Australia’s response to the coronavirus threat reveals that we have lost our fundamental values. While our nation is faced with what is arguably the most significant peacetime threat since the great depression, it is worth reflecting on how we came together to overcome that tremendous obstacle.
As supermarkets witness brawls over toiletries, the Morrison government has unveiled a $189 billion stimulus package in an effort to keep our ailing economy ticking over. The government has also taken a stand to discourage panic buying and ensure that enough supplies are left on the shelves for the most vulnerable members of our community.
That such advice is even necessary is an indictment on our current lack of social cohesion. Hoarding demonstrates a lack of trust, not only in supply chains, but in your fellow Australians. Thanks in part to the transformative power of globalisation and various demand-side manipulations of what capitalism once was, we no longer see ourselves of members of a community with reciprocal obligations, but merely as atomised consumers hell-bent on acquiring goods beyond their immediate utility.
This stands in stark contrast to the spirit of self-sacrifice with which we met head-on the great depression. Australia entered the stock market crash of 1929 in a position of special risk. Our economy was reliant on loans from British banks, our workplace laws were rigid and job-destroying, and we relied on agricultural exports which were subject to frail international markets.
In desperation, radical politicians like Jack Lang called for the country to repudiate our debts and prioritise our own immediate interests above all else. Instead, the middle class insisted that repaying debts was a matter of personal pride and put their own savings into a campaign to convert a government loan and salvage our credit rating. In the conservative populism that characterised the ‘All for Australia Leagues’ economic considerations were largely secondary, what mattered was the moral imperative of Australia maintaining its dignity.
Nevertheless, the economic ramifications would be huge. The mild-mannered former-Tasmanian Premier Joseph Lyons quit the Labor Party for even toying with the idea of ‘credit creation’. Embodying the national mood, he would lead the United Australia Party to a decisive election victory in 1931 and follow through with a policy of cutting spending and prioritising paying down our bills.
The result was that despite our acute vulnerability Australia recovered from the great depression faster than the United States with F.D.R.’s ‘New Deal’. Financial confidence was gradually restored because the people had upheld the sanctity of contracts and that a moral understanding of obligation would underpin every transaction.
Ninety years later, Australia enters this newest crisis in an equivalent position of special risk. We are still reliant on international markets like that for education, our industrial relations system is still an inefficient mess, and all of this is compounded by electricity prices that have devastated manufacturing with all the ferocity of a wall street crash. Government debt is perhaps not as bad as it could have been, but artificially low interest rates have destroyed the incentive to save and seen individuals max out their credit.
Rather than the people bailing out a government loan, we have the government trying to bail out the people through cash handouts. The rationale is that personal responsibility or pride matter less than consumer confidence, but it is difficult to have long term confidence in a system that deliberately eschews the idea of being held accountable for an obligation you have entered into.
Now is the time to take stock and consider what we can do to rebuild ties of community. This last summer we saw the tragedy of the bushfires politicised and exploited in a manner that would have mortified the ghosts of Australians past. This is because they upheld old-fashioned concepts like shame, itself an expression of personal responsibility.
The solution is not to repudiate capitalism or even foreign trade, both of which are fundamental to the prosperity that has long defined the lucky country. But what we need to understand is that these things only work when they operate in a moral framework where people are held accountable for their actions.
It is this accountability which makes community possible, because everyone knows that the rest will uphold their end of the bargain.