Two Australias

This article is a part of the Thesis Eleven online project: Living and Thinking Crisis

by Tim Soutphommasane and Marc Stears (Sydney)

Even as Victoria endures its second lockdown, people from all over the world still think that Australia has been one of the better places to be during the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus hasn’t swept through the country with the same devastation as it has elsewhere. For the most part, the Australian government’s response has been effective in suppressing the numbers of infection since the virus was detected here in March 2020.

And effective not just in the realm of public health. Early on, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quick to declare there was a twin crisis: a health one and an economic one. His government introduced one of the world’s largest stimulus packages to cushion the economic shock of Australian society locking down. There was no way, of course, that any government could prevent the Australian economy – untouched by a downturn for three decades – heading into recession. But government intervention has prevented the unemployment rate, at least at the time of writing, from jumping into double figures.

Even to critics, Scott Morrison’s leadership in steering the nation through the coronavirus crisis so far has been a welcome contrast to the dysfunctional political leadership seen in places such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Brazil. Many other political leaders of the right have been captive to a dangerous form of nationalist populism, and indifferent to scientific expertise, but the Australian Prime Minister has not. At times, the National Cabinet has also been a model of bipartisan decision-making, much admired in other countries with federal systems, including the United States.

There are, however, signs that we are now seeing a more worrying new phase of conservative ideological ascendency in Australia. 

It is there, for example, in the return of ‘Fortress Australia’. Politics is being defined in terms of borders and security, arguably the natural terrain for conservatives. It was no accident that, when the federal Parliament sat for the first time after the pandemic hit, the Prime Minister spoke of the government’s response as being about ‘defending and protecting Australia’s national sovereignty’, as though COVID-19 were an enemy combatant in war. At the time of writing, Australia’s borders remain closed indefinitely to nearly everyone not a citizen or permanent resident and it is becoming harder for them to return as well.

Even within the nation itself, borders have been closed between several states, with many fearful of fellow Australians importing COVID-19 from interstate. Following a resurgence of the virus in Victoria in July, various media reports in New South Wales and Queensland referred to incursions from ‘Mexicans’ from the south, and even to the ‘Melbourne virus’. Such rhetoric reinforces a popular racialised undercurrent about COVID-19 being a ‘Chinese virus’ (as Donald Trump and many others have called it). It augurs a definitive shift from an open, globalised Australia to a more closed Australia: one fearful of outsiders at large, and which sees immigration and foreigners as threats to national sovereignty.

In the spirit of not wasting a crisis, some conservatives have also used the pandemic to prosecute the so-called culture wars. While the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis in May 2020 focused attention in many countries on institutional racism, it didn’t take long for anti-racism protests here to be dismissed as leftist excesses. Morrison criticised protests against Aboriginal deaths in custody for ‘importing’ the issue of institutional racism into domestic political debate. He has said that anti-racism protests have been ‘taken over’ by ‘politically driven leftwing agendas’. News Corporation newspapers have dutifully sought to blame rising coronavirus infections on Black Lives Matter protests – despite the lack of any substantial evidence, and the obvious time lag between the early June protests and the July COVID-19 surge.

And then there has been the Morrison government’s stance towards universities. The government changed the rules to its $130+ billion JobKeeper wage subsidy three times, in order to ensure no university could claim it. While most industries have received assistance packages, the university sector has been left to face a deeply uncertain future. Smashed by the collapse international student revenue due to coronavirus travel restrictions, universities have already begun to lay off staff – and they will no doubt continue doing so unless there is government rescue. Not that any sympathy is forthcoming. Many members of the government harbour suspicions of ‘tenured radicals’ stalking the corridors of academe. Conservatives have come to think of universities as incubators of so-called political correctness, and universities have done a poor job in recent years of countering these claims and deepening their support in broader society.

This challenge to academia has been made apparent by the government’s overhaul of university funding in June, including a radical change in student fees. While fees for subjects in health, teaching, agriculture and science will be reduced, fees for subjects in the arts, humanities and social sciences will more than double. According to the government, the aim is to reorient students towards the STEM disciplines. Paradoxically, though, the changes are likely to result in providing universities an incentive to enroll more students in the arts, humanities and social sciences as that is where the greater funding gains will come. Still, the government’s intention is clear enough: the crisis offers an opportunity to remake universities and strike a blow in the perennial culture wars.

More generally, the cumulative effect of the pandemic – the lockdowns and the policy responses – has had a troublingly corrosive effect on democratic practices. There has been the continual expansion of executive power. Almost uniquely in the democratic world, the Australian federal Parliament hasn’t met with its usual frequency. While many workplaces in the country have resorted to conducting their business through Zoom and online calls, and other Parliaments around the world have followed suit, our legislators have only belatedly (as of 24 August) availed themselves of sitting remotely with the benefit of technology. Physical distancing and public health concerns have also made public gatherings difficult. As the debates about Black Lives Matter demonstrate, public demonstrations or protests are being treated – at least by some authorities – as presumptively seditious.

There is in all this a danger that the political culture is transforming into what political scientist Mark Evans has described as an ‘allegiant’ culture. This is a political culture characterised by an emphasis on order and security, deference to authority, limited democratic protest and compliance with institutions. It stands in opposition to an ‘assertive’ culture, which is characterised by civic participation, direct action and skepticism of authority. We are seeing, you might say, a consolidation of a nation of ‘quiet Australians’. Before and after last year’s election victory, Morrison spoke approvingly of these compliant compatriots: hard-working people in the suburbs who neither campaign in the streets nor follow the political news every day, and are happy for politics to happen without them.

Burnt by its defeat in the last federal election, and by the potential impact of the virus at state-level, Labor has rarely openly challenged this framing. The most prominent Labor figure during the pandemic has been the Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews. Initially, boosted by his state’s successful fight against the virus and by his prominent position in the National Cabinet, Andrews has more recently been significantly damaged by the failures of Victoria’s hotel quarantine program and by an apparent unwillingness to accept blame as the state falls back into lockdown. Other Labor Premiers have fared better. But collectively they have been unable to set a new agenda for the country at large, and the national leadership of federal opposition leader Anthony Albanese has yet to catch fire. Instead, the federal Australian Labor Party (ALP) has tacked close to the government on most of the major issues, with criticism tending to be targeted around the edges rather than at the core strategy.

This timidity stands in sharp contrast to the positions of even moderate or centre left oppositions in other democratic countries. There is far more boldness currently being displayed by Joe Biden’s demand to “build back better” in the United States, for example, than in anything the ALP has currently outlined. As American intellectuals like Harvard’s Danielle Allen have insisted, the COVID-19 crisis has revealed just how reliant even the freest of free market economies are on healthcare, childcare, elderly care and education. It has also shown the vital need for strong and independent public institutions, including public broadcasters, universities and national scientific research bodies. Why isn’t Labor asserting more proudly the importance of these and emphasising the party’s long tradition of protecting them in times of need? Whatever the electoral situation, the time is surely ripe for a mission of nation-building.

There is still time for someone to propose such a mission. As the resurgence of the virus in Victoria has shown us, the pandemic still has a long way to play out; its economic and social consequences will stretch longer still. But this is nonetheless the time to make choices, and Australia faces two potential futures right now. In one, the response to the virus stays focused on closed national borders, enhanced cultural isolation and a further shift to deregulated labour markets and privatisation. The alternative future begins if we take the chance to reimagine how we care for each other from our early to our twilight years, how we stay open to the world and how we rebuild the public realm. It is still possible, but the time to start shaping it is now.


Tim Soutphommasane is Professor of Practice (Sociology and Political Theory), and Director, Culture Strategy at the University of Sydney. He was, from 2013 to 2018, Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner. He is the author of five books, most recently On Hate (Melbourne University Publishing, 2019). Email: Twitter: @timsout

Marc Stears is Director of the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney. He was previously CEO of the New Economics Foundation, chief speechwriter to the UK Labour Party and Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford. His new book Out of the Ordinary: How Everyday Life Once Inspired a Nation and How It Can Again is published by Harvard University Press at the end of this year. Email: Twitter: @mds49

Feature image: Dorrit Black, Over the Mountains, (1949)

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