workers coronavirus covid 19 economy tradies
(Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Last week former Labor premier of Victoria Steve Bracks — one-time Daryl Somers body double, now perpetually in waistcoat with pince-nez, looking like he’s out of a BBC adaptation of a Trollope novel — announced that Labor should further distance itself from the trade union movement and regard unions as “just another pressure group”.

That wasn’t his worst idea — which was briefly backing a wacko Melbourne-Sydney very fast train proposal — but it runs a close second.

A week later and ACTU secretary Sally McManus has announced that it has gone into direct talks with the Morrison government about what is being (erroneously) called Accord II — the COVID-19 negotiation — cutting federal Labor out of the deal altogether.

This will remind Labor grandees on the right who agree with Bracks that cutting ties cuts both ways is at least one context in which these new negotiations must be seen: a shot across the bows of the Chalmers-Marles etc right, who would very much like to remove the last vestiges of labour from Labor and run it more like the US Democratic Party — to emulate its great centrist successes.

Well have at it. But it would be a pity if the opportunity to genuinely reconstruct Australian working life created by COVID-19 was allowed to slip away. The ACTU is talking about job security and getting coronavirus leave through — a good idea, but a merest starting point to the process we need to undergo.

Capital and the right believe that post-pandemic the gasping hamster-wheel spendathon economy will simply return, and that if it’s a bit sluggish it can be made to do so by pulling the JobSeeker, JobKeeper, Jobbies-whatever rug from under peoples’ feet.

Well, never say never, but that seems extremely unlikely. Western economies have been running on absurd levels of highly individualised semi-luxury spending by a section of the population for some time.

That economy has been chasing a diminishing rate of spending expansion for some time, which in part accounts for phenomenon such as hospo wage theft (the undoubted greed of some proprietors is not sufficient to explain the industry-wide occurrence of the problem), and the rise of god-help-us 21st-century hire-purchase payment systems such as Afterpay (because the credit card system is getting tapped out at an individual level).

There was a collapse of sorts starting to happen before COVID-19 hit — the sudden falling over of the half-dozen donut store franchises around, for example, which are to Western economies what steel is to China — and there seems no chance that its diminution will create a bounce.

Recessions and depressions never create their own bounce-back. Something like a war, or a Keynsian spending extravaganza, or a combination of new technology and wage rises is necessary for that, and none of those look likely. Especially a Keynsian oomph.

As the Modern Monetary Theory progenitor, Australia’s Bill Mitchell, has noted, the discovery of a $60 billion shortfall in Jobbies’ spending was neither an accounting error nor a good thing.

It was simply a sign that the state stimulus wasn’t big enough to do the job it needed to do in conventional maintenance-growth economic terms.

As he also noted, Labor’s refusal via Jim Chalmers to attack the shortfall on those grounds rather than as a political blooper shows it has committed to de facto austerity-lite economic policies.

The proposition coming from both sides — that we shall simply resume as we were — is going to create an economy further riven by inequality and distortion that will not only create vast unnecessary misery but will not achieve the spending hikes people want.

Casuals, disability benefit recipients and many non-citizens are living in penury. Food insecurity and persistent hunger has increased, a shameful and shocking occurrence in Australia (although far from previously unknown, especially among Indigenous communities).

At the same time savings are rising as people with jobs and JobKeeper find they have less to spend it on and realise with shock just how much they were spending on eating out, entertainment, etc.

It’s more than possible that COVID-19 will have created a cultural change in the high-consumption culture that has been engineered to support spectacular capitalism in the past decade or so.

If that’s so, then attempting a return to existing social-economic relations will simply freeze inequality and lowered demand in place. And it will be the wrong sort of lowered demand, one denying many people essentials and good work.

Capital wants this because individual firms want it, and industry leaders are stupid and bamboozled by ideology. The unions and labour are not stupid, but they’re being unimaginative and cowardly.

What we need coming out of this is not a restoration of the full-time/part-time/casual split but a turn to the 30-hour week as the standard unit of work, with privately paid wages adjusted downwards pro-rata and the gap then made up with government payments and/or tax credits.

This supplement could be tapered off over years as the economy transitions to a different sort of modern one, not measured solely by the fiction of traditionally assessed “growth”, or could form part of a universal part-UBI.

In the short term, employment and industry could be revived by the creation and sale of COVID bonds, as Western economies issued war bonds to sop up the extra, unspent money arising from full employment from war production.

COVID bonds would direct money to infrastructure and social service projects, rather than having it simply diverted back to $25 cocktails. That would cause a crunch in hospo, which would need to be covered by a maintained and expanded JobSeeker, but would eventually transition to an economy whose resources are better directed.

This is an opportunity for Labor and labour to propose that. I wonder if they will or whether they’ll stay on the Bracks-Chalmers (and possibly) -McManus fast train to a new lost opportunity?