Scott Morrison wants this to be his Team Australia moment, a country brought together in its fight against COVID-19.
And in some ways, Australians have been all in this together. We’ve managed to turn down our infection curve in a way that’s surprised even top medical advisers.
But despite the positive collective response, there’s plenty of division still lingering. In politics, sport and business, uncertainty over how we move on from here has created some big rifts.
Unions vs state governments
On one hand, the pandemic has brought unions to the policy-making table, unusual given the Coalition’s traditional approach to them.
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At the same time, teachers’ unions are in revolt against state and federal governments over the question of school closures.
The NSW Teachers’ Federation has savaged the state government’s plan to stagger the return of students to schools, with president Angelo Gavrielatos calling it an “incomprehensible” organisational challenge.
In Queensland and South Australia, teachers’ unions have raised serious concerns about the safety of opening up schools and are urging parents to keep students home. In Queensland’s case there are threats to suspend operations.
Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy continues to advise that keeping schools open is safe, as children and teenagers appear to be at lower risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. But there is still a great deal of anger among parents and teachers over keeping schools open.
Universities go it alone
The higher education sector, hit with particular ferocity by the pandemic, found itself on the receiving end of an $18 billion government rescue package.
But the size and adequacy of the package has Labor out of its shell. Education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said the plan was a “fraud” which did little to alleviate the huge damage to one of Australia’s largest exports.
With some institutions facing collapse, Plibersek urged the government to provide low-cost loans and funding guarantees for universities.
Meanwhile, international students — now out of work, ineligible for relief under the JobKeeper package and unable to get home — are turning to state governments for help after being abandoned by Canberra. Queensland and South Australia have both recently unveiled relief packages.
Sport in meltdown
Without live sport we’re forced to settle for off-field drama. The NRL continues to surge in that department.
This week, CEO Todd Greenberg abruptly stepped down, with ambitious Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys widely reported to have pushed him out.
Yesterday, the league said it now had government medical approval to restart on May 28, even as sporting competitions across the world remain shut. But the players are less confident — Rugby League Players Association CEO Clint Newton said they needed more clarity about health and safety before committing to a return.
In other sports, relationships with the bosses have become strained. Cricket Australia, in dire financial straights, has stood down 80% of its staff with no guarantee of return. Staff are being urged to turn to Woolworths for work.
The A-league also remains in a parlous state. Players are frustrated over the league’s silence about the future of the game’s broadcast deal with Fox Sports. Seven of the league’s 11 clubs have stood down players with no resumption date. with a precarious financial future, who knows when they’ll return.
Landlords vs tenants
COVID-19 has been expected to change the relationship between landlords and tenants.
The national cabinet recently put together a model code for commercial tenancies, which emphasises both parties working together in good faith to get through the crisis.
But today The Sydney Morning Herald reported that some landlords are threatening action against commercial tenants who shut their doors to protect workers from the pandemic.
Vicinity Centres, one of the country’s largest shopping-centre landlords, told some of its tenants that shutting up shop constituted a material breach of their agreement. Whether it will take action is unclear as the federal government’s code is pushed through state parliaments.
The episode has put the increasingly tense relationship between commercial landlords and small businesses in the spotlight. Peter Strong, CEO of the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia, called the threats “disgraceful” and said big landlords were using the crisis to expand their power.
“Our biggest fear is the big landlords will use this opportunity to bankrupt business after business,” Strong said. “While everyone is busting their gut, most of the biggest landlords just don’t think they’re part of Australia.”
The great neoliberal snapback?
The Morrison government’s brief flirtation with democratic socialism was never really going to last.
Last week, the Morrison government indicated it would pursue a pro-business agenda driven by company tax cuts and industrial relations reform. Confusingly, the government’s COVID-19 Coordination Commission chair Nev Power yesterday said the country needed broad reform to encourage targeted investment rather than company tax cuts.
In NSW, Transport Minister Andrew Constance has flagged privatisation as part of the government’s “silver bullet” to restart the economy. The pandemic, however, may have fundamentally changed people’s expectations of how interventionist they like their governments.
A quick neoliberal snapback may not go down so well.