COVID-19 provides Scott Morrison with a clean slate and an opportunity to reboot Australia

It has been said many times in recent weeks that things won’t be the same when we get to the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s probably right. What hasn’t been said is that the eventual defeat of COVID-19 will present Australia, and the world, with a clean slate, which is infinitely more exciting.

The society we live in today is not the result of a master plan, nor the fruits of a grand vision or epic struggle. It is a haphazard melange of outcomes good and bad.

A clean slate presents a rare opportunity to start over: an opportunity to right past wrongs, to repair the unintended consequences of globalisation, to create a fairer and kinder society.

Simply shrugging that things are going to change, more as a function of dumb circumstance than deliberate agency, is the kind of apathy that gave us the bloated, selfish and unsustainable way of life that has brought our planet to the brink.

Beginning with the corrosive Howard government Australia has continued its lurch to the right. Paul Keating, sensing defeat in the 1996 federal election, was on the money when he warned: “When the government changes, the country changes.”

The Howard years changed Australia into a country that was less tolerant and more self-centred, a country whose overt racism was reawakened and given license by a government that knew no shame – Tampa, Children overboard, “We will decide who comes to this country…” – a country whose people still parroted jingoistic ideals of the fair go and mateship but who had become self-absorbed and heartless, a country whose economy had, like the US, baked in a permanent and growing underclass that was vilified for bludging off the rest of the nation. Howard embraced a scorched-earth brand of globalisation in which the drive for “global competitiveness” and a quasi-religious faith in “the market” would supposedly ensure the commonweal. What poverty could not be alleviated by globalisation was deemed the fault off the poor. Howard super-charged traditional Liberal antipathies by demonising the unemployed and trade unions.

After 11 years voters grew weary of the “mean and tricky” Howard government and in 2007 booted the government from office and Howard from parliament. But while voters were attracted to the optimism and vibrancy of Kevin Rudd’s Labor, we remained Howard’s Australia.

Voters went off Howard – the cranky old coot in the tracksuit – but they weren’t prepared to hand in their white picket fences. Howard orthodoxies still coursed through the electorate and continue to do so. Labor’s dilemma became how to be progressive without alienating Howard’s conservative battlers.

John Howard hasn’t quite left the building

In the post-Howard years poverty and homelessness became more entrenched, the unemployed and disadvantaged remained marginalised, the mantra that “work is the best welfare” continued to inform government policy, the harsh treatment of asylum seekers continued and – Rudd’s historic Sorry notwithstanding – the grievances of indigenous Australians went unanswered. It says everything about Australia’s political climate that in the 2019 federal election Labor could not bring itself to promise an increase to the Newstart allowance, committing itself only to a review.

The Liberal party has remained Howard’s Liberal party, and then some. The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison governments venerated Howard and practised his hard-C brand of conservatism – even if Malcolm Turnbull was an unwilling acolyte.

The returned Morrison government, full of Pentecostal vigour and conviction, was intent not only on preserving white-picket fences in the suburbs, it was going to build a white-picket fence around Australia.

Morrison shared Howard’s conservatism but, unlike Howard, he was inarticulate and tin-eared, was a weak policy thinker, tended to shoot from the hip, was almost comically sensitive to criticism and enquiry, and, to put it bluntly, often seemed out of his depth. Morrison surrounded himself with ministers who shared similar attributes and he frequently overlooked and defended blatant ministerial incompetence and malfeasance. The national bushfire emergency marked the beginning of 2020 and never had an Australian prime minister been found so wanting in a moment of crisis.

We can only speculate on the course and fortunes of the frazzled Morrison government had the coronavirus not intervened. For a time, as the global health emergency unfolded, it seemed that Morrison was again out of his depth, proudly declaring that he was off to the footy even as he foreshadowed a ban on large gatherings. His early public statements on the virus were rushed and confused and verged on incoherent.

And then something changed, not least the prime minister himself. He overcame his distaste for Rudd-style economic stimulus, casting aside firmly held ideological verities about big government. What changed? Morrison was not known for changing his mind or accepting unpalatable advice. We can only assume that once he accepted the enormity of the threat posed by the pandemic the policy options recommended themselves. Morrison is not known for nuanced policy formulation, so again we must assume that this time he followed advice from inside and outside government.

An opportunity to reimagine Australia

Unlike the Rudd government’s response to the GFC the Morrison government’s response to COVID-19 is not designed to stave off recession. That there will be a recession is a given. But at least the blow to Australia, both economic and social, will be cushioned. The government’s $320 billion (16.4% of GDP) in economic support for the Australian financial system, businesses, households and individuals affected by the coronavirus will ensure that come the other side of the pandemic Australia will not have been reduced to rubble.

Morrison’s thinking is very likely that once the coronavirus is defeated Australia (that is, the Coalition government) will resume “responsible” economic policy.

But the “defeat” of the coronavirus is unlikely to be total and in any case it’s unrealistic to assume that Australia can bounce back as if 2020 was a self-contained event. The economic impact of COVID-19 is likely to linger for years, which will necessitate extraordinary policy settings and “new normals”.

In many respects, the Morrison government has let the big-government genie out of the bottle; it’s going to take some doing to get that genie back in there. (Scott Morrison will become the new Major Anthony Nelson.)

So why not use COVID-19 as an opportunity to reimagine Australian society?

The Liberal ideal of small government is just that, an ideal, an ideal wrapped in mythology. Australia has never had small government. Small government ended with colonisation. Since 1788, government has loomed large in the lives of Australians, and especially in the lives of the original inhabitants.

Instead of an unattainable – and ultimately dishonest – quest for small government, Australians should be clamouring for better government. Australians already want that; they have simply stopped believing that it is possible. This may be our chance.

We have the opportunity to reset Australia, to be true to the values we claim to hold dear, to strive for a fairer society rather than accept that progress cannot co-exist with equity. As Barack Obama recently observed, the pandemic has underlined the importance of government and, more to the point, the importance of good government.

Hopefully the coronavirus emergency will make people more vocal in insisting on honest and accountable government in future. Australians might realise that their tacit acceptance of mediocrity in government has been at their expense.

The Morrison government has an opportunity to anticipate the demand for better, more enlightened and more relevant government by making some fundamental changes.

It should use its clean slate to reconsider its ambivalence to climate change; it can overcome its ideological myopia to consider whether some of its “wartime” measures should become permanent features, free childcare being a case in point.

It can reconsider its kneejerk opposition to wage rises for our lowest paid and give meaning to its rhetoric about the importance of shelf-stackers, service workers and the many and varied invisible workers that make society tick, particularly casual workers. (State governments can put taxpayers’ money where their mouths are and properly reward healthcare workers, teachers and first responders.)

It can use some of the empathy gained during the pandemic to devise an asylum seeker policy that restores human dignity to the world’s most vulnerable people and it can get serious about making a meaningful peace with our own most vulnerable, Australia’s dispossessed First Peoples. It can also call off its ideological vendetta against Australians on welfare.

The Morrison government has a once-in-a-century window to reset Australia, to banish the corrosive ideologies that have been permitted to fuse themselves into Australian society, to channel New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern and place kindness at the centre of its deliberations, to act with its new-found compassion in the interests of all Australians. And it can use the reset to clean up its own back yard.

If Scott Morrison thinks his job is to restore Australia to business as usual post-coronavirus then he hasn’t learned a thing.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist, writer and commentator. He is on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher