Speeches

COVID and The Long View

November 25, 2020

THE HON CLARE O’NEIL MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR INNOVATION, TECHNOLOGY AND THE FUTURE OF WORK
MEMBER FOR HOTHAM


COVID AND THE LONG VIEW


NATIONAL PRESS CLUB OF AUSTRALIA

CANBERRA
WEDNESDAY, 25 NOVEMBER 2020
 
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The Latin word ‘Aborigine’ means ‘here from the beginning.’

I pay my respect to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who have been custodians of the land around Canberra for 50,000 years, and to any Indigenous people who are here with us today.

I hope that in the times ahead we are able to show just some of the wisdom and dignity that Indigenous Australians demonstrate so consistently in our national debates.

Sabra, I want to thank you and the Press Club for having me here today.

And I really do want to thank all of you for coming and being a part of this conversation.

Historic Moments

Historic moments don’t always feel historic. But this one is pretty hard to miss.

2020 isn’t over yet, but it’s easily the most tumultuous year the world has had for decades.

COVID-19 has killed 1.3 million people and infected 60 million. Billions have been in lockdown.

We’re in what may be the biggest global downturn since the Great Depression.

The pandemic and recession, as overpowering as they are, are only part of the story.

COVID has fallen in the middle of a years-long period of global instability not seen since the 1920s.

Brexit. Black Lives Matter. Hong Kong. Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte.

Democracy is facing serious new challenges, misinformation and conspiracy theories spread like viruses.

The world’s powers are realigning.

And don’t forget that Australia fell into COVID straight off the back of one of the worst bushfires in our history, where 20 per cent of our nation’s bushland burned and three billion native animals died.

Whatever discussions we’re having about COVID and what lies beyond, one thing is clear.

The world of the 2010s is not coming back.

We should have a conversation about the future which is about transformation, not restoration, and driven by optimism, not nostalgia.

Australia faces challenges.

But we also have choice, and opportunity.

In March this year, I was stuck at home in lockdown, and I wanted to do something constructive.

All around me, people were talking about how COVID was affecting their lives and wondering about long-term implications.

And I thought, let’s bring that conversation into the light, and capture it.

I started a podcast called The Long View.

The idea was to have the kind of conversation that has become really difficult in politics today – where people leave their corners and really try to understand each other’s point of view.

I spent more than 60 hours talking with 34 thoughtful, smart Australians who care passionately about the future of our country.

I have this special opportunity on a national stage to thank each of them for being a part of those discussions.

Those conversations got me started on the idea that the set of beliefs that underpin Australian public policy is undergoing a revolution.

So today, I’m not focused on the politics of the day, or what’s going to happen at the next election.

I want to talk about Australia in the decades ahead – The Long View. 

And I’m going to do that in two ways.

First, I’m going to look back at our history, and ask what Australian public policy looks like at its best.

And then I’m going to look ahead, and ask what a path forward might be for Australia.

Policy at its Best

The challenges we face may feel insurmountable. But remember, we’ve been here before.

Upheaval. Pandemics. Populism. Recessions.

Think of Victoria’s Gold Rush in the 1850s. This was nothing short of a cultural, social and political revolution for my home state, which required Victoria’s colonial governments to do completely new things.

The Gold Rush bought staggering wealth.

Immigration exploded, and Victoria’s population doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled in a handful of years.

The Gold Rush saw Australia establish an egalitarian multiculturalism that was unheard of at the time – partly because of the unique way in which the government distributed gold lots, in small parcels, which were shared by many. It triggered the birth of Australian democracy, at Eureka.  

Not everything that happened at this time was good. Indigenous Australians were targets for systemic violence; Chinese gold miners were targets of systemic racism.

On the back of the Gold Rush, Australia became briefly the richest country in the world, and the Working Man’s Paradise.

And we were proud of ourselves – we had created Australian solutions to the problems we faced, and they worked.

By the 1890s, that pride and progress was on the wane.

Australia fell into a devastating recession.

With no welfare state, a big share of Australians lived in deep, wretched poverty.

Politicians had been dithering around with the idea of federation for many decades.

It took the 1890s recession – and the challenge it presented to how Australians thought about themselves – to force their hand.

In 1901, the Federation was formed in part as an act of national resolve: that that kind of poverty would not be allowed to happen again. And it hasn’t.

Again, Federation was not all good. Aboriginal Australians were not citizens of their own country. The White Australia Policy is a national shame.

But this period paved the path for the Harvester Judgment, which instituted a living wage for working Australians, the birth of the Labor Party, the union movement and the arbitration system.

In the Second World War, Australia faced existential shock again.

Darwin was bombed, submarines attacked Sydney Harbour and the global order realigned.

We responded with ambition, and bravery, and resolve.

During the war, Curtin and Chifley drew up plans for a 20th Century Australia: huge migration, full employment, a welfare state and a strong industrial base.

And they used the war to create it. In 1939, Australia couldn’t build a car. By 1944, we were building the most advanced industrial aircraft in the world.

We engaged forcefully in the creation of global institutions like the United Nations, and the World Health Organisation.

Because we could see that a peaceful, prosperous world meant a peaceful, prosperous Australia.

This expansion of the idea of what Australia was capable of set us up for the long boom than ran into the 1970s.

By that time, new challenges emerged that our institutions couldn’t manage: unemployment and inflation rising at the same time, a major oil crisis.

We had become uncompetitive, and Australians were suffering.

In 1983, when Hawke and Keating were elected, they expanded the bounds of possibility for Australia once again.

The dollar was floated. Trade barriers reduced. Educational standards lifted.

And – keeping faith with the democratic, egalitarian ethos of the Gold Rush, Federation and the post-War boom – a new social contract was drawn up to include Medicare and Superannuation.

That transformation set us running on the longest period of economic growth experienced by any country, anywhere in the world.

That period ended in June this year.

Four periods: the Gold Rush, the Federation, the post-War transformation, the 1980s revolution.

Four periods where our economic approach had run out of puff.

Four periods where our country needed to change and evolve.

Four periods preceded by political malaise.

And then, a crisis.

Four periods where policymakers stepped up, leading to the most innovative periods in our history.

Four periods in which clear direction, and vision, and courage, set the foundation for modern Australia.

So, let me lay down the challenge.

Australia has just experienced a decade where the economy grew each and every year, but the standard of living of the average Australian barely moved.

Productivity growth has dried up; almost half our exports go to one country.

The world stage looks fundamentally different, our strategy does not.

Climate change is visibly affecting our lives; we’re doing little about it.

And trust in politicians, before COVID, was the lowest it had been for decades.

We have a chance – one that comes along perhaps every 50 years – to think through a bunch of nation-shaping policies with a blank sheet of paper.

So, what are we waiting for?

In each of the periods I have referenced, a handful of core ideas set the foundation on which the rest of public policy was built.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, and re-reading Paul Kelly’s book, The End of Certainty. Kelly talks about the Australian Settlement – these five ideas set out at Federation: arbitration, the White Australia Policy, trade protection, state paternalism and imperial benevolence.

And he argues that in the 1980s, these concepts underwent a “process of creative destruction from which there is no return.”

Because Hawke and Keating knew: the ideas of the past didn’t suit the needs of Australia’s future.

So now I want to turn to our future.

Some of the foundation ideas on which we conduct public policy in Australia are in flux.

The 2020s are calling for something different than the policy consensus that has recently prevailed.

Today, I’m going to talk about five ideas.

First, how Australia’s future prosperity will require us to shift our thinking about the role of government.

Second, the opportunity we have to move the experience of working Australians back to the centre of the political agenda.

Third, the chance we have to rebuild an immigration program that’s in our national interest.

Fourth, how a push for national sovereignty could make Australia the safest place in the world.

Fifth, how if we want to capture the opportunities that lie ahead, are going to need a new kind of politics here in Canberra.

Australian prosperity needs active, mission-driven government

Let me start with prosperity, and the role of government.

Australia is an enduringly wealthy country. But the sources of that wealth have changed over our history.

Wool, grains, manufacturing, iron ore, financial services, education.

Today, we need new sources of prosperity for a simple reason: Australia’s economy had been a funk for a decade.

For a generation, economic doctrine in Australia has embraced a hands-off approach to driving growth.

Autopilot is not going to fix the economic challenges we face.

When you strip out population growth, Australia’s economy has grown at 0.7 per cent a year since 2013.

That’s barely moving.

In the year before COVID, productivity in Australia actually went backwards.

I talked on the Long View with Andrew Charlton from AlphaBeta Economics, and Tim Reed from the Business Council of Australia, about why this is happening.

Charlton and Reed both pointed to the lack of dynamism in Australia’s economy.

Too few Australians are starting new businesses, and of those who do, too few become globally competitive.

We have been slow to adopt digital technologies.

We are not getting enough national income from innovation and invention, and our rates of business investment are really concerning.

These problems are reflected, too, in what we sell to the world.

Harvard’s Atlas of Economic Complexity has us at 93rd in the world in economic complexity, behind Senegal and Morocco.

We export too few products, to which we add too little value, which we send to too few countries.

Slow domestic growth, insufficient new entries, a narrow range of exports – it’s not a recipe for economic strength and resilience in a post-COVID world.

It’s not an economy that John Curtin or Bob Hawke would have stood for. 

We’re not short of answers on how to push improvement in existing industries.

We desperately need energy policies which are certain and consistent with our climate future.

Dozens of reports on competition, tax and other reform options line the shelves of MPs. Part of the answer is reigniting that reformist zeal which has gone missing in recent years.

We know we have to fire up new engines for growth – and for Australia, that means innovation, science, technology and manufacturing.

To get there, we’ll need proper national investment in research and development.

We need a more thoughtful, strategic approach to technology.

We need to respect our scientists and the world-leading work they do.

We need to capitalise on the bleedingly obvious opportunities presented by climate action.

And we need to reform our innovation system, bringing our thinking up to date with the revolution that has happened in this area of policy in the last decade.

But to do all of this, we need to unshackle ourselves from a powerful and pervasive idea: that the best thing government can do to help the economy is get out of the way.

That thinking is just not right for the times.

In science, innovation, technology and manufacturing, in every country in the world, government is inevitably, integrally involved.

The Gold Rush, Federation, the post-War Boom and the Reform era show that when new sources of prosperity emerge, the role of government often has to shift and change to support them.

So the first idea is simply that it is time to recognise how powerfully important government is in driving the nature and shape of Australian’s economy.

Normally, Government spending is more than a third of GDP. During COVID, it has surged to 57 per cent.

The idea that government is not shaping the economy already is nonsensical.

Government interventions are everywhere: think of removing support for the car industry, or signing a free trade agreement that preferences one part of the economy over another. Or driving and funding the agenda of the CSIRO and helping determine whether to train young people in metallurgy or biomedical science.

My point is government intervenes in the economy every day. We are just not very strategic about how we do it.

I am not arguing here for bigger government.

I am simply asking that we recognise the economic power of government, and be strategic, creative, active and thoughtful about how we use it.

Creativity means looking at the full set of tools at our disposal.

Government can do more than tax, spend and regulate.

Look at how much reform we have seen in recent months to the Federation that is the result of nothing more than direct conversation.

Look at how unions and business have been brought together, just by government calling them to the table.

One of the core themes that came out of the Long View – whether we were talking about climate, the digital economy, manufacturing, innovation – is that the most powerful thing government can do is to tell a unifying national story – about who we are, where we are going, and how we are going to get there.

This is something that costs nothing at all, but in my view, we have been without it for too long.

Returning work to the centre of the political debate

I’ve spoken about growth, and now I want to turn my attention to the experience of Australians at work.

When our economy lacks dynamism and energy, that gets reflected in the working lives of Australians.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, the economic model we used to share wealth stopped working.

For a long time, policymakers have pushed to grow the economy – grow the pie – and fairly share it primarily through work and wages.

While Australia’s economy has grown over the last decade, wages growth has been so low that the average Australian family has not seen their standard of living improve.

We had a growing economy, yet many Australians weren’t getting better off.

How is it that fixing this problem was not a singular focus of government?

COVID has brought to the surface a lot of the issues faced by Australians at work.

A third of Australians today don’t have sick leave. A million work in the largely unregulated gig economy. In some industries, underpayment of workers is a part of the business model.

If we have a foundation stone for our country that has lasted through every era, it’s that working people should live a good, equal life in Australia.

I wonder what Alfred Deakin or Justice Higgins would have thought if they got a look at the state of work today.

It’s time for us – as a Parliament and a population – to stop and ask why we have allowed work to deteriorate to this point.

And to place the experience of Australians at work in the centre of the policy discussion.

Jeff Borland from Melbourne Uni and Danielle Wood from the Grattan Institute talked to me about these issues on the podcast. And I know one specific issue is the fact that the predominantly female workforces in caring professions are simply not being paid in line with the critically important social value of their work.

The deterioration of work is a choice we are making. These problems can be solved –– if we decide now is the time to do it.

Immigration in the national interest

Immigration has been the special sauce in our national history.

We have never, in post-Colonial Australia, met any national challenge or done anything economically viable without truckloads of it.

Today, for the first time since 1946, more people are leaving Australia than arriving.

If there is any part of Australian public policy which we have a genuine chance to start with a blank piece of paper – it is this one.

So, the third idea I want to talk to you about is how an immigration program might look that was truly designed in the national interest.

Just to note here, my comments today are not in reference to our family reunion or humanitarian programs, or the many New Zealanders who have made a home here in Australia.

One of the most important choices the Australian Government makes on behalf of Australians is who gets to be an Australian.

Think back to Curtin and Chifley. Australia needed to populate or perish. We needed a workforce to help us build the nation up, and to defend it. And the massive boom of immigration following the War helped us do it.

So what kind of immigration program will help Australia flourish in the coming decades?

I’m arguing today that one of the pivotal changes we need to make in the post-COVID world is to fire up engines for growth around manufacturing, science and technology.

Immigration can help us do it.

We want the best engineers from around the world to come to Australia. The best IT experts, the smartest data scientists.

Before COVID, we had a migration program in place where it was quite easy to come to Australia as an unskilled temporary migrant, but very hard to come as a skilled permanent migrant.

The Grattan Institute has reported that since 2005, the number of net skilled permanent migrants coming to Australia each year has stayed roughly the same – at somewhere around 30,000 people.

Yet in that time, the number of temporary unskilled migrants has grown by roughly two-and-a-half-times. In 2005 we had about 400,000 unskilled temporary migrants in Australia.

Just before COVID, that number was about 800,000. When we add skilled temporary migrants, that number rises to just under a million.

This radical transformation to our immigration program happened without a White Paper, without a policy process, and without a national discussion. 

It was and is a profound change. Not just because of these large numbers, but because our approach to immigration has historically, and quite deliberately, been about permanency and citizenship, not temporariness and conditionality.

This is not a dog whistle.

I am arguing here in favour of immigration, strongly. And this is not about race – I’m not making any comment about where migrants come from.

I’m saying that we need to make an economic transformation in our country, and that immigration can help us do it – but it’s not going to happen if we just go back to the way things were before.

Of the most successful technology companies in America today, more than half were started by immigrants.

Highly skilled people can lift the performance of everyone around them.

They could help companies headquartered in Australia become world-class.

And start their own innovative firms that employ hundreds of Australians.

Yet people with these unique skills – if they could ever make it to Australia – would have almost no pathway to stay here.

How is that in our national interest?

We have a genuine, one-off chance here to rebuild this program and attract the best and brightest minds from around the world – and invite them to become Australian.

After all, who wouldn’t want to be living in Australia right now? There is division and disease in almost every other country in the world.

I spoke with Nyadol Nuon and George Megalogenis on the pod about another big opportunity that exists here, too.

Immigration is crucial for Australia, but the public discussion that doesn’t always reflect that.

Immigration will be integral to our recovery – if we get it right.

And it will provide, too, a chance for us to demonstrate beyond doubt how much Australian needs migrants, and the huge and unique contribution they make to our country.

Rebalancing globalisation and sovereignty

Probably the most remarkable by-product of COVID so far is that it stopped in its tracks one of the most inexorable forces of the post-War period: globalisation.

The fourth idea I want to discuss is what this means for Australia.

There is a clear, widespread shift in thinking in Australia and around the world away from globalisation and towards national sovereignty. And it was there well before COVID.

Policy-makers need to come to terms – carefully – with that change.

The reason Doc Evatt engaged so forcefully in the establishment of international institutions was because we are a small, trading nation. Australia’s fortunes depend on peace and prosperity in the world. And that hasn’t changed.

So whatever politicians may argue over the coming years, we must remember this: if we aren’t shaping global institutions, and that means engaging in them, and investing in them, we are facilitating a world order which will be less beneficial to Australians.

But there is also a clear evaluation being made about costs and benefits of globalisation – about whether we have let Australia become too dependent, and less resilient in the face of global turmoil.

This is an important question because even when COVID is over, the world will be less stable in the coming decades than it has been in the past.

So while an interconnected world is in Australia’s interests, we need to be smart.

It means taking a sober look at our capabilities and asking what we might need to be able to do for ourselves, should another crisis hit.

As Greg Sheridan said to me on the pod, ‘just in time global supply chains work perfectly when they’re working perfectly.’ And, as we have seen, sometimes they do not.

Could we make medical equipment if we needed to?

Do we have enough fuel reserves? Can we stand on our own? A few years ago, these questions were the domain of preppers and tin foil hat wearers.

Now, they’re vitally important.

Our goal should be to set ourselves up so that we can engage with a more volatile world confident that we don’t need to fear in the next crisis.

The great distance between Australia and the rest of the world has been called a tyranny, but it may be a great advantage in the decades ahead.

What if we, in the 2020s, set out to make Australia the safest place in the world? What a gift that could be for the next generation.

New politics

If there was a single golden thread running through every conversation I had in The Long View, it was this:

We will never capture the opportunity in front of us unless we see a new kind of politics here in Canberra.

Barrie Cassidy has been covering the Federal Parliament for 50 years. When I spoke to him on The Long View, he said, without hesitation, that he has never seen the culture up on the hill so bad.

Having six Prime Ministers in a decade was enormously damaging to the direction of the country.

But maybe even worse, it created a spectacle that allowed voters to feel that they were an afterthought.

‘They’re all in it for themselves’ – that’s what gets repeated to me on street corners and in coffee shops. With that level of trust, I’m not just not sure Australians will come on the journey I am arguing we need to go on.

Part of the problem is our political culture is addicted to conflict. You see that every day in Question Time.

I have been in Parliament for seven years – I am part of this system. I’m not here presenting myself as some kind of innocent.

But some of us have to say, enough.

Enough with the vitriol and haughty exchanges, with the mock disbelief and fake anger.

Enough with the macho culture, which confuses going hard and refusing to listen and change, with strength.

Strength is not about resisting change. Strength is about being resilient and flexible enough to do it.

Part of the problem is that people have stopped listening to one another. And if I learned anything from the Long View, it was the inherent value in sitting down with people who have different points of view, and just talking.

That type of real conversation requires a balance between conviction and curiosity.

One doesn’t have to agree with a particular point of view to listen to it, to try to really understand it, to see it as fair and reasonable.

The very best thing about 2020 was that Australians have all done things differently to look after each other. Our capacity to change has been our greatest source of resilience. As we forge into the rest of this decade, we need to draw inspiration from this – we have seen Australians at their very best.

We have seen some really good leadership throughout this year in state politics. Whatever you might think of our premiers, it seems obvious that each is doing everything in their power to protect their citizens. And in the lives of our constituents, that counts for a hell of a lot.

Our system is always going to have conflict, because we have different views about things that really matter.

But we should strive to have a kind of politics where people looking on could only conclude that we are working in their best interests. 

That the fight is for them, not with each other.

I don’t want to be partisan today, and I have tried not to be. But I do need to make one point about the current government.

When I look at the last seven years of government in Australia, I cannot pinpoint one enduring idea – not one.

Every six months, the debate is pointed in a new direction, and nothing ever gets resolved. Every ounce of energy feels like it’s being poured into governing for one more day, or week, or one more election cycle.

But what for?

We are not going to get there if this becomes an accepted approach to governing.

None of the issues I have discussed today are new.

 And that came through on so much of the podcast.

Whether we were talking about manufacturing, or globalisation, or trade, or work, we were constantly referencing historical debates which covered the same territory.

What are our sources of prosperity?

What is the role of government?

What is the experience of workers?

Who gets to be Australian?

How do we engage with the world?

For our entire post-Colonial history, we have been setting new points on the compass against these questions.

Finding the right solutions for the right moment.

The worst thing we could do in the face of the challenges I’ve discussed – the absolute worst thing – is nothing at all.

That is what politicians did in Australia in the 1920s.

They thought fresh thinking wasn’t required, because things would go back to normal after World War I.

We wasted a lot of good years waiting for that to happen. It never did.

So, 100 years on, our responsibility is to actively put the recent history of Australian politics behind us and take inspiration from what Australian policymakers have done when they are at their best.

Our best moments have often come at times of crisis and upheaval.

In those moments, we have known not to look back, that our goal is renewal, not repair.

When we look ahead, Australia has real choices, and we can create a new chapter of prosperity for our country, if we choose to do it.

We are powerful, together. And this, right here, is the moment.

ENDS

 

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