What happens when the economy needs reviving?
16 April 2020 at 8:48 am
For those hoping the current supportive response of government will continue, David Crosbie offers a shot of reality… things are not going to get better quickly for most charities.
In recent weeks, I have had numerous discussions with sector leaders about the need to build back better post COVID-19. The focus on what will happen post COVID-19 is commendable, we all need to seize this opportunity to try and make the future better for charities and the communities they serve. But what does that mean? What should we be doing?
This article will discuss post COVID-19, but before doing so, it is important to emphasise that today, and for the next few months, the focus for all of us should primarily be the immediate needs within our communities. While thinking and planning for post COVID-19 is appropriate, we also need to work hard addressing the very real challenges we face now and over the coming months. Already so much has changed, lives have been lost, livelihoods have been lost, opportunities to achieve have been snatched away. Many Australians are now in desperate circumstances and more will join them. Some good charities are going to close, many will have to completely change the way they operate, the services they offer. This pandemic will have an impact for years, perhaps decades to come.
The good news is that behind the tragedy of this pandemic, there have been a few positive developments, some things we can point to that are in some ways better than before.
The economy is taking a back seat to health and well-being at many levels of decision making – at least in the short term.
Evidence now seems to matter. Evidence is informing major policy decision making. Experts are being listened to by governments in a way we have not seen for some time.
The community is much more attuned to social and political issues. The ratings for mainstream news programs and readership of news articles has very significantly increased over the past month. (Nielsen Digital Content Ratings reported an average increase of 57 per cent across the top 10 news sites in March compared to February.)
Governments are working together across jurisdictions in a much more constructive and effective way. The National Cabinet is far from perfect, but it is a real improvement on the previous overtly political and often dysfunctional decision-making processes.
Disparate groups are proactively collaborating on common interests. This includes industry groups, charities, private sector interests, unions, governments, all seeking to work together in ways we have not seen for decades.
Co-operation within government is higher than usual, especially across the previously impenetrable silos of government departments.
Place-based responses have again been recognised as critically important, just as they were through the bushfire crisis and the emerging recovery process. Our neighbours, our local communities, regional supports all become more important in a crisis.
The “we’re all in this together” messaging of governments, leaders, celebrities and the media has in many ways shifted our sense of what is important from the individual to the collective. It has also broken down some stereotypes about who is or is not deserving, although some of these divisions clearly remain (temporary visa holders, etc.).
Regulators in key areas are offering more flexibility – even allowing some collusion between pharmaceutical companies to improve COVID-19 responses.
Government is actively listening to the concerns of the charities sector and responding – in some cases changing critical program eligibility criteria to ensure more charities have access to the support they need.
The obvious benefits of these initiatives have led to questions about maintaining some of these approaches well into the future. Talk about continuation of the National Cabinet beyond the current crisis is just one example.
While there is a lot to be hopeful about in these positive measures, the reality is that many of these initiatives are unlikely to be sustained post COVID-19.
The important question that should frame any post COVID-19 discussion is; what will the government and community priorities be when government debt is higher than ever before, the global economy has stalled, unemployment is running at 10 per cent plus, and government expenditure is far exceeding government revenue?
Recent history post-GFC provides us with an indication of what is likely to happen following a period of generous government emergency spending and new initiatives. Governments tend to cut back expenditure where they can, provide incentives for investment in business and employment, reduce what are seen as non-essential commitments.
This is partly because many governments in Australia and around the world work on the premise that every nation needs a strong economy in order to deliver the kind of society that enables opportunity for all.
Rebuilding the economy will become the major focus of government post COVID-19. It is within this context that charities will increasingly need to demonstrate their value to communities, to Australia, to our economy.
The broader arguments will need to be made about the case for stronger and fairer communities where distribution of wealth, access to education, health care, housing, arts and culture are all more equitably distributed. It will mean making the case for investing significantly more in environmental and social infrastructure to protect our future. It will require charities to prosecute the argument that an Australia adopting a key support role in our region and beyond will also be able to more effectively trade and protect its borders.
Eighteen months from now, every charity will need to make the case about their value and effectiveness, because anything less will make charities vulnerable at a time when governments will be under huge pressure to reduce their expenditure, and do more to support business and job creating investment.
These are not new challenges or debates for many in the charities sector. But in a post COVID-19 recession, charities will have to provide even stronger evidence that they are delivering real value to their communities.
There will be positives to come from the current crisis; ideas about health and protection will change, a few national decision-making structures will be reformed, some important systems strengthened, we may even see more investment in collective impact and other place-based initiatives to address unemployment and other issues. We should do all we can to support these positive changes.
At the same time, I see little evidence that the current crisis will provide a sustained shift in very fundamental paradigms about the way governments see their role. I hope I am wrong.
About the author: David Crosbie is CEO of the Community Council for Australia. He has spent more than 20 years as CEO of significant charities including eight years in his current role, four years as CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia, seven years as CEO of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia, and seven years as CEO of Odyssey House Victoria.
David Crosbie writes exclusively for Pro Bono News on a fortnightly basis, covering issues of importance to the broader not-for-profit sector.