Wednesday, 28 October 2020
COVID-19, National Integrity Commission
COVID-19 has been a stress test for nations all around the world. The pandemic has pushed governments, institutions, peoples and societies to absorb, respond and adapt to challenges and hardships that have been unknown in the modern era. The loss of life has been staggering. This year, COVID-19 will have killed well over one million people, more than the death toll from malaria, more than the death toll from HIV-AIDS and more than the death toll from suicide. In the United States, the death toll alone has eclipsed that of World War I, 9/11 and the Vietnam War combined. The economic shock has been equally profound, of a magnitude similar to the Great Depression. We've had businesses destroyed, jobs lost, whole industries have closed and the number of people dependent on welfare has soared. All of this has put a profound strain upon societies—anxiety over health, fear for loved ones, stress from lost income, the mental toll of social isolation and uncertainty about the future.
Australia has experienced our share of all of this, but on the whole our country and our institutions have held up remarkably well. Governments have performed competently, balancing a confusing array of conflicting objectives to steer us safely through these uncharted waters. Our public health systems have proven robust. Our public health experts have shown themselves to be some of the world's best. Essential services have continued. Social safety nets were developed and deployed at rapid speed to cushion the economic blow, supporting household incomes and preserving jobs. Business did the right thing by workers, keeping staff on, supporting flexible practices and finding creative new ways to pivot. Rather than fraying, social solidarity and cohesion have grown through this crisis. How often have we heard the phrase, 'We are all in this together'?
The metrics bear this out. There are currently 19 active cases of COVID-19 in hospital in Australia, with none of them in intensive care. In the past week in Australia, we've had around 130 new cases. In this same week Canada has had 18,000 new cases, the United Kingdom has had 150,000 new cases and the United States has had 480,000 new cases. The death rate in Canada has been seven times higher than in Australia. In the United States and the United Kingdom it's been 19 times higher. The Australian economy, whilst it's taken a significant hit, is nonetheless in a much better position than nearly any other OECD economy, with the downturn less and the prospects for recovery greater. If COVID-19 is a stress test for nations, we have passed—and all Australians deserve credit for these achievements. They reflect well on us as a people and they reflect well on our institutions.
Sometimes you'd think from the public commentary and news reporting there is a crisis of governance in Australia. On a panel on the ABC's Q+A on Monday night, it seemed to pass for received wisdom that our system was broken and needed fixing. In parliament I hear this refrain week in and week out. It's been particularly pronounced this week, with a debate over a national or Commonwealth integrity commission. I think a carefully designed federal integrity commission would help improve the quality of governance, sitting alongside some dozen other institutions and processes which scrutinise government and hold it to account. But some of those making the case for this are guilty of gross overstatement and populist rhetoric. Let's keep things in perspective. The failings that exist are bugs, defects that need correcting. Let's not mistake them for features that are characteristic of our system of government. A healthy level of distrust towards the political system is always warranted, but despair and dramatic solutions are not. Why does the tone of this debate matter? It matters, to my mind, because, if we denigrate our political system too readily, if we are too quick to write it off and prescribe drastic medicine where none is warranted and to cry wolf, we risk doing it great damage.
This is exactly what's been happening around the world where populism has taken root. Around the world we've seen seemingly healthy democracies veer into authoritarianism. How has this happened? The charismatic populist potentiates and then weaponises a healthy public scepticism into something much more malign: a conviction that the entire system is broken or corrupted and needs a wholesale cleanout. Political competitors soon become enemies, rivals are labelled traitors, institutions become politicised, social divisions deepen, distrust grows, governance suffers and everyone's worse off. Australia has been mercifully immune to such polarisation and hyperpartisanship, but we cannot afford to take this for granted. Let's fix what needs fixing. Let's address problems that must be addressed. But let's not despair over or seek to delegitimise our system of government in doing so. Let's have a Commonwealth integrity commission, but let's be careful about how we make the case for it and let's be patient and deliberative in how we go about it.