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Now is the time to plan for post-pandemic recovery

Opinion

Australia needs to start planning now for our post-coronavirus recovery, just as a previous generation took on the huge task of post-war reconstruction, argues Senator Rex Patrick.

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The Federal Government has done a lot on the economic side to “build a bridge” for our businesses and workers, as Scott Morrison puts it.

We already have hundreds of thousands of people out of work and we will have hundreds of thousands of more jobs gone in the weeks and months to come.

The Prime Minister says his bridge will get people to what he calls “the other side”. But what if “the other side” is a cratered ruin?

Many businesses will simply not re-open – that’s the reality of what we are facing.

We need to have a nation-wide recovery and building program ready to roll out.

Bushfire recovery and other post-disaster recovery operations for floods and cyclones in recent years aren’t remotely of the scale of what will be required.

So even though there are many immediate and daunting problems to deal with today, tomorrow and next week, the Australian Government needs to be getting post-pandemic recovery planning underway.

It’s worth remembering that while World War II ended in August 1945, the Australian Government’s post-war planning began more than three years earlier.

Prime Minister John Curtin, Treasurer Ben Chifley and Attorney-General Bert Evatt recognised that they had to start planning post-war reconstruction long before the war came to an end.

Evatt wrote an essay at the time in which he asked: “Are we to plan for peace as we have planned for victory in war? … Do we as a people take our future boldly into our hands and shape it with the tools we have fashioned in the furnace of war … To plan or not to plan – that is the question.”

The wartime government’s answer was an unequivocal yes.

The Federal Department of Post War Reconstruction was established in December 1942 – at a time when US and Australian forces were still in the early stages of pushing back Japanese forces in the Pacific. That Department helped create jobs for tens of thousands of returned servicemen after the war and was instrumental in advancing great national projects such as the Snowy Hydro scheme.

We are still in the early stages of a great health battle – nothing less than the medical equivalent of a major war. However, we have to be planning for the other side of the coronavirus crisis now.

It is highly likely we will have at least an additional million people out of work, and perhaps many more than that: no one is quite sure right now. But it’s pretty much guaranteed that not all the businesses that had employed those people will return.

We need to have a huge recovery and nation-building plan ready to roll out.

That plan will need to lay out how we return people into useful employment until many small to medium businesses get back on their feet, and new businesses emerge.

That plan will need to be mindful of the lessons learned from the coronavirus crisis: the risks of deep global interconnectedness, and the consequent need to drop our free market obsessions in place of policies that ensure greater national self-reliance moving forward.

To take one micro-example, Ferretti International in Whyalla has examined the feasibility of constructing transmission towers for the SA-NSW inter-connector using Whyalla Steel. In doing so, they would boost the order books of an Australian steelworks and create 150 new jobs. That would cause a revitalisation of some of the smaller businesses in and around the town.

In the mindset of many politicians and bureaucrats, that work could very easily go to China-based strictly on price consideration – that cannot even be a choice now.

This week Prime Minister Morrison announced the creation of a small COVID-19 Coordination Commission to advise the government on actions to anticipate and mitigate the economic and social effects of the coronavirus pandemic.  That’s a modest step forward but much more ambition and commitment is required to meet the challenges of reconstruction.

Similar to 1942, when Australia established a Department of Post-War Reconstruction, in 2020 we need to start working to establish something like a Department of Post-Pandemic Planning and Reconstruction.

We have a huge nation-building task ahead of us, and we can’t start work on that too soon if we are to manage the transition from this health crisis to a prosperous future.

Rex Patrick is a Centre Alliance Senator for South Australia.

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