As the treasurer lauds supply-side economics, a once-controversial recovery theory is gaining traction.This is the essence of modern monetary theory – that government budgeting is nothing like household or business budgeting, for the simple reason that government can create money.
The Greens’ New Deal
As parliament’s emergency sitting petered out on Wednesday evening, with the government’s $130 billion JobKeeper legislation pushed through unamended, Greens senate leader Larissa Waters offered an optimistic take on the upheaval racking Australia.
“This crisis has highlighted the extent to which Australia’s safety net has been picked away at for 30 years,” she said. “… In just a few short weeks we’ve seen the beginnings of a stimulus that could set us up for better things and play to our collective strengths … It’s a chance to think how we want this country to go forward, and hope to dream for a better future.”
What shape this future will take is the question to which everyone is now turning their minds, with Australia successfully slowing the spread of Covid-19 and Prime Minister Scott Morrison declaring the major elements of the pandemic response now in place. How will Australia recover from near-certain recession this year? What will the country look like in six months, a year and beyond?
The government has taken steps to ensure the stimulus measures are temporary, but commentators believe many of the changes made will be with us for good. For his part, Morrison this week softened his promise that the economy will simply “snap back”, acknowledging that any recovery will need to be managed, and staggered, to prevent another infection outbreak.
Greens leader Adam Bandt says this is the moment for Australia to be ambitious in its thinking about the recovery.
He believes that his policy for a Green New Deal, which has been at the top of his agenda since he took over the party leadership in February, remains the most important policy initiative for the Greens in this term of parliament.
“I see a debate looming about the pathway out; it will be a choice between blue austerity or green growth,” he says. “The Green New Deal is about borrowing to invest to make more money and grow out of the crisis, versus others who argue the only way is cutting, [which] will only increase the crisis.”
He is confident that a sweeping “government-led plan of investment and action to create a clean economy and a caring society” is still possible – perhaps even more viable in the wake of Covid-19. “A three-decade-old neoliberal rule book has been thrown out the window,” he says.
Indeed, the Greens have found themselves facing a Coalition government that has abruptly enacted many of the things the minor party, and others, have long called for: free childcare; raised welfare payments; a form of income guarantee that will protect millions of jobs in the face of mass unemployment.
As Bandt told the house of representatives on Wednesday, during debate on the pandemic response bills, “What is getting us through this crisis are all the things … that have been attacked for the last 30 years: a strong public healthcare system, government deciding to look out for each other and putting life above a surplus and understanding that if we pull through together and look after everyone then we are all better off.”
Like the federal opposition, though, Bandt and his Greens colleagues are concerned the government’s JobKeeper package excludes millions of Australians, including casuals with less than a year’s service with a single employer, temporary migrant workers, artists and entertainers, and many more.
Many of those workers are young. As Bandt noted in parliament, of the 1.1 million casuals excluded from the payment, half a million were younger than 24.
“We pushed hard for jobs and wages guarantees to be universal,” he says. “The people who are going to be left behind are predominantly going to be those in insecure work; they’re going to be largely younger people, who went into this crisis on the back foot anyway.”
Given federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has the capacity to amend the eligibility rules by regulation, and a select committee has been established to scrutinise the stimulus spending, Bandt believes there will be an ongoing campaign to broaden the payment.
He insists the government will need to spend more than the $214 billion already pledged in response to the pandemic anyway – and certainly a package that resembles Bandt’s aspirations for a Green New Deal would be costly.
Such a deal has become a handy bit of political rhetoric and, in the main, the concept has attracted support from Labor’s leader in the house, Tony Burke, and former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Overseas, there is already talk of “green stimulus” spending after the coronavirus pandemic, with South Korea the first country in Asia to announce a Green New Deal and the European Union pushing towards a trillion-dollar European Green Deal – notwithstanding calls from Poland and the Czech Republic to abandon the project.
But it’s taken more than a decade for the idea of a Green New Deal, coined by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in 2007, to make it to mainstream consciousness. Based on the New Deal adopted by then United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression, its green successor was embraced by former Greens leader Christine Milne in Australia in 2009.
More recently, it gained widespread interest after firebrand US Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced a bill by that name into congress in 2018, and the concept became a key plank of the failed campaign of presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.
“One of the things that Bernie Sanders did,” says Bandt, “and AOC, is get effectively every Democratic candidate now backing a Green New Deal. Even Joe Biden talks about it positively as well. That’s helped shift the terrain of politics.”
The Greens leader does not describe the Green New Deal as socialist, or even left-populist, but simply as the “right idea for the time”.
He frequently cites the work of economist and former climate change adviser Professor Ross Garnaut, whose recent book Superpower: Australia’s Low-Carbon Opportunity (published by a sister company of The Saturday Paper) has captured cross-party support for highlighting the prospect that a combination of cheap and abundant renewable energy and low interest rates could revitalise manufacturing in this country and see us exporting clean power to Asia.
“[There is] this great opportunity that will create more jobs, more income, more exports, and lower-cost power for Australia,” says Garnaut. “Call it a New Deal if you like, but that’s not the term I was using.
“Both in the use of expansionary fiscal policy to reduce unemployment, and in climate, I like to think of Australia as not being simply derivative of American concepts but able to create images of its own.”
Bandt makes no apology for reaching to the strategies the US used to climb out of the Depression.
“Going back to the New Deal, FDR talked about relief, recovery and reform,” says Bandt, who believes Australia is only at quarter-time in the coronavirus pandemic. “At the moment we’re in that first [relief] phase, and the remaining three-quarters of this crisis are going to be about the recovery plan.”
So far, there is not much detail to show for the Green New Deal rhetoric, excepting what will be rebadged from the Greens’ existing platform. A bill to establish a “Renew Authority” – an agency to plan for and oversee an exit from thermal coalmining and a just transition to 100 per cent renewables by 2030 – sits on the notice paper awaiting the resumption of parliament.
In the next month or two, the Greens will announce their recovery plan, ahead of the release of the full Green New Deal policy next year.
“Everything will be costed and funded,” Bandt promises. “We’ve helped set up PBO, the Parliamentary Budget Office, in part so that parties like the Greens can get our policies costed and that’s the approach that we’ll continue to take.”
The Green New Deal would be funded by new taxes, he says, including a carbon price and a so-called “Buffett tax” on very high income earners, as well as the withdrawal of fossil fuel subsidies such as the diesel fuel rebate.
Just before the Covid-19 shutdown, Bandt began a national tour to promote the Green New Deal, with public meetings in Hobart and Launceston early last month, announcing a $28 billion plan to build 500,000 sustainable new homes over the next 15 years, as part of the party’s vision for universal free housing, education and health.
These policies are not without their detractors. Herald Sun columnist Rita Panahi recently accused the Greens of “shamelessly using the coronavirus crisis to promote insane socialist and environmental policies that would cripple the economy long term”.
Richard Denniss, of The Australia Institute, thinks talking about a Green New Deal is like a game of fantasy football.
“Of course, Australia needs a Green New Deal, but the reason I haven’t talked about it very much is because, under this government, we’re not going to have one,” he says. “The conservatives are still running the country, and Covid-19 hasn’t killed climate denial.”
Bandt is more optimistic. He believes the Morrison government is going to be forced to act under the pressure of the coming downturn. “The government’s going to need to invest even more if we want everyone to have a decent job on the other side of this crisis,” he says. “We went into it with nearly one in three young people either not having a job or not having enough hours of work, and those numbers are going to skyrocket. Unless the government wants high under- and unemployment to be a permanent feature in Australia, they’re going to have to borrow and invest even more. The economy’s not some bear that will wake from hibernation of its own accord.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 11, 2020 as "Dealing with it".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.