time. The Greens and others had been calling for this for many years. However, it also brought into stark contrast those who were still getting nothing. We have refugees and asylum seekers who are here who should be our responsibility. We have overseas workers and backpackers, many of whom cannot return home, who therefore should also be our responsibility.

Whilst we could appreciate the help that was provided to many by the extra payments, it was clear there were many others who fell through the cracks: many workers in the arts, casuals who did not have 12 months' continuous service or who had taken some time off. They fell on the wrong side of the eligibility line.

In some ways this is the nature of systems that draw lines and create complex legal eligibility requirements, whether it is for regular social security or the extra COVID payments. How much simpler and fairer would it be if your eligibility for money to survive was based on the universal principle that as human beings we should all have access to the basics of life?

In terms of specific government responsibilities, there is no department, no agency and no policy that does not need to be reassessed against fundamental principles based on human rights, ecological integrity and social equity. Here is a shortlist of eight:

  1. you do not scrap bus routes or remove stops, because even if they are not super popular they do allow some of the most vulnerable people in our society to participate;
  2. you do not close government service centres because not everyone can do what they want online;
  3. you do not waste money on useless and counter-productive road widening projects when you could reduce the need for bigger roads by investing in public transport, walking and cycling;
  4. you do postpone the rollout of the Planning and Design Code, because much of this document needs to be rethought in response to COVID to make sure that our communities are truly liveable, with green spaces and good accessibility to the services we will need;
  5. you maintain the commitment to ensure that nobody needs to sleep rough and that everyone has access to adequate, nutritious food regardless of who they are or the circumstances;
  6. you direct public assistance to where it is most needed. That means that building new social housing or helping pensioners modernise their kitchens should rank higher than giving someone $25,000 to build their $750,000 home, which they were going to build anyway even without that help;
  7. you invest in community organisations rather than corporate welfare; and
  8. you prioritise decarbonising the economy, not giving multimillion dollar handouts to fossil fuel companies to help them wreck the climate.

This list could go on and on, but the bottom line is that business as usual is not an option. Recovering only that which was lost during the pandemic is not an option: we need to do much better.

When it comes to the environment COVID has shown us that, given the opportunity, South Australians are itching to get out into nature. Visitation to national parks has doubled. I am a regular visitor to Belair National Park and the numbers there each weekend are truly amazing. There was one person who could not participate in my post-COVID Zoom forum, a woman called Kerri. She wrote to me about how we need to use COVID as a trigger to revitalise environmental programs and prioritise investment in natural resource management. She said:

The solution is to create a shared vision for a regenerated Australia in the year 2100 and beyond. It is time to blend modern monetary theory with socio-ecological system thinking, work at how much it will cost to regenerate our landscapes and climate, and just get on with it.

We have so many excellent, risk-based and robust plans for sustainable agriculture and wise natural resource management for every region in Australia that have never been funded adequately. COVID gives us an opportunity to break out of a history of chronic underinvestment in our natural capital. The benefits are being tangibly demonstrated across every community. Seeing is believing. Our global ecosystems are recovering.

One of the great benefits of being in the Anthropocene is that we can drive ecological change for the better. We know what to do, we just need to do it. We can thrive if we take this opportunity to reset and invest in our future natural capital.

I am disappointed that Kerri could not participate in the forum; it sounds like she has some great ideas.

As for the reference to global ecosystems recovering, if you have a look at the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resource Management Board Facebook page you can find a video taken a few weeks ago in Belair National Park by my good wife. It is a short iPhone video of the endangered southern brown bandicoot, and it was filmed foraging for grubs just off the side of the walking track. So, if we do look after and we do invest wisely in the environment, it repays us many times over with experiences such as this.

Finally, I would like to address the issue of how we make this happen. Are our current structures up to the task? I would suggest that they are not. In times of national crisis Australians expect governments and indeed all political parties to work together. I think one of the success stories has been the concept of the national cabinet, the fact that all of the leaders of the different jurisdictions were brought together. Mind you, I do not think it is enough, but I think it resonated with people that there was a level of cooperation that they had not seen before.

Earlier this month, the Prime Minister announced a new national federation reform council that is going to replace the Council of the Australian Governments, COAG. COAG itself replaced the old premiers' conference, which was routinely regarded as the bun fight of the year. I do not know whether COAG was much better, but I am hoping the new national federation reform council will be an improvement. But, the Prime Minister has also committed to the national cabinet remaining at the centre of the national federation reform council, and the national cabinet's main job is going to be focusing on job creation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the state level, I would say that it is time for us to look beyond simple business as usual adversarial politics. I would pose the question about whether it is time to have a similar state process to that of the national cabinet that involves more players—more political players, more community players, more business players. Some might say, 'Well, that's the job of parliament,' but clearly there are mechanisms of governance that are far more collaborative and cooperative and deliver better outcomes I would say than business as usual via parliament.

So I am up for a discussion with all the other parties, with civil society, with business and local government, about how we might make that happen. I would say: why don't we treat COVID as a catalyst for change, not just as an interruption to business as usual but a catalyst for change, because we need to collectively plan for our brighter future because, at the risk of repeating the slogan, we are all in this together.