Amid the health, economic and financial crises brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, our greatest test is to conduct ourselves as a robust democracy and to demonstrate that we are a fair society, writes John Warhurst. Source: Eureka Street.
Neither test will be easy to pass, but we must aim to emerge at the other end as a better society.
Already some aspects of the language surrounding the government actions to address the pandemic are not encouraging. Let’s drop any more references to Team Australia and allegedly un-Australian behaviour.
But the most problematic language surrounds the allusions to war that are frequently used by many of our political leaders and some of our economists and health experts. The attraction of this language is obvious, because warlike imagery plays up the desired notions of a huge task, a threatening enemy and a unified effort to combat it. It conjures up the reality of a life or death situation in which the very existence of our nation is put at risk.
But all these things can be said without using warlike imagery and such imagery brings dangers with it. Just like the so-called war on terror, wars can threaten civil liberties, centralise power and intimidate opposition. Sacrifices for the cause are called for, without too much emphasis on equality of sacrifice.
The cultural test during the pandemic is how we best manage to balance having a clear and unified national strategy with being open to robust democratic expression, which is more necessary than ever. Both at the political level and within the community there will be pressure against asking reasonable questions and calling out inadequate and confusing government responses.
The pandemic will also test our commitment as a nation to a fair go for all. That is always the case during national crises. During the GFC, for instance, the welfare community had to fight hard to be included on an equal basis in the various stimulus packages.
The danger is that the big end of town gets greater support than the vulnerable, on the grounds that support will trickle down into the community. That assumption must be questioned whenever economic stimulus/survival packages are designed.
John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. He is a PC 2020 delegate from the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn.
We need a robust democracy now more than ever (Eureka Street)