Don’t think of what we used to have – think of what we could have

The Morrison government wants us to recover our past, but that’s the last thing we need.

Remember when you last dined out with friends? Or went to a musical event or a play or watched live sport or caught a flight somewhere?

That past may be only months old, yet it seems impossibly distant, and though we know those times weren’t perfect, they seem so. Stuck at home, we’re prime candidates for nostalgia, which is what government and business are now relying on as they try to get people back into the streets.

Listen to the language of the reopen movement. It’s all about going back to old times: recovering, returning, bouncing back, snapping back, U-shaped and V-shaped curves. All the talk implies that we will one day be living the life we were, that the past is recoverable.

But it isn’t. Economists – and our common sense – tell us there’s a fair chance those U or V shapes will be more like an L, with the horizontal bit extending who knows how long into the future.

Consider this scenario: recovery in some sectors like hospitality and entertainment offset by others slipping into recession, like construction. Demand suppressed by prolonged travel and immigration restrictions, government spending cuts and lower unemployment benefits from September.

These difficult months make the old normal seem appealing, but how good was it, really? Drought, fire, struggling economy, no sense of national purpose. Now, gathering wits and resources to plan an economic recovery, the government is trying to convince us that the old days are worth retrieving.

That was the message from Nev Power, former chief executive of Fortescue Metals, who Prime Minister Scott Morrison has put in charge of the National COVID Coordination Commission (NCCC). He thinks business can be up and running again as soon as restrictions are eased.

On being appointed, Power told the ABC’s The Business that so far as energy was concerned his key focus would be on keeping costs “competitive” for manufacturing. He skirted around questions about supporting renewable energy, saying any energy was acceptable so long as it was cheap.

His focus on costs is no surprise. It may resonate with most members of his NCCC team, whose representation heavily favours business (including minerals and energy). But it sends a bad message out to the world: that we’re not serious about suppressing carbon emissions.

We’re in powerful company. In US political circles, mired in deep division fed by a shockingly inept federal pandemic response, climate change is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Far from addressing rising carbon emissions, Donald Trump is relaxing US pollution standards.

In Europe it’s a different story. Facing another long, hot summer, EU finance ministers are now discussing a “Green Deal” as the basis of their effort to strengthen the post-pandemic European economy while also decarbonising and increasing resilience.

They are considering government-led investment to increase the market share of renewables, mainly wind and solar, and to continue building storage capacity, retrofitting old buildings to improve energy efficiency, and developing a Europe-wide circular (waste-free) economy.

All this comes after governments responded to the pandemic by enforcing economy-crippling laws to get their people through the crisis. Just as we did in Australia, federally and in each state and territory.

Pandemic figures tell the story. Countries whose governments intervened swiftly, limiting travel and enforcing social distancing and home confinement, have contained rates of infection and death. Those which didn’t – the US, Brazil and Russia come to mind – are still-developing horror stories.

Tasmania’s Gutwein government has been among the strongest responders to the COVID-19 crisis. Its intervention came at huge financial cost, but no-one could reasonably argue against it. Last week it released an ambitious, technology-heavy energy plan which energy minister Guy Barnett says will help Tasmania recover from the pandemic.

The plan is capital-intensive and contains untested ideas and glaring omissions (like ignoring our dependence on imported oil for virtually all transport energy). But at least it’s treating the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to focus on climate policy. It is a pointer to how the Morrison government can build carbon-free energy into its own recovery plan.

We should be setting our sights forward, not back. The federal government has earned credit for its rapid response to the pandemic, in which it elected to follow scientific advice and act decisively. Now it needs to apply the same common sense to the biggest issue of our age, global warming.

Its job now is to acknowledge the climate challenge, reject the notion that our long-term energy mix is simply a matter for the market determine, and start building an economy for the long-term future.

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