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Drawing board

Coronavirus response a chance to reimagine future for Australia

By Michael Shoebridge

Our national leadership has done two novel things with Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s crossed the federal-state divide by forming a National Cabinet and it’s created a National COVID Commission.

Both are valuable, with parallels to how we approached the challenges of World War Two. Both the National Cabinet and the COVID Commission are focused on managing the current: the epidemic itself and the economic crisis it has created.

But there are further key steps to adopt from our successful forebears to ensure Australia thrives after the pandemic. We don’t yet have the national unity we need. And the necessary enormous focus on the now and the next six months means we have yet to take the steps we must to plan for our future beyond the virus. 

That planning needs to be creative, going beyond an illusory notion of ‘getting back to normal’. Instead we need to have the foresight and judgement to see some major opportunities in keeping and growing some of the behaviours and adaptions our communities, businesses, families and governments are making to cope with this time. We also need to think through how we will operate and thrive in the changed international order and global economy post-pandemic. This is a place we’ve been before, with World War Two and its post war years an insightful example.

As the prime minister has put it, the National Cabinet’s purpose is ‘to make the decisions that are needed to save lives and to save livelihoods’. That’s the right focus now as we all struggle to contain the virus by preventing widespread community transmission.  The Cabinet has considered and announced increasingly tight social distancing measures to slow transmission rates, the latest being restricting outside gatherings to 2 people.

Saving livelihoods is what many of the National Cabinet’s measures are about, with the idea being to ‘build a bridge’ to the time beyond the pandemic. 

So, what can we learn from the World War Two era...

So, what can we learn from the World War Two era to help us now?  On the National Cabinet, there’s the lesson of unity demonstrated by Menzies in the early years of that war.

Similarly to now, just two weeks into the war, Menzies announced a War Cabinet.  Then, just over a year later, he added an Advisory War Council, which brought Curtin, the then opposition leader, and three other Labor members into the consultative process running Australia’s war effort.  After Curtin became prime minister in late 1941, the Advisory War Council’s decisions became automatic War Cabinet decisions, increasing the Council’s power.

Menzies’ foresight creating the Council relatively early in the national crisis stabilised the highest levels of politics.  That was crucial to Australia’s performance economically and militarily during that global war. 

That lesson of unity at the highest national level applies now.  It’s a fine thing to have our elected  executive leaders working closely in the National Cabinet, but we’re missing the crucial element of participation in this body by the federal opposition leader and key shadow ministers.

Some of our brightest political minds, representing a sizeable constituency of Australians, are not yet used effectively during this national health, economic and social crisis. Instead, they are left either being criticised for not supporting all aspects of a body they don’t participate in—or for having nothing to add if they do support it.

It took Menzies a year to see the value of unity at the federal level.  Having the benefit of his lesson, perhaps we can learn faster today.

Parts of the economic packages may have come from the prime minister’s National COVID Commission he announced on 25 March.  We can expect the Commission’s work to shape more measures in coming days, weeks and months.

The prime minister has told us the National COVID Commission’s purpose is to solve problems, by ensuring the Government receives the most comprehensive advice to meet the challenges ahead, to ‘cushion the economic impact of the coronavirus and help build a bridge to recovery’. It’s led by Neville Power, former head of Fortescue Metals Group, joined by Greg Combet, Jane Halton, Paul Little, Catherine Tanna and David Thodey.  Secretaries Gaetjens and Pezzullo are along too.

The prime minister says that’s about ‘ensuring we get food to supermarkets and we ensure the supply lines remain open there and the trucks can roll out when they need to roll out and we have enough of them to do that job at all the right times.’  That job needs doing—and the Australians the prime minister has assembled seem to be people suited to this task.

But the lesson from our World War Two experience here is deeper and different to that. 

It’s about a conceptual realisation that the new war prime minister, John Curtin, had in late 1942, three years from the war’s end.

Curtin knew the abiding focus of the War Council was on strategy, armaments production, transport, and application of all aspects of the economy to win the war. In the midst of managing the military conflict along with the massive economic and social reordering it brought, he understood that there was also an imperative to think through and plan for life beyond the crisis.  So, Curtin took two critical steps. 

Firstly, he appointed his treasurer Mr Chifley as Minister for Post War Reconstruction, knowing that finance would be the basis of reconstruction.  Then, he appointed Nugget Coombs to head up a new Commonwealth agency, the Department of Post War Reconstruction.  The small team Coombs’ led has names that contributed much to Australia from the war years into the 1970s, notably Coombs and Arthur Tange.

As our National Archives describes it, the department’s role was ‘to plan for Australia's transition from a war to peacetime economy’. This meant looking at the economy as a whole and the Service personnel being demobilised. The idea was ‘avoid the depression conditions that occurred after World War I’. To do this, the ‘department had to collaborate with other Commonwealth departments, state governments, and local and semi-governmental authorities’ planning for post-war Australia.

The thing relevant to now is to have the time and space to look beyond the pandemic what Australia will need to prosper post-crisis.  That’s quite different to the current machinery under the National Cabinet, including the Commission, which is focused on supporting public health and the economy during the crisis itself.

The new department achieved its impact with a tiny staff—for the first year, it had only 22 staff, the oldest being 37-year-old Coombs. And the plans this small group of Australians made set us up well for a period of post-war prosperity.  It gave us university education for our returning soldiers, re-established industries and sectors disabled by the war, and conducted research and planning from rural and regional issues to land settlement and post-war economic policy.

Four aspects of this approach are worth applying now: one: insulate the team from the immediate day-to-day crisis management to give them time and space to think and plan for the future, but connect them with expertise across government and the private sector.  Two: keep the department small.  Three: staff it with the best and brightest minds available.  And four: make it part of the actual machinery of government, not just an advisory group, temporary taskforce or Commission.

This work needs to be planned while we are in the midst of the crisis, and implemented well beyond it—Coombs’ department operated until 1950, by which time its work was done.

The agenda of such a department now is not about getting Australia back to normal after the pandemic.  It’s about re-imagining what Australia can be and how we can thrive and prosper in our future beyond the coronavirus and in light of drought, bushfires and climate change.  Think about the kind of new economy we can have after the forced, rapid adoption of dispersed home working and schooling through digital means.  We can be the leading digital economy the prime minister desired before the pandemic, not by 2030 but much earlier. 

Think also of the counterintuitive closeness we are building with our communities, families, friends and work colleagues while practicing ‘social distancing’.  Then there’s how we are recreating our national ability to make things we need, when we need them. Lastly, there’s working out how Australia will operate its economy and its regional, security and economic partnerships in the changed strategic landscape that will emerge post-pandemic.

All this will be vital for our nation’s future. It’ll also help us influence the post-pandemic version of globalisation.  The tasks ahead are much more creative than just building the bridge back to what we were before the crisis, or taking business out of hibernation.  They’re tasks that cannot be done by those in the midst of fighting either this terrible disease or the immediate deep economic harm it causes.

Between Menzies and Curtin, we have some fine examples to learn from.  Put as simply as possible, we need unity and we need to think and plan now for our future beyond getting back to normal. 

That means keeping the current focus on saving lives and livelihoods and adding a third – making our future bright. Doing so will make Australia safer now and make us a more cohesive, imaginative and prosperous society in our near future.

Originally published by: The Canberra Times on 07 Apr 2020