Like many Australians, I write this article sitting in my home office in Wollongong as part of the new stay-at-home directive. I have spent much of the morning, possibly like most other Australians, reading and watching the latest daily news on COVID-19 and trying to assess what it means for our collective health and national economy.
My regular morning conversations with Peter Strong (CEO of the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia), and the now daily conversations with fellow COSBOA board members, reveal that business closures and employment destruction is occurring at a dramatic rate.
Even more sobering is the fact the small business sector comprises more than 2 million businesses — sole traders, small businesses and family businesses — employing around 5 millon other Australians in total. But this isn’t just about small businesses; big business is being hit too. Just look at Qantas, Virgin, Myer and other large retailers.
It appears to me and my board, however, that something is missing from the national dialogue: national belief.
The challenge we are dealing with right now is one of two national priorities. The first is to keep our people safe from physical and emotional harm, and to ensure all those brave Australians on the COVID-19 frontline — the doctors and nurses and many others — are fully supported. For many of us, that means staying at home.
The second challenge is to minimise the impact on the economic wellbeing of all Australians. This means keeping as many businesses and workplaces open as can safely be done. ‘National lockdown’ and ‘national shutdown’ are unfortunate terms as they don’t reflect what needs to be done.
We need to close workplaces that represent a clear and present danger to the spread of COVID-19. We need people to severely limit their travel and contacts. Nothing more, nothing less.
It is disappointing that for many the COVID-19 response is being promoted as a contest between these two objectives. For the good of our country, it cannot be. We must respond to both simultaneously.
Australia is up to this task; innovation is part of our DNA. During shortages and rationing after the war, people found inventive ways of using barbed wire, for example, and nylon stockings were often used as an alternative to broken fan belts on cars. More recently, our country has gifted the world seat belts and airbags in cars, wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi), and phenomenal health innovations in areas like hearing devices, cataract surgery and heart transplants.
Australians are resourceful. When we get knocked down, we get back up again. We find solutions in the face of incredible adversity — just ask all those people affected by fires, floods, storms and cyclones during our lifetime.
So why is this crisis any different?
Some might say COSBOA is full of hopeless optimists or that we are coming from a position of ‘blind hope’. But it’s not so.
Our economy is strong and has underlying advantages that will help us cope with this unprecedented crisis. We produce almost all our own food (unlike some countries in Europe and Asia). We are rich in energy and other resources. Having previously relied on heavy manufacturing, we have since replaced it with advanced manufacturing in areas like defence, telecommunications, food, pharmaceuticals and IT.
This means much of our economy is well placed to get through this latest crisis. Even service-based industries like hospitality, will recover quickly. We are a sociable lot and as soon as it is safe to do so, we will undoubtedly head to pubs, clubs, restaurants and cafes in droves.
It might mean we don’t travel as much internationally in the immediate future, but is that really such a bad thing? This crisis will give us the chance to help tourism businesses as we re-engage with the natural beauty and vast open space that is the continent of Australia.
The key to our survival is to do exactly what the National Cabinet is doing right now. That is, keep money circulating to all Australian households and allow businesses to hit the ‘pause’ button. This means that, when it is safe to do so, businesses can reopen and households will have the money needed to kick start our economy – although for many, this will be lower than normal in the short term.
The rate of our national recovery will depend on two things: a strong economy and a strong financial system. Fortunately, we have both.
Successive federal governments have steered us through the global financial crisis (and before that, the Asian financial crisis) and put us on the cusp of a national budget surplus before this crisis hit. Our world record of 29 years of successive economic growth means we will emerge in a much stronger position compared with many other world economies.
While we have criticised the banks in recent years, Peter Strong and all my fellow board members have been privileged to see how the strength of our banking system is now being harnessed for the good of every Australian. Together with their peers, Australian Banking Association chair Matt Comyn and CEO Anna Bligh have put the banking system at the full disposal of the national economy.
There are also many organisations and other stakeholders working with all levels of government in the background. Sure, some like the biggest landlords are being dragged to the table, but at least they are coming to the table.
And traditional differences are being set aside; COSBOA has been working with the leadership of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in recent days to better understand their proposal for wage subsidies to help all Australian’s through the crisis. Together, with a collaboration of other peak business bodies, we have united to call for more meaningful assistance to flow to displaced employees.
If employer groups and unions can work together to address these challenges, then anything is possible.
And so, we come back to the point of what is missing: belief. Granted, it is hard to believe in the face of uncertainty, but we are well placed to survive the economic hit over time. COVID-19 is bigger than anything we have faced, barring the great wars, but as people (or society) we possess the resourcefulness to overcome it.
Belief that our economy will get through this is not ‘blind hope’. Nor is it ‘unrealistically optimistic’. All the things we need to get through this are already in place. The next few months will be testing times with mourning and grief to be experienced, but I believe our own resilience, and our leaders’ fortitude, will see us through that. We must be confident that, after the worst of it, we will rebound faster than other economies.
We are all in this together. Criticising each other is a waste of time and energy. We must first believe that we can recover and protect our most vulnerable. And then each of us must work cooperatively to make it happen.