The COVID-19 crisis, like the bushfire crisis before it, has confronted us with just how dependent we truly are on each other. Every day, we are being asked to look out for each other. We’re following the health experts’ advice, washing hands, physically distancing and helping those most at risk. As a country, we’re looking after many who have lost their jobs by finally fixing our social security safety net.
The JobSeeker payment and JobKeeper are helping people put food on the table and keep the lights on. Our public health system and frontline community services, which are addressing such issues as food relief and homelessness, are full of extraordinary ordinary people working hard to keep us all healthy by looking after each other. Our success at this feels good.
We can be proud of what we’re doing, together. Public goodwill is getting us through and we must stay the course while recognising that people on lower incomes and in high-risk groups, with too many still missing out on any support, still need us to do better.
At the same time, we must together urgently chart the course for economic and community recovery, learning from the past, but with the ideas of the future. In doing so, we should build on the powerful collaborations that have led to a dramatic increase in trust, and avoid retreat into divisive old debates that will again tear us apart.
Let's start from first principles: job-rich growth, a focus on people most at risk, community liveability and resilience. If we agree on smart criteria — targeting cash support to people most in need; targeting infrastructure to projects that generate decent jobs more quickly; targeting disadvantaged regions most responsive to investment — we can build confidence that we’re on the right course.
We must all work together to stimulate the economy for the public good. The payoff will be that we can finally tackle our greatest challenges including climate change, poverty and inequality, homelessness, declining productivity and the gaps in care for the most vulnerable in our community. We can, for example, create thousands of jobs and end homelessness through a public infrastructure program to build social housing. At a time when we have been legally required to stay home, we cannot ignore the startling fact that Australia needs more than 400,000 affordable homes for people who are homeless or living on the lowest incomes.
Direct public investment in social housing is estimated to boost GDP by $1.30 for every dollar invested (KPMG Social Housing Initiative Review, 2012). It’s a cost-effective way to boost growth in jobs and incomes, as groups ranging from the Masters Builders Association to Homelessness Australia agree.
We can create even more jobs, cut energy bills and tackle climate change by installing solar and improving energy efficiency in homes of people on low incomes who could otherwise not afford such an upgrade. Investment in energy efficiency and solar power would quickly create thousands of jobs in training, auditing, installation, manufacturing and retail. Again, there is already broad agreement across business, environment and community groups that energy efficiency is key to delivering strong economic, social and environmental outcomes.
We must refuse to tolerate years of long-term unemployment ahead. Let’s turn our backs on the old politics of welfare policy and promise everyone without paid work that we will have their back. We can commit to train and support people with dignity and respect — investing in skills and training that actually lead into real jobs, not the “work for the dole” approach that takes people nowhere.
We can never go back to the brutality of people trying to survive on Newstart’s $40 a day (unemployment payment) or the harsh treatment — gaslighting — of people locked out of paid work. Now more than ever, we’ve seen how important it is for our safety net to work. A permanent increase to the JobSeeker payment has broad support on social and economic grounds across sectors and the political spectrum — for very good reason.
While no one is immune to this crisis, the reality is that some are suffering greater impacts than others. Services for vulnerable people — including mental health, aged care, disability, domestic violence survivors, and homelessness — are always essential, but especially so in a crisis.
After the global financial crisis, governments cut away at public and community social services supports — in every budget, in every year. We were weaker and poorer as a community as a result. Tragedies and subsequent Royal Commissions unfolded. This must not be our future. Let’s seize the power of collaboration — governments, community, business and unions — with public support. We’ve shown how inspiring it can be to succeed, confronting the terrible reality of COVID-19 and pulling together for a brighter future for all. Let's stay on that course.