A new world is being born
1 April 2020 at 4:17 pm
In Australia, the politically, socially and economically unthinkable has become commonplace within a matter of days – and these changes will set the course for our future, writes David Ritter.
As Arundhati Roy wrote, “another world is not only possible, she’s on the way and, on a quiet day, if you listen very carefully you can hear her breathe”. There is sudden quiet in our skies and streets, and in the strangeness of our isolation, and we need to listen closely for what we might hear in this unbeckoned silence.
But first comes the need. There is fear in Australia now, of a kind that many have never experienced before. It is imperative that we look after our own, starting with the most vulnerable as the unconditional priority. The quandary is that in our response to the percussive immediate, the future is also being composed.
“Can this be the moment when, faced with tragedy and vast disorder to the state of things, that we are called to change course, to establish the foundations for a better future?”
The great shocks of 2020 – first the unprecedented fires that directly impacted almost 80 per cent of Australians and now the massive disruption of COVID-19 that is affecting us all – are a challenge to our imaginations. Can this be the moment when, faced with tragedy and vast disorder to the state of things, that we are called to change course, to establish the foundations for a better future?
For many years campaigners, activists, advocates, philanthropists, rabble-rousers and social entrepreneurs of all kinds have been working, struggling and striving, dreaming of a different society: one that is fairer and kinder; more equal and more sustainable.
Now a radically different future has arrived very abruptly but it is not in the circumstance of our making or choosing. Nonetheless, it is inevitable that the scale and intensity of the disruption will recast our nation in ways that are both predictable and unpredictable. Some will stem from top down shifts in government policy, while others will be transformations in human behaviour that emanate from our shared experience
Nobody is now arguing that the government should not be investing at an unprecedented speed and scale to protect Australians from the economic consequences of COVID-19. The contest is now over how the money will be spent. There’s no doubt that the lobbyists of vested interests are very busy, both in Australia and internationally, determined to profit from the crisis at the expense of the common good. But every public dollar that is spent should meet the triple test:
- Is it economically effective?
- Will it contribute to the rapid transition to clean energy and the restoration of nature?
- Will it increase fairness and equality for all Australians?
In these circumstances, for anyone who dreams of building the good society, just waiting for things to “go back to normal” is not an option. Australia will never “bounce back”, in the way that our prime minister wrongly imagines. But from out of the fear and uncertainty, we can leap forward.
Disruptions are the moments when paradigm shifts become most possible. In Australia, the politically, socially and economically unthinkable has become commonplace within a matter of days – and these changes will set the course for our future.
For all who maintain belief in the possibility of an Australia in which we can truly all rejoice – just, fair, sustainable and free – there is a paradox in this moment. On the one hand, we grieve at the loss, suffering and fear. And we recoil from the deprivation of our normal liberties of movement and assembly, as well as the indefensible suspension of our parliamentary democracy. But on the other, we can discern, murmuring through the disorder, different sounds: the lilt of Damon Gameau’s 2040 vision getting nearer, perhaps, or the choir of an Australia Remade as the best version of us.
You can hear the tender lyrics of better things being possible in the acts of love, neighbourliness, professionalism and community that we see burgeoning all around. This is the true wealth of our society in abundant display, as we look out for our neighbours and care for each other. It is a reminder that we are social animals and that people have an inherent propensity towards goodness. It is to recall that professional vocations – everyone from the cleaner to the epidemiologist – do public service worthy of great respect, that is of deep value to us all.
“You can hear the tender lyrics of better things being possible in the acts of love, neighbourliness, professionalism and community that we see burgeoning all around.”
Old stories are not banished so quickly of course. The fabled fights over toilet paper perform a convenient discursive function allowing a social and systemic crisis to be narratively individualised. Tweeted tussles over toiletries enable great dilemmas of supply and demand, social security and public trust to be rendered as mean little stories of individual greed, ignorance or moral failing. What a convenient way to wipe away the reality; that it is not human nature, but the system that is shit.
First the fires and now the virus have brutally exposed the consequences of politicians ignoring the sober warnings of scientists and experts. The deadly inadequacy and vapidity of spin and distraction as a mode of governing could not be plainer. And the serial crises have reminded us that the great public institutions like the ABC, the emergency services, the CSIRO and the whole fabric of our public health system must be properly respected and resourced for the flourishing of our society – or else people will suffer and die because of their neglect.
Our politicians are now stutteringly sloughing off years of self-taught enfeeblement. There is no confected market solution to a rampaging bushfire or to the onslaught of a pandemic. This re-recognition of the generative and enabling capability of the state is long overdue in Australia and will be essential to meeting the challenges of the next decade, if we are to do what is necessary in the face of the climate emergency.
Years of immature confected outrage about the budget deficit – already softened by the need to respond to the impact of the bushfires, has now finally gone into the dustbin of Australian economic history, where it belongs. It is now unanimously accepted that there is no virtue in a budget surplus, when an affordable level of borrowing and spending is what is required to make us a more resilient and prosperous society.
It is in these decisions – and in the actions, activism and advocacy of us all as we respond to the moment, that the new will be born.
If we listen very carefully.