Business Council Jennifer Westacott
Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott.

Do you have an opinion about what the government should do after the pandemic? If so, stand in line. Every think tank, lobby group and rent-seeker in the country is currently in Canberra, following Winston Churchill’s supposed advice to “never waste a good crisis”.

Their general idea on the right side of politics? Post COVID-19, the government needs to cut red tape. Property approvals should be fast-tracked. Welfare benefits must return to their previous levels to avoid budget blowouts.

The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) thinks that “the government must focus on transitioning as many Australians out of taxpayer-funded wages and employment as soon as possible”. But, to quote Mandy Rice-Davies, they would say that, wouldn’t they? 

“The government must cut red and green tape, reduce taxes, and simplify and liberalise Australia’s industrial relations system,” the IPA states. 

The Business Council of Australia (BCA) thinks that the “workplace relations system must be simpler and our enterprise bargaining system must work better for employers and employees”. It’s a statement the BCA has been making for years. 

Of course, it’s a good time to lobby governments. A devastating crisis is a great opportunity to effect change.

After the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to push through the New Deal, which greatly expanded welfare programs, enacted constraints on the banking industry and stimulated the economy. 

After the sharemarket crash of 1987, many countries implemented financial regulations that focussed on monitoring and mitigating risk. 

In NSW, changes are already afoot. While the public’s gaze has been focussed elsewhere, the state government has fast-tracked 24 projects through the Planning System Acceleration Program.

The property developers’ lobby group Urban Taskforce was delighted, with CEO Tom Forrest saying there was “clearly significant pent-up frustration” among developers with what they perceived as a slowdown in the planning system over the past two years. “The COVID-19 induced slowdown is an opportunity to push through some important economy-saving reforms,” he said.

In recent days conservative darling Lynton Crosby warned the federal government that the crisis had “made people more accepting of huge government spending and unprecedented interventions in the economy, leaving business vulnerable to new regulations and tax rises to repay the record debt”.

It’s bad enough being lectured by property developers — now even election strategists are doing it. Who’s next, dog groomers? 

Crosby, who advised John Howard and UK PM David Cameron, said research by his polling and strategy firm, CT Group, revealed the massive expansion of government had strong public support and people were trusting government again. (In Crosby-world, that’s a bad thing). 

This kind of lobbying and influence-peddling is the inevitable result of the fact that politics is, in the words of writer George Monbiot, “public relations for particular interests”. The interests come first and politics is the means by which they are justified and promoted, he says. 

According to author Naomi Klein, governments love to exploit national crises by ramming through questionable policies while its citizens are distracted.

In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, the Rise of Disaster Capitalism she writes that after Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of New Orleans in 2005, the Republican Study Committee quickly came up with 32 policies. These included suspending the obligation for federal contractors to pay a living wage (making the entire affected area a free-enterprise zone); and repealing or waiving “restrictive environmental regulations … that hamper rebuilding”.

In other words, she writes, it was a war on the kind of “red tape” designed to keep communities safe from harm.

Academic Dominic Kelly, the author of Political Troglodytes and Economic Lunatics; The Hard Right in Australia, thinks that Australia has experienced this kind of opportunism too. He notes there was a public furore after the publication of the “Little Children are Sacred” report in 2007, which detailed deprivation and child abuse in Indigenous communities. PM Howard then used this to fast-track the Northern Territory Intervention, Kelly says.

We all have a right to be wary about unelected people and groups which are unaccountable to the Australian public. But what about the ones hiding in plain sight?  

In his excellent essay on Hillsong in this month’s edition of The Monthly, writer Lech Blaine quotes Kevin Rudd on the controversial Pentecostal mega-church. Hillsong has made a strategic decision to assert influence from within the federal Coalition rather than crusade from the sidelines, the former PM says. 

Rudd, a practising Christian, says that the “far-right flanks of the Liberal and National parties have found a constituency of ‘God’s army’ to stack branches for preselection battles versus moderates and to staff election-day polling booths against Labor and the Greens,” Blaine writes. 

Meanwhile, back in Canberra, federal parliament has virtually shut down since the beginning of the pandemic, abandoning six scheduled sitting weeks between March and August. PM Morrison has discussed the possibility of bringing parliament back before August, but no date has yet been set. 

In NSW, all local council elections have been delayed a year due to the virus and Victoria is contemplating following suit. NSW state MPs will sit for just one day to pass rental relief measures and are then not scheduled to sit again until September — although NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has flagged possible changes, subject to advice from the Department of Health.  

And while we are in lockdown, who knows what any of the governments are doing and what sort of promises are being made? At least the electors of Eden-Monaro know that good things are coming their way.  

Tomorrow: what the left wants our post COVID world to look like…

Peter Fray

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