Peter Strong: Crisis communication is essential in fostering trust, and the Victorian government has fallen short


COSBOA chief executive Peter Strong. Source: supplied.

When there are many people affected by change, by a disaster, or by a national crisis, then communications and consultations must step up to the next level.

In a crisis, people need to know who to turn to, who to trust, who to support. Some will trust their favourites, but many will be suspicious of everybody and everything.

It has been documented in many studies that in a crisis, people are afraid and that fear will turn to distrust very quickly if communications are poor.

When people are afraid, some will start to believe rumours and listen to conspiracy theories and extremists.

History shows that from the fear, the conspiracies and the aggressive behaviour of extremists will potentially come disobedience, civil unrest, and violence.

In the late-1990s I was involved in various countries as a consultant to the World Bank managing micro and macro economic change. Big changes. This included the countries of the old Soviet Union and also Turkey.

In the old USSR, there were millions of people left jobless by the change from a command economy to a market economy. In Turkey, the government needed to privatise a whole range of state-owned enterprises to counter rampant inflation and bring the economy into line with the European economy.

A key to managing this situation was two-way communications and comprehensive consultations, combined with the empowerment of local business communities and of the displaced workers to have a greater say in their own futures.

Australia is in the same position in many ways as those countries were in the 1990s.

What we needed at the start of COVID-19 was a quick change to the culture of centralised decision-making and control that had developed in Australian governments over the last few decades.

That change has, in the main, happened.

Once the pandemic hit, as governments were gathering information and developing responses, we saw the federal government create the COVID-19 Coordination Committee. The secretariat of this committee has been in constant consultation with all parts of the business community.

The NSW Treasury instigated weekly meetings with the COSBOA board and with other peak bodies in early-April and those meetings now occur fortnightly.

My board and members see these meetings as vital and informative.

The NSW government and the federal government have not just shown respect to the business community, and others, but so an understanding of the need to get regular, up-to-date information during an event of which we all have little experience.

I have been informed that other states have reacted well, including Queensland.

We need these consultations because the changes created by COVID-19 are not happening at the national or state level, they are happening to people and businesses in their local communities.

This is where Victoria has been problematic.

The Victorian government has done the right thing with its severe lockdown and curfew.

But what it forgot to do is inform people in a meaningful way beyond a once-a-day television event.

The business community was ready to consult… and was ignored.

Instead of wide community support, we now see increasing anger, dismay and rumours.

For our part, COSBOA has held weekly meetings of members since March. We have written a communique after every meeting. We have created interaction between our members and politicians of all sides, and also with regulators, policymakers and others.

Our members know they need to hear more and tell more. They know their ideas and observations are probably right, but might not be, and so they hear from others.

These meetings have removed some of the fear, helped to manage concerns, and assisted in developing information and better plans for the small business community.

None of these consultations have been perfect, yet they have occurred, and have informed the way forward in a time of deep uncertainty.

With the Victorian situation, I have been informed, sometimes quite aggressively, that what happened there could happen anywhere, as this is a pandemic.

They are right. It could.

But the question has to be asked: ‘Why does the state with the worst consultations have the worst problem?’

The vast majority of the business community understands the need to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

When we ask for consultation, we are not asking to open up the economy with no restrictions, or put ‘wealth over health’.

We are deeply concerned about the welfare of our employees and our own families.

People want to feel they have participated in the decision-making process and that their voices were heard and considered. People want to understand why certain decisions were made, how they were made, and be able to prepare.

Consult properly and angst and fear will decrease, don’t consult, and wear the consequences.

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