The Austrian economic historian’s Walter Scheidel’s 2017 book, The Great Leveler, argues that gross inequality is the natural state of human affairs. This structure is only interrupted by events such as mass war, revolution, state failure and pandemic disease. Does COVID-19 present an opportunity to halt growing inequality and reset our economic and social order? These two books, Upturn and What Happens Next? explore the ways we might take this historic opportunity to change society for the better. Lyndon Megarrity and Richard Trembath consider their contributions.
Review of Upturn: A Better Normal after COVID-19 Tanya Plibersek (ed.), NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2020.
By Lyndon Megarrity
If nothing else, COVID-19 and its associated lockdowns and restrictions have given us a chance to reflect upon our society: what is worth preserving? What should change? What are our values and how can they be expressed and implemented in government, business and community life as we head towards some form of ‘normalcy’? During World War Two, the same sorts of questions were asked about post-war Australia. Subsequently, after 1945, the Chifley Labor Government played a key role in transforming Australia socially and economically through unprecedented immigration, training opportunities for returned service personnel, the Snowy Mountains scheme and developing the nation’s research capacity through the establishment of the Australian National University. Such initiatives reflected a broader collective willingness to view the world in new ways and with greater confidence.
In editing and compiling Upturn, leading Labor politician Tanya Plibersek has encouraged her contributors to reflect on how a better Australia can emerge beyond the current crisis. As in the post-war reconstruction era, contemporary Australia has the skills, the knowledge and the resources to do marvellous things. Upturn’s contributors disagree and contradict each other in many respects, but most chapters stress the substantial role that government can play in the national recovery process. Indeed, the authors place great faith in the capacity for governments to heal society and to develop its strengths in areas such as facilitating employment, encouraging investment in research and innovation, and ensuring that vulnerable groups are treated with dignity and given opportunities to advance.
At only 260 pages in length, the volume contains 30 individual chapters covering a broad range of topics. Unfortunately, the limited number of words available for each contribution means that the writers often lack the space to fully develop their ideas and arguments. There are nonetheless some fine, thought-provoking contributions. Ross Garnaut encourages readers to re-imagine Australia as a country that is less of a mining quarry and more of a ‘superpower of the post-carbon world economy’ (p. 29), creating jobs through onshore manufacturing and investment in renewable energy. Elsewhere, Rae Cooper and Sarah Mosseri convincingly argue that governments need to get over the blokey, political optics of ‘shovel-ready’ projects and invest more heavily in feminised, essential job sectors, such as teaching, nursing, and aged care, whose workers are ‘undervalued, underpaid, and a great many are employed on insecure contracts’ (p. 99). Further, Tanya Plibersek makes the constructive suggestion that ‘all publicly funded infrastructure projects must have at least one apprentice for every ten workers’ (p. 155), highlighting the need for employers to support the next generation of employees trying to enter the workforce and make a life for themselves.
Lenore Taylor’s excellent contribution on the media affirms the importance of high-quality news information and shows how valued it has been by the public during the pandemic. Ironically, the reliance on the media during the crisis has co-incided with massive job losses as bottom-line oriented media organisations continue to slash jobs. As Taylor notes, this has hit hardest in regional areas, where the first draft of a district’s history is effectively lost because of the closure of the local newspaper. With traditional advertising drying up, Taylor tentatively suggests that a push towards subscriptions and reader donations may yet provide some certainty to media publishers, but it is far from clear whether this will be sustainable in the long-term.
Several authors rightfully praise the importance of digital technology for the way it has helped employees, researchers and communities stay in touch during the pandemic and share knowledge. One criticism I do have is that some contributors accept uncritically the ‘disruptive’ nature of new technology on society. As individual citizens, surely we are entitled to have some choice about the extent to which we engage with technology and automation? ICT-based transactions which are efficient and convenient for business and government organisations may not suit all the people all the time.
Although the arts, education, health and other quality of life issues are featured in this collection of essays, it is the economy, and jobs that dominate Upturn’s content. Many areas of public concern are given little or no attention. It is to be hoped that the raft of ‘Where to after COVID?’ books which will inevitably follow this one will canvass the role of local government in democracy, the fragility of cultural institutions due to repeated funding cuts, the contentious nature of many urban and rural developments and the need to bridge the regional–metropolitan divide.
Despite these quibbles, Plibersek and her fellow authors have produced a book which will provoke many a conversation about the key issues that face us on the road to recovery. Upturn is one of those books that reminds us—as Gareth Evans puts it—of Australia’s ‘natural, egalitarian instinct for decency’ (p. 260), a characteristic which has been observed by many during the pandemic and one which should guide us now and into the future.
Review of What Happens Next? Reconstructing Australia after COVID 19, Emma Dawson and Janet McCalman (eds), Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2020.
By Richard Trembath
To borrow a popular term, the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a wave of books examining what might happen once the illness is no longer ubiquitous. As early as June the Melbourne Age could list several of these publications. Some of these works offer programs for significant social change in an environment which their authors believe will be seriously modified by the pandemic. Here, I examine one of these studies: What Happens Next?: Reconstructing Australia after COVID-19, jointly edited by Emma Dawson and Janet McCalman. This volume offers a set of prescriptions for change in Australia, though not a unified program, once COVID-19, at least in its current form, is more history than current affairs.
What Happens Next? consists of twenty-eight individual contributions which together set out a ‘progressive, reforming agenda to tackle the twin crises of climate change and inequality.’ The book has 312 pages which means if one extracts an introduction, a conclusion, biographical details, endnotes and index, the mini-essays are short in length, about seven to nine pages each. The best of the offerings, and most of them are good, are punchy and, given the space limitations, draw on their authors’ often considerable experience in a particular field, rather than detailed argument within the text itself. Some, but not too many, tend to be generic and well-meaning.
Fiona Capp’s brief ‘review’ of What Happens Next? in the Age was both cursory and dismissive. She wrote:
As inspiring as these progressive road maps might be, the lack of conservative voices means that the book fails to address the inescapable reality of a present and near future shaped by a conservative government.
Well, yes, to some extent, though that criticism shows a misunderstanding of the purpose of this publication. There is more that can, and should, be said about this volume.
Nine of the authors are current or former Labor MPs, including the leader of the Federal opposition, a past deputy leader of the party, and the ex-premier of South Australia. Others have links with the ALP. Michele O’Neil is the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Heavy hitters indeed. It is not surprising that there is a Labor core to this book. As Janet McCalman notes in the acknowledgements, What Happens Next? ‘had its genesis’ in 2019 with discussions in a particular ALP branch in Melbourne. It is interesting to note that these discussions, which centred around climate change and ‘rampant inequality both in Australia and throughout the world’, occurred before COVID-19 dropped in from overseas. To what extent I wonder were the ideas or articles modified to take account of the unexpected pandemic?
What Happens Next? has certainly done well to get its messages before the public, or at least those concerned with the issues raised in the collection. Even the briefest of internet searches shows the large number of retailers who are stocking the book. Despite the social restrictions imposed by COVID, which bear as heavily on publishing as anything else, detailed on-line discussions about the book’s key themes are out there and worth following up.
I am not certain that we can anticipate a post-COVID world yet though this does not affect the book’s value. As I write, active cases and new infections in Australia are few, almost infinitesimal compared to many other nations. World-wide, despite the hopeful news about possible vaccines, the infection has resurged with the onset of cooler weather. Even within fortunate Australia questions abound and none of them have anything approaching answers. Will this upstart and lethal virus be a periodic visitor? Will its lethality decrease? What are its long-term effects? Will COVID be a game changer for social systems and human society? You would be better off picking the Melbourne Cup – with or without crowds, the frocks and the fascinators.
Let me pick just three things I believe COVID has exposed in Australia. One is the rickety and tenuous nature of employment in a gig economy where many enjoy neither job security nor adequate leave provisions. This is discussed in What Happens Next? in several places. For example, Michele O’Neil writes of affected workers:
The moment Australia’s economy hit the brakes as the pandemic struck, through the trapdoor they fell, tumbling into economic and financial distress with no safety net.
The second issue is the abysmal nature of much of Australia’s aged care system – organisational weaknesses which should not have required COVID to occupy public attention. This matter is raised by Emma Dawson in her article on the foundational economy. My final point concerns cracks in Australia’s hybrid private-public health system and these cracks are highlighted by several authors. In passing, I would like their views on restructuring the Victorian health bureaucracy whose lines of command are more snarled than Friday night traffic on the Monash Freeway. But that is not within the scope of the book.
What Happens Next? was published in the last days of September. This explains why several authors refer to the brief period of closer federal-state relations, and less rancorous politics, which occurred in the first half of the year. I do not share their optimism that this time of (relative) co-operation presages any such lovefest in the foreseeable future. It is not quite yet ‘business as normal’ in our political sphere but that day is not far off.
The federal government knows that it cannot return to the happy days of February 2020 simply by walking through the door of the Tardis and reversing time. Its major concern is with the economy and once again predictions about that are fraught with danger. But the coalition wants a return to normalcy as it sees it, and this does not involve a commitment to change, even when change may be the best option. The Prime Minister dissociated himself very quickly from the climate change targets of president-elect Joe Biden, employing language similar to John Howard’s ‘we shall decide’ rhetoric of 2001, used in reference to ‘turning back the boats’. On their right wing, the coalition is pressured by the more deranged Newscorp journalists whose attacks on the Victorian Premier, for instance, went personal from day one. Things do not look sweet in the Labor camp either as that perennial party splitter – climate change policy – threatens to lead to internal discord on the left side of politics.
Despite the gloom of my last paragraph I still think that Fiona Capp erred. Post COVID Australia might be little different from went before, it might be drastically different. What the book has done is highlight where there are flaws in our polity and society which could be amended. What Happens Next? is not a roadmap: it is a basis for serious discussion of how this very lucky country might plan for a more egalitarian society.
Disclaimer: I worked happily with Professor McCalman at the University of Melbourne for many years.
 Age, 27 June 2020, p.6. Local titles included Sophie Cousins, Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia; Ross Garnaut, Reset: Restoring Australia after the Great Crash of 2020; Gideon Haigh, The Momentous, Uneventful Day; Tim Flannery, The Climate Cure: Solving the Climate Emergency in the Era of COVID 19. The portentous titles are a good guide to the contents.
 From the blurb on the back cover.
 Age, Spectrum, 31 October 2020, p.11.
 What Happens Next?, p. 262.
 What Happens Next?, p. 106.
 What Happens Next?, p. 190.
 ‘ “Australia will always set its policies based on Australia’s national interests and the contributions we’re making in these areas, “Mr Morrison said.’ ABC News, 9 November 2020, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-11-09/scott-morrison-joe-biden-net-zero-target-emissions-2050/12862310, accessed 12 November 2020.