Short-termism risks being the unflattering policy legacy left by COVID-19, and we are seeing its symptoms every single day. It doesn’t matter what party is in power, or which leader is fronting the microphone. This is enveloping decision-making across politics, borders and issues.
And the long-term consequences for a post-COVID world economy could be devastating.
Borders opened and closed. Definitions of “essential personnel” made and then changed. Properties split by boundary lines. A complex and unclear vaccine message. Herd immunity 70%. No, 80%. No, 70%. Leaky hotel quarantine. (But we can’t seem to build quarantine quarters elsewhere that might fix that.)
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The changing sands of policy is not reflective of an agility brought on by a pandemic. It looks much more like butt-saving short-term political pronouncements to stave off today’s crisis, without any real thought to tomorrow, and next week, and next year, and next decade.
Of course, decisions around curfews and local government areas and restrictions need to be flexible, but the response to this growing crisis needs to envelop more than a daily tally. Take the impact on mental health services. Self-harm and suicide attempts in school-aged children is rising. Adults are grappling with unemployment and lost businesses. Families are separated by political policies and states. Face-timing an anxious child at boarding school or university for months on end needs to be addressed.
What are we materially doing then, in policy terms, to improve the resources and access to those wanting help?
Teenagers are now waiting more than a year for psychology sessions. The policy response is to increase the government rebate to allow an individual more sessions. But the number of psychologists remains the same so the queue just gets longer.
Look at our childcare centres where some toddlers now believe human faces come masked. Workers are seeing a mass loss of socialising skills among this group, as well as a growing lack of self-confidence and increased shyness. What’s the impact of that in years to come, and what might we do about it?
Governments used to have big, bold policy ideas to advance the nation. We might not have supported individual programs, but their aim was to work beyond tomorrow. Gough Whitlam’s reform agenda changed the fabric of our nation: the extension of publicly funded health care; the first environmental legislation; the birth of the Australia Council; building the National Gallery; abolition of university fees and a 25% jump in higher education participation; the supporting mother’s benefit.
Policies such as no-fault divorce and public housing aren’t dreamed up to fit a Twitter feed before a morning press conference. Nor was privatisation or the response to Mabo or compulsory superannuation, or even — more recently — the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
But government now appears to have vacated the space of long-term policymaking, as evidenced by a host of areas such as climate change and the space race. Bold planning, it seems, is old-fashioned and too risky.
It’s not just Labor. Consider the bold move of John Howard in ridding our communities of guns. Can you imagine any government now having the guts to do that, to take on its own party and strategically change the narrative?
Those attributes — guts, strategy, long-term thinking — seem to be missing from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s tool kit. And it’s no different at a state level, whether you’re listening to the Liberal Gladys Berejiklian in New South Wales or Labor’s Annastacia Palaszczuk in Queensland.
It’s government before lunch, with no real assessment or commitment to what might follow. But on any prognosis, it will prompt indigestion well into the future.