anti-protest laws
(Image: Unsplash/Clem Onojeghuo)

For all the profound — and welcome — changes on the part of government in responding to the crisis, it might be wise to resist the temptation to declare that the world has changed forever.

The overall response of the federal government — Home Affairs’ tragic Ruby Princess blunder aside — has been by and large very effective, and embraced exactly the kind of big-spending fiscal intervention that it had long attacked Labor for.

Council of Australian Governments (COAG) has gone from a pointless talkfest to an effective crisis management mechanism. Labor (unlike the Coalition in 2009) has refused to block legislation for stimulus packages. Australians have generally accepted the rationale of shutting down the economy so that lives — mainly those of older Australians — are saved.

All that, and the “all in this together” rhetoric from governments has some people suggesting a new, very different era of government and public life is upon us, that “nothing will ever be the same”, we have a contagion of compassion. A new world beckons, it seems.

But it’s always useful to be sceptical of arguments for discontinuity. Engrained patterns of behaviour, long-term social and economic forces, and self-interest have a staying power that defies change.

Take the debate over when to ease lockdown restrictions. It’s been business, some economists and sections of the right-wing media that have called for immediate easing of restrictions to support the economy.

One Financial Review journalist, citing his 68-year-old father, suggested older Australians would be happy to die in order to support the livelihoods of their kids.

At The Australian, one writer suggested we were overreacting to a rather trivial illness and we had a much greater chance of dying in a car accident (if The Australian thinks we’re overreacting to the virus, wait til it learns about the trillions of dollars spent on terrorism that have made the problem worse).

The Financial Review, which yesterday used the pandemic to call for a user-pays health system and cuts to wages and conditions of health professionals because “public health spending is no panacea” (geddit?), wants “a rising but manageable curve” of illness and death so that the economy can re-open, because “seeking to eradicate the virus” is impossible.

But that’s no more extreme than the febrile reaction from many on the left, especially on social media, who see any suggestion of easing of restrictions as the elevation of corporate profits above human life, or public health experts, who insist the population must be kept confined as long as possible regardless of economic consequences.

You don’t have to be particularly “extreme” to incur the wrath of the left.

Nine’s Chris Uhlmann was the victim of a remarkable pile-on on social media yesterday for writing a nuanced exploration of the issue of easing restrictions, that concluded with the idea that — as the threat of the virus recedes — we might leave it up to older people to decide for themselves how much social isolation they want to maintain versus quality of life and interaction with family and friends.

For that crime, Uhlmann was widely demonised as some sort of “ghoul” ready to put older Australians to the sword, along with the inevitable cries of “OK boomer”.

Torch-wielding Twitter mobs too stupid to read beyond the headlines, or the intellectual laziness of the woke left, or the venality and self-serving op-eds of the business press, are of course nothing new. That’s the point. There’s no discontinuity there. Tribalism and self-interest will bravely drive through the pandemic and emerge, a little bloodied but certainly unbowed, in the post-virus world.

That’s why News Corp continues its relentless assault on Labor, the ABC and, at the behest of Scott Morrison, the Berejiklian government.

That’s why the enemies of industry superannuation have renewed their attack on it.

That’s why rugby league, Australia’s most tone-deaf and mismanaged major sport, has deemed itself above lockdown laws and unilaterally declared it is restarting its season to earn some desperately needed cash.

That’s why interest groups are emerging day after day to demand help (today: baby boomer investors demanding that even though the economy has been halted to protect them, they still want banks to pay dividends, no matter how reckless that would be).

And, as they say in the classics, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

A post-virus world comes with a $250 billion price tag and years of even more sluggish economic growth than we had before hand.

Who pays for it? In the pre-virus world, that question would be answered by whoever had the deepest pockets to donate to political parties, run marketing campaigns and influence the media.

That’s why wealthy seniors and their fund managers have been able to stymie action to curb superannuation tax concessions, franking credits and other tax lurks for so long. That’s why many large corporations, despite some improvements in tax collection by the Abbott and Turnbull governments and the Australian Taxation Office, still get away with paying little or no tax.

Post-virus, the contest to avoid the burden of paying the hibernation bill will be on in earnest, and the same rules will apply as before: whoever wields the most influence will pay the least tax. It will be bitter and have little to do with fairness, but everything to do with power.

Right now, we’d all love to return to business-as-usual from the pre-virus world. Once it returns, we might remember the “all in it together” myth making of these months more fondly.plus ça change

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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