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It’s no secret that a conga line of rent-seekers is currently making its way to Canberra, using the pandemic as cover for pushing conservative agendas.

Various groups such as the IPA and BCA are trying hard to make sure that the Coalition doesn’t resile from its neoliberal agenda and start behaving like socialists.  

But it’s not just the conservatives taking this opportunity to lobby governments. The progressive groups are also doing it, capitalising on the public’s newly-founded enthusiasm for bigger government.

Their job is a much harder one, however. Firstly, it’s much easier to tell a government minister what he or she wants to hear. Also, progressive initiatives usually involve spending money — something Morrison will be reluctant to do once the initial phase of the crisis is over.

On top of this, many of the policies sound like motherhood statements, such as “more money for carers”. If you are going to grab the attention of the treasurer in a pandemic, you need to come up with something new.  

The sector with some early wins, however, is planning and urban design. Shutting down city offices and sending people home to work has exposed just how much unnecessary space is taken up by cars.

On most footpaths, it’s almost impossible to keep 1.5m away from someone coming towards you unless one of you steps onto the road. Widening footpaths would fix that and encourage more people to walk around. 

Last week NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes announced grants for local councils to widen footpaths, close roads, create new cycle paths and make greater use of public outdoor space. 

Planning experts are now calling for apartment blocks to be designed with wider hallways and staircases and more natural ventilation airflow. Cities also need to become touch-free, with “beg-buttons” turned off and more automatic doors. 

Progressive think tank Per Capita is thinking big. It has published “an open letter to our political leaders”. The Melbourne-based group says that this crisis presents an opportunity to “reset our economy to be more sustainable and equitable, and to pay down [debts incurred] without causing further damage to Australians through austerity measures”.

Although some groups were calling for cuts to government spending on essential services and an increase in the GST, this would be a mistake, the group says. “Cutting spending will jeopardise the recovery and lead us down a low demand, high unemployment, low growth route.”

Although recent government spending has been called a stimulus, it should more accurately be described as welfare spending for the economy. “The stimulus we need is still to come,” the letter says.

Many groups, including the federal opposition, have been calling for the government to reverse its decision to reduce the JobSeeker allowance down to the pre-pandemic level after the September deadline. Most people on the JobSeeker payment are paid around $550 a week, which is around double the previous rate of only $39 a day. 

The Australian Council of Social Service CEO Cassandra Goldie has said that “beyond the current crisis, we must ensure that our social security system provides the support that people need to get by, including single parents, people with disability, carers and those struggling with the cost of rent. Now more than ever, we are seeing why we need to have a decent social safety net in place at all times.”

In a paper released last month, Canberra-based think tank The Australia Institute has called for a careful evaluation of future spending, saying that conventional stimulus measures simply don’t apply. 

“While the current economic downturn may resemble the beginning of previous recessions, because the cause of the downturn is so different, government responses must be structured quite differently than any previous downturn,” it says. 

The papers says traditional approaches to “stimulus” cannot succeed in boosting output in tourism, retail, food and entertainment as the changes these industries have seen are a direct result of government health policies designed to ensure social distancing.

“The government’s approach of a ‘temporary and targeted’ stimulus needs to evolve quickly into an approach that is ‘structural and sustained’,” it says.

One of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic-related shutdown has been the international education sector, worth about $39 billion a year and currently Australia’s fourth largest export. Key lobby group for the sector, Universities Australia, estimates the sector will experience a revenue decline of $3 billion to $4.6 billion in 2020.

UA chair Deborah Terry welcomed the recent announcement of an $18 billion funding guarantee as a “first step” but warned that there will be a tough road ahead. “We estimate 21,000 jobs at Australian universities will go within the next six months,” she said.

“Individual universities are already cutting costs across the board through very substantial reductions in operational spending, deferral of vital capital works, and reductions in senior staff salaries.” However, she notes, this would be nowhere near enough to balance the loss of tuition fees. 

A comprehensive plan for building a stronger Australia after COVID-19 has been produced by Sydney-based think tank, the Centre for Policy Development. It includes making efforts to understand the country’s vulnerability to systemic risk, aligning growth with a low-carbon future, revaluing the care sector, encouraging businesses to back long-term value creation and working differently. 

CEO Travers McLeod said that “COVID-19 has exposed fault lines and frontiers for Australia’s future. We should roll up our sleeves and start paving a new path — actions will speak louder than words”.

Although it feels like it took place in a previous lifetime, the last federal election was in fact only a year ago this month. This means that Morrison and Frydenberg have about two years — or, in Australian terms, about three prime ministers — to get their acts together and get us through this particular crisis and the economic aftermath. 

Will they be taking the advice of the various lobby groups and think tanks which have been lining up to dispense their wisdom? Well, that depends.

If you need any guidance on whose voices are prioritised in Canberra, you really only need to read one document; the list of political donations as disclosed to the Australian Electoral Commission.

Who gets ushered to the top of the queue in the corridors of power? It’s not hard to work it out. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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