Stop the econo-babble, start listening

Politics-as-usual is no longer an option.

A couple of weeks ago, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg let it slip that his effort to keep Australia’s battered economy afloat has been inspired two icons of 1980s conservative politics, Ronald Reagan in the White House and Margaret Thatcher at No. 10.

For those too young to remember, Reagan and Thatcher profoundly reshaped their national economies. By 1990 both the US and Britain had completely abandoned the old highly taxed and regulated economic model and entered a new era of floating currencies, freewheeling global markets and a rising concentration of big money.

Bob Hawke and his treasurer Paul Keating brought in similar reforms in Australia about the same time, except they took the trouble to consult the labour movement and mitigate impacts for the less well-off. Ignoring that home-grown example, Frydenberg described the Reagan-Thatcher reforms as “supply-side”, avoiding the more disparaging term “trickle-down”.

A growing rich-poor imbalance in every country where trickle-down economics predominates is clear and painful evidence that any trickle of benefit from corporate gains vanishes long before reaching the bottom of the income pyramid.

Among the many benefits of deregulated economies cited by employers and politicians over the years is a “flexible job market”. Business leaders like the idea of hiring, deploying, redeploying and terminating workers with minimal financial impact.

Flexible staffing of health and emergency services should have some benefits, such as ensuring people are where they’re most needed, but the pandemic has laid bare some severe flaws in the model. Working with contagion demands levels of knowledge, training and expertise that can only come out of workforce stability and continuity.

The Victorian outbreak opens a window on how a flexible employment arrangement works – or doesn’t – in aged care. In a sector which has difficulty attracting suitable staff, private nursing home operators around Australia have sought to do more with less by moving staff between campuses and skimping on professional nursing supervision.

Such cost-saving regimes are tailor-made for spreading infection. Active cases reported from the 10 per cent of Victorian beds managed by the state government, with mandated ratios of staff to patients, have been about 0.6 per cent of the total. Cases from the private homes with their lower carer and nurse complement make up the rest – over 99 per cent of the total.

This would not have surprised those who for years pushed for the royal commission into the quality and safety of our aged care services, which got under way late in 2018. Its interim report from October last year – months before the virus arrived here – flags many of the shortcomings which the pandemic has made all too apparent.

Chronically low staff numbers are the nub of the problem, exacerbated by a dearth of nurses and other health professionals – problems that quickly become obvious to those in care and their families. The sector simply can’t attract and retain enough suitable staff.

But that’s just a start. A 2018 taskforce warned Canberra of a desperate need in the industry for new career pathways and a qualification and skills framework. That’s additional to the Productivity Commission’s projection that by 2050 Australia will need at least double today’s aged care workforce.

Announcing spending to improve infection-control skills and boost staff numbers in vulnerable care homes early in the pandemic, aged care minister Richard Colbeck declared that “we are already ahead of the curve with practical guidelines and protocols to assist with containing outbreaks while ensuring those who contract the disease have access to the best treatment.”

Pure spin, but after a generation of supply-side economics that has pared down public support for aged care – as it has done to public spending throughout the economy – spin is all that’s left. All those sermons about endless growth fuelled by low labour costs, just-in-time supply chains and business unencumbered by taxation and red tape are now revealed for what they are: delusion.

This goes far beyond aged care, into every sector of the economy. President Clinton’s mantra that “it’s the economy, stupid” has been taken to mean that nothing else matters. When we should have been listening to the many signals coming from the real world – COVID-19 is just one of them – all we could hear was the endless econo-babble around growth and deregulation.

We will not escape the consequences of the pandemic – not to mention a growing climate catastrophe – until our masters learn to cease the chatter, put an ear to the ground and listen hard. For people who have made a career out of spin, that is proving the toughest assignment of all.

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