Uncertain times lead to uncertain future

Uncertainty is the byword of the times we find ourselves in.

It winds its way through the political rhetoric and Treasury forecasts and wraps tight around the anxious hearts of Australians.

So much has changed and so fast in the past six months that it has become cliche to say so.

Perhaps the only certainty is that nothing will ever be the same.

The shakedowns that economic downturns give society have historically led to big changes as people’s worlds turn upside down.

This corona-recession is different from other modern economic slumps because it’s hurting women and young people most.

A decade ago, the global financial crisis took its toll on middle-aged men in blue-collar jobs such as manufacturing, construction and agriculture.

The fallout has led, among other things, to a rise in populism and nationalism.

That’s manifested in Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and, closer to home, a rise in support for minor parties such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.

“There was that sense of disenchantment amongst the blue-collar workers who would have worked hard, being loyal to their employers and felt let down when the economy goes down and they’re the ones who cop the burden,” RMIT lecturer Dr Leonora Risse told AAP.

That sense of unfairness and missing out on one’s rightful lot in life was ripe for gifted political salesmen preaching “turf out the establishment” messages.

So what will changes will the corona-recession drive?

Younger people tend to be idealists with more left-leaning politics.

They won’t necessarily follow that decade-old path to a more inward-looking, protectionist future.

During the pandemic, they may have been thrown out of jobs but they’ve also seen for themselves the importance of the government’s social safety net.

“It’s not just a theoretical concept any more. It’s something very tangible,” Risse says.

“Their parents have lost their job or they see their grandparents are now being looked after by the public hospital system. It’s really close to home for them as to how in the absence of that government support the people they care about would not be getting through this time.”

In early June, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the next election would be a battle between those who saw government as a “limitless provider” and his party’s view government should be an “enabler”.

But the Australia Institute’s deputy director, Ebony Bennett, says people’s lived experience of the pandemic will shift the goalposts on many of these old political debates.

For instance, she predicts a groundswell of support for child care to remain free permanently, to spend more on aged care and to reduce the insecurity of people’s work situations.

“It’s going to be harder to dismiss the positive outcomes that those debates have and the fact that the public has now seen that they work and that they’re good for the economy,” she tells AAP.

The extent of social and political upheaval over the longer term will likely depend on how well the government helps those who have suffered the most climb out of the economic hole.

Women could be forgiven for thinking the ladder hasn’t been extended all the way down to them yet.

Free childcare was the first emergency support measures removed and early childhood educators – overwhelmingly women and poorly paid – have been cut off JobKeeper months before anyone else.

Small business ombudsman Kate Carnell has joined childcare advocates and social services groups in decrying the way this will make it much harder for women to stay in work.

Other supports have focused on male-dominated sectors such as construction, manufacturing and infrastructure projects.

It’s almost like the government is reaching into an old policy bag and helping those who were hurt in the GFC rather than adjusting for what’s happening right now.

But Risse isn’t sure if that will change the way women respond politically.

“That gives women on the whole greater reason to perhaps feel disenfranchised and disenchanted by the system – but then I think maybe that’s just everyday sexism … that’s unfortunately a persistent feature of policymaking,” she says.

It will fall to leaders to manage the uncertainty and longer-term ramifications of the upheaval.

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