The coronavirus crisis has pushed our health and economic system to the brink. Now more than ever, it’s up to all of us to make sure no one is left behind as we fight to protect lives and make our country more equal.
By Adam Bandt
We are living through a critical moment in our country’s history and the history of the world. The COVID-19 pandemic is pushing our health system to the brink as lives are threatened around the globe. Our economy is being turned upside down and we are at risk of supercharging the enormous structural inequalities and economic problems that we are already living with.
Now more than ever, it’s up to all of us to make sure that no one is left behind as we fight to protect lives and make our country more equal.
Strengthening our health system
If we are to pull through and protect and save as many lives as possible, it will be in large part thanks to our public health system, because we listened to experts and scientists, and because we put human life ahead of a budget surplus.
But our world-class public health system is telling us they may soon be overwhelmed by the coronavirus. Nowhere is this clearer than the state of our intensive care beds.
The Deputy Chief Medical Officer has flagged that Australia is facing up to 150,000 possible deaths in the worst case scenario. We’ve been campaigning hard in the Parliament and in the community to see an increase in the number of intensive care beds and personal-protective equipment, to ensure we protect as many lives as possible.
We didn’t get here by accident. In the midst of this challenge we cannot forget that over the past seven years this government has slashed funding not just for social services, but also to the very health system we are not relying on to keep people alive. In 2014, when this government delivered their first budget, they cut $56 billion from public hospitals.
This government has a lot of work to do to make sure we have a public health system that will protect lives. We’ll keep up the pressure to make sure we’re as ready as possible to tackle this crisis.
No one left behind
The Greens have a crucial role to play in tackling what is not only a health crisis, but an economic one too.
I’m so proud of the work of our team over recent weeks to support our community and to hold the government to account.
While it’s near impossible to find any good news these days, we have been able to secure some really important wins.
Late in Parliament on Monday night, the government backed down under the face of questioning from the Greens and made TAFE and university students eligible for the additional coronavirus support payment. Alongside the community, we’ve also been able to see the stimulus package extended to the not-for-profit sector and unemployment benefits lifted.
All of these important victories have reminded me why it’s so crucial we have Greens in Parliament. The changes to support for students alone will see an extra 250,000 people eligible to access an additional $550 a fortnight.
This might be the difference that allows people to get by over the next few months of uncertainty.
What we’ve seen over the last couple of days, with thousands lining up to access government support payments and the Centrelink website buckling under pressure, was reminiscent of the Great Depression. It’s time to see a Great Depression-like response, with jobs and wages guarantees for workers.
Instead, the government is serving up a trickle down stimulus, with billions in support handed over to corporations and the big banks without requiring any jobs and wages guarantees in return. As a result, unemployment is already skyrocketing and there’s no guarantee the stimulus money will go to the people who need it.
We’ll keep fighting to make sure that no one is left behind in this crisis. We’re deeply committed to keep fighting to make sure that the government fills the gaps that remain in their stimulus package. We want to see additional support payments extended to those receiving the disability support pension and carers allowance.
Trust in government
As this crisis has unfolded, one of the key things that has stood out to me is that so many Australians have lost faith in the government and in our institutions. They don’t trust the Prime Minister to look after their health system or make sure they can keep a roof over their head.
But right now, we need to be able to trust our leaders and our institutions, because lives depend on it. We are blessed to still have so many scientists and experts who will speak out fearlessly in the public interest, on the basis of facts and evidence. And we are lucky that some leaders will listen to them.
But it is at moments like this that we start to see the cost of politicians who have eroded trust for their own narrow purposes. Every time science is described as a hoax, or a lump of coal is waved in Parliament, or a minister forges a document, or our public services are attacked and privatised, or a budget surplus is prioritised over looking after each other, cynical politicians eat away at the very foundation of trust that is needed to get us through crises like this.
As a result, our collective anxiety is turned up. And it is not helped by mixed messaging about whether you can shake hands or go to the football. And although there has been some abhorrent behaviour, like the stockpiling of essentials that leaves too many behind, many people are doing their best to work out what they should do, sifting through inconsistent and late messages from political leaders. The Prime Minister has no right to criticise people who are trying to do their best to decipher inconsistent and unclear messages, and who are often out ahead of the government.
People understand that we are facing a health crisis the likes of which they have never lived through, and so many people are rising to face the crisis upon us. I want to particularly thank the incredible service of our allied health workers at the forefront of this crisis. I want to thank teachers and childcare workers who are looking after our kids.
I want to thank the thousands of supermarket workers who are keeping our shelves stocked and looking out for the most vulnerable. These supermarket workers have faced years of attacks on their penalty rates. Now they are at the frontline of the fight.
I also thank everyday people across the country who are doing their bit to ‘flatten the curve’ and are going above and beyond what the government is asking. Last weekend, I attended my first ever kids birthday party via conference call. I’ve heard stories of people leafleting their neighbours offering support, organising deliveries of care packages. It is truly heartening to see so much care and compassion.
How we respond to this crisis will determine the sort of country we will be into the future. Will we put health outcomes ahead of budget surpluses? Who will we bail out? The public or the profiteers?
This could be the time when we’re using public bonds to build a more equal and resilient society. This is our chance to protect lives and fight the coronavirus by tackling inequality, rather than entrenching it.
What we’ve seen in recent weeks is reminiscent of the Great Depression. The original New Deal was a government led program in the United States that supported people, created jobs where they were needed and encouraged businesses to help the government pull the country out of the crisis of the Great Depression. It was a spectacular success and led to what is now seen as a golden age of equality, with the lowest ever rates of wealth disparity.
When I first became leader of the Australian Greens, I talked about how we need a Green New Deal to solve the three challenges of a jobs crisis, economic inequality and the climate emergency. A program of government action and investment.
The reality of the coronavirus crisis only reinforces the need for such action. Now we need it more than ever.
Because the kind of shortages we are seeing now and the distress people are living through and the threats to life we are witnessing will be exacerbated if we don’t get the other crises under control. This time of restriction and anxiety will get worse unless we fight the climate crisis too.
I don’t want my kids to have to live through this kind of fear and threat to life, but unless we respond to this terrible threat by getting all the terrible threats under control, that’s what will happen.
One thing is becoming clear. In a crisis, we rightly say ‘whatever it takes’. If we can say it now about the coronavirus crisis, we can say it about the climate crisis and the inequality crisis so that our children don’t have to spend every day of their lives living with the kind of anxiety we are all feeling now.
That is why we need not just a ‘New Deal’ Depression-era response, as the PM was indicating, but a Green New Deal to tackle the coronavirus crisis right now but also the other crises hammering our life and public health.
So what we’re campaigning for right now is simple: implement a Green New Deal. Help people, not just corporations. Fund public services, create jobs that society needs that a market will never provide. Invest in the infrastructure we will need to avoid the rolling series of crises that we are on track for that will dwarf the tragic impact of coronavirus.
This is our chance to put ourselves on a path to a more equal, more caring future, where we invest in our country and create jobs that help tackle the problems we face.