Covid-19 shows need to accelerate national policymaking for future challenges
8 Sep 2020|

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that Australia needs to link long-term planning with emergency and operational coordination.

Our future prosperity depends on governments thinking in terms of rolling and concurrent crises, ensuring solutions solve multiple challenges, valuing independent expert advice, and bringing the public interest front and centre.

But currently no entity has responsibility for developing holistic national solutions. And we don’t seem to be thinking about how our governments’ handling of the Covid-19 crisis—and the structures they’ve used to cut across agencies—might be useful beyond the pandemic. Our pre-Covid approach didn’t serve us that well, and returning to it won’t help us in the future.

It’s time for a broad debate about what new policymaking structures and approaches are needed to address our changed national priorities as we emerge from the pandemic. Otherwise, we risk trying to rebuild Australia by getting back to business as usual, assuming we can plug back into the world economy that we knew.

But the global economic system has changed and will change more. Strategic competition between the US and China means we have to understand more about our vulnerabilities and who we can and can’t rely on. It’s increasingly clear that our planning must go well beyond the short term.

ASPI’s John Coyne and Peter Jennings have argued that ‘Australia needs to be ready to deal with the crisis after the crisis’. Sadly, the continuation of stage 4 restrictions in Melbourne and state border closures are a sobering reminder that ‘after the crisis’ may be a long way off. But we shouldn’t be waiting for the current challenges to subside before planning for Australia’s future challenges.

Shaking off our collective Covid exhaustion to address, in parallel, our new national priorities will be hard, but we must find that resolve.

And the downside of the pandemic response measures is that they commit future generations to an even more unaffordable Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced that the ‘National COVID-19 Coordination Commission is moving into a new mode, shifting its focus to concentrate on creating jobs and stimulating our economy as we learn to live with this pandemic.’ That provides some future focus, but is it broad enough? Job creation is important but we need to go further.

As well as getting people back to work, our industry policies need to respond to an uncertain future, and ensure that our science and technology base is positioned to drive national innovation.

Externally, Australia needs to support the resilience of political systems in our region and build national consensus on our international relationships.

Work on many of these themes is either neglected or incomplete.

The government’s 2020 defence strategic update addresses Australia’s sovereignty, including grey-zone statecraft and countering rising strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific. We also need to boost our capability to respond to grey-zone challenges which are impacting governments, industries and communities.

But what of our wider non-defence interests that are just as important in securing national resilience? For example, how do we build our manufacturing base while at the same time supporting the openness of the global trading system? How can we improve our supply resilience to carry us through future crises? And how can we strengthen our democracy and social cohesion with policies and programs that drive ‘peace, stability and prosperity’?

The policies we develop to meet these challenges will have to be implemented quickly and must have an impact which is sustainable. Anticipating challenges by linking long-term planning with operational coordination by leveraging the Covid-19 collaboration mechanisms will be crucial. But, most importantly, we need to build policy frameworks that can deal with multiple, concurrent challenges.

Recent additions to the national crisis response landscape such as the national cabinet are important but their focus is specifically on Covid-19.

While Emergency Management Australia is the focal point for disaster response and resilience in Australia, the broader system is not addressing longer term challenges. In a statement to the royal commission into national natural disaster arrangements, the secretary of the Department of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, noted, ‘There is a strong case for greater centralisation of decision-making in relation to preparedness, response, resilience and recovery from all-hazards.’ The proposal to ‘bolt’ Emergency Management Australia and the National Coordination Mechanism together is expected to improve the national response. But centralisation by itself is unlikely to resolve the problem.

The objective should be to ensure diverse institutional perspectives are brought to the table. It’s no surprise that the best results in the pandemic response have come from coordinated federal and state decision-making.

Policies to address concurrent crises could include a public communication system for health emergencies that would be useful for bushfire and other environmental hazards as well. This kind of policy thinking is an example of a creative approach that addresses multiple systemic challenges, while at the same time engaging courageously with uncertainty.

As Coyne and Jennings noted:

This pandemic has created a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our nation to critically review and reset many of our policy assumptions. Perhaps 2020 will mark the beginning of a new period of nation-building for Australia that rivals our heady post-war years, but such success will come only from big thinking and bold policymaking.

Now is the time for big thinking and bold policymaking.