OPINION PIECE: Could a return to full employment be the answer to rebuilding the post-COVID-19 economy?

12 May 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the fragility of the economy and the resulting anxiety felt by everyday people. Too many families are living one pay packet to the next and small businesses worry they could go under with one unexpected bill.
This crisis has shattered national and international economies. It has reduced the incomes of millions of Australians. It will delay the retirement of hundreds of thousands of baby boomers, many of whom will retire with less savings. Our younger generation won’t escape the downturn either - it will delay career advancement and work opportunities for many.
For decades now, people have been living anxious lives with insecure jobs, underemployed, trying to make a living. They worry about record levels of household debt, about the increasing costs of living, flatlining wages growth and whether high youth unemployment will catch their kids in its wrath. They struggle to access declining education and training opportunities. With 40% of Australians already in insecure work, our kids are facing futures in which permanent jobs with stable conditions are becoming a matter of luck.
The pandemic has pushed many of us to the edge.
It has reminded us that secure work and conditions are a vital element of a truly resilient economy and a happy society – and that its time for a massive rethink of labour market dynamics.
To rebuild a better post-COVID economy, we can turn to our own history for a blueprint of how to do it.
After the Second World War, the Chifley government implemented a full employment policy outlined in a White Paper written by H.C. “Nugget” Coombs. It was a tangible plan to realise the potential of all Australian workers. It begins with a simple recognition “that the people of Australia will demand and are entitled to expect full employment.” It places the responsibility for delivering that employment squarely upon government.
It committed the government to an economic framework that ensured everyone who wanted a job could get one and, at the same time, it allowed our country to welcome two million migrants from post-war Europe into the economy.
Fanciful, I hear you and many younger generations say. But it was a policy that prevailed for some 30 years. Even successive Liberal governments maintained it, keeping unemployment at or below 2%. It meant pulling policy levers that kept people employed like co-investment in the automobile industry, or direct government employment in utilities and the public service; through apprenticeships, traineeships and cadetships; through massive public works programs and smaller ones at local government level.
It is not fanciful, and with political will and an acknowledgement that the neo-liberal approach has not created the resilient economy we need, we could achieve it again. 
I see a sustainable future for our economy; towards direct investment in revitalising our energy grid, encouraging investment in wind and solar farms, building a hydrogen industry, closing the loop on our own waste management and hiring Indigenous Rangers to re-connect us with traditional land use and care. A full employment policy could support the workforce we need to regenerate our environments devasted by the summer fires and help mitigate the climate emergency.
It could include procurement policies that help our manufacturing sector grow and diversify so we are not reliant on global supply chains for vital products. We could increase the number of permanent workers in the public services to staff the Centrelink phonelines and clear the visa backlog. It could drive vocational training and entry level opportunities for good, steady jobs to ensure the NDIS and aged care sectors deliver for the vulnerable in our community.
Full employment policy with a jobs compact is key to ensuring we have a workforce skilled, ready and able to build the infrastructure, and the society, of the future. Yes, it will cost money. But the return would be immeasurable. The basic economic premise that money in people’s pockets is what drives the economy is sound.
The worst of the economic impact from the pandemic is yet to come and the 6 million people on JobKeeper demonstrate that the private sector is not up to the challenge without significant government intervention.
The looming challenge to this social and economic transformation will be the politics, specifically the Morrison Government’s delusional policy of ‘snap back’. In the months ahead we will see a battle over debt. The conservatives will want austerity and deregulation to pay down the debt. They will want to lower wages, gut environmental and workplace protections and punish those who can least afford it.
If we do this, we will simply tread water or even sink in comparison with other G20 economies.  
As Anthony Albanese said in his vision statement, it can’t be business as usual. We need to transform our economy and society so that the shock of the next bushfire or coronavirus emergency isn’t so great.
We need governments in these anxious times to rebuild productive and sustainable economies through a full employment policy, and directly creating jobs, jobs, jobs!