When the crisis ends, we shouldn’t return to business as usual
28 April 2020 at 7:00 pm
There will come a point when we need to think about the type of economy and society we want to emerge after the crisis. And we need to translate that thinking into action, writes Krystian Seibert.
At the moment, society is grappling with how to respond to the immediate demands that the current crisis is placing on us. Whether it’s providing support to keep people in work, providing assistance to the various sectors of the economy under strain, or ensuring the health system is properly resourced, it’s understandable that most or all of the focus is on what’s right in front of us.
That’s largely the focus of charities too. Some are fighting for survival as their operations have ground to a halt, some are dealing with increased demand for their services combined with drops in income.
And in this regard, it’s commendable that the Australian government has recognised the distinct role of charities, and therefore made it easier for charities to access certain supports, such as the JobKeeper payment for example. But that said, more assistance for this vital sector is still required, and the Charities Crisis Cabinet is doing excellent work identifying areas of need, developing policy options to respond to this need, and advocating for their adoption.
But there will also come a time when we start to emerge from the haze of the immediate crisis. When the cafes and shops open up again, when people return to their offices, when our kids are back at school and our universities are bustling with students again.
However, the economic turbulence will continue for some time, even after we are over the worst of what is likely to be the biggest recession since the Great Depression.
Whilst it may not be that time yet, there will come a point when we need to think about the type of economy and society we want to emerge after the crisis. And we need to translate that thinking into action.
It’s clear that the crisis is having different impacts on different groups, depending on the jobs they do, the sectors they work in, and what assets they have to draw on. Whilst inequality in Australia before the crisis was not the same as that in the United States, it still was an increasing issue. And as with previous crises, the current crisis may well lead to worsened inequality. It may also reinforce the trend towards more precarious work, and further entrench other social problems within our society.
But this is not some inevitable consequence of this crisis. It will be a product of the policy choices made as we emerge from the crisis and indeed in the years after it.
I remember when I was studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science during the Global Financial Crisis. There was a lot of commentary at the time saying that the GFC would redefine capitalism. What we got instead was a return to business as usual, combined with government austerity in many parts of the world.
I’ve heard some similar commentary again this time around. But if I were a betting man (and I’m not), I would bet that we’ll just return to business as usual eventually. Whilst we avoided major government austerity in Australia after the GFC, this time it may be different, as the Coalition government may seek to dramatically cut back expenditure to try and start paying down the now much higher level of government debt more quickly (debt which has been rightly incurred in order to provide life support to the economy).
However, we’ll only return to business as usual if we let that happen.
I recently read an excellent book, The Making of a Democratic Economy, which set out an alternative so-called “generative” economic model, one that is more equitable, ethical and sustainable. It’s not a model based on creating big new government bureaucracies, though government does play an important role as it does in most prosperous societies. Instead it focuses on strategies to retain wealth in communities, to democratise ownership of capital through employee ownership and cooperatives, and encourage ethical and sustainable finance as well as impact investing.
Importantly, the book is not just a collection of “pie in sky” musings, but each of the approaches discussed are already being operationalised, with the book full of case studies, mostly from the United States but also from the United Kingdom.
Pleasingly, what struck me too is the network of philanthropic and not-for-profit sector organisations working together to catalyse this change. The book made me think about all the potential we have in Australia to pursue similar approaches.
As we emerge from this crisis, and start to rebuild our economy and society, the not-for-profit sector has a vital role to play.
It can act to plant the seeds of new economic models – and I’m keen to see more of a focus on this in Australia from both philanthropy and the not-for-profit sector.
The not-for-profit sector will also have an important advocacy role more broadly. The direction that Australia takes as we emerge from this crisis will be guided by the policy decisions of government and also the business decisions of companies. Not-for-profit sector advocacy has always been important, but it will be critical now to ensure that these decisions don’t lead us in a direction that will result in an even less equitable and sustainable economy and society. We need the opposite to happen.
In that regard, I’m encouraged by the shift seen in Australian philanthropy in recent years towards funding more advocacy. And I hope to see that trend continue, given that advocacy will become even more important in the coming months and years.
In a few years time, I hope to look back on this period, and reflect on the fact that despite the immense hardship this crisis created, that at least we didn’t return to business as usual after it. That we changed our economy and our society, for the better.
But we’ll need a roadmap to achieve that, and I don’t think we have that yet.