Not perfect - yet our institutions and governments are performing exceptionally well in very difficult times
April 4, 2020
A good way to judge a system, and indeed a society, is how they perform in a crisis. No society will react perfectly, crisis are called that because they are difficult and immediate. How are we performing?
There cannot be enough said about the medical profession as well as their support workers and the health system. We should be forever thankful to all of them and thankful we live in Australia.
On the whole, the rest are performing exceptionally well. We have seen the National Cabinet making non-stop decisions on a huge range of compelling issues. People will complain that decisions were slow or too late or not thought out. (I might be one of those complaining and like everyone else need to be responsible with comments.) Our federal governments and states and territories have reacted well, rapidly and with intent. The Federal Labor Party is constructive and supportive.
There have been mistakes, some like the ‘Ruby Princess’ incident are unforgiveable, and the media and others have dealt with those issues and continue to do so.
We have seen government agencies deliver guidelines and policies in days when that would normally take months if not years. Whilst they cannot be perfect, the great majority of public institutions are reacting with professionalism, speed and where necessary tolerance. We are seeing many public servants redeployed and willingly so. Many are working very long hours knowing that millions of people are in need, are afraid and need information and support now. This has been a huge response.
There are certainly institutions that are under severe pressure. Centrelink was hit hard in the first few days and people suffered as they had to stand in line and wait for long periods to get registered. But Centrelink recovered and, all things being considered, functions well. Some extra 5,000 employees are being recruited or have started already. Centrelink is processing payments, it isn’t perfect but it is functioning.
The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) has performed extraordinarily well. They received over 120,000 hits on their website from businesses in one day wanting to register for Job Keeper and the site didn’t crash. Their teams are reacting at break neck speed. Extra staff are being moved quickly to the ATO from other agencies. The ATO cannot be perfect yet congratulations must be given to them and their management.
Our largest businesses are also, in the main, stepping up. We must acknowledge there are and will be big businesses that will need more government support.
The banks have outperformed anything that was expected from that sector. There are still local bank staff who are giving out the wrong information but given the speed of change that is not a surprise, and it will get better as information flows. The non-bank lending sector needs support and APRA does need to step up for that group.
Our power and energy sectors are working well and preparing for what will be increased demand as we go into winter.
It is probably true that ‘telephone help lines’ to government agencies and large businesses have very long wait periods, many hours in some cases, but we need to be patient as these are not normal times. While waiting people can still work or read a book or even bake a cake.
Industry associations have certainly stood up for their members. The CEOs and staff of associations, large and small, are responding to constant phone calls and trying to decipher the rush of information and announcements that seem to happen every day.
Unions have also achieved outcomes that many would have never dreamed of as they work hard with the government to change Industrial Relations regulations and make them fit for purpose. The Fair Work Ombudsman is dealing with hundreds of thousands of contacts as people try to find out what their rights are. The Fair Work Commission has delivered changes to awards that were desperately needed if businesses were to survive and workers were to have jobs.
Well done to our major systems and shame on the Workplace Relations System. The fact is that the Attorney-General of Australia and the Secretary of the ACTU and many, many others have spent weeks working on changes in that system. Those important people should have been focusing on health, skills development for house bound workers and on other important matters not on workplace law. Let’s make sure in the next crisis that the workplace system is fit for purpose and not in need of attention. We do need to make sure greedy lawyers do not benefit from the crisis. That those few bad employers do not rort the system and that the few dodgy employees are kept at bay.
I have seen and participated in some big changes in my time. During the late 1980s and the 1990s I spent over a decade in labor market adjustment activities and macro and micro economic reform in Australia and also in developing economies including: the republics in Central Asia; in Turkey as that country privatised state owned enterprises as they attempted to enter the European Union; and in China developing support mechanisms for women in small business. I initially worked with the Australian Government and then contracted to The World Bank and the United Nations as a member of task forces focused on change management.
In Central Asia, (I worked mainly in Kyrgyzstan) we saw millions of people displaced as communism collapsed and new market economies were slow to emerge. Turkey had to move over half a million workers from old inefficient publicly owned businesses (oil refineries, textile mills and the like) to new more efficient private sector businesses. The aims of the governments and the World Bank was to manage the changes so that people did not suffer and there was no social unrest. We delivered enterprise restructuring and divestiture programs as well as comprehensive activities around: retraining; job creation; establishment of social services and employment services; and local economic development.
With that experience under my belt, I believe nearly all our systems are standing up under the extremes of the COVID load. They’ve been pushed hard and some struggle, but they are delivering, and delivering quickly.
A system that has let us down is the one run by our biggest landlords. They have failed Australia and themselves. My experience with them over the last 20 years is that they will never care and until we bring them to heal, by law, they will continue to make money by bankrupting honest business folk.
So far, the majority of our systems are working well, although we may hear different as we go along. The biggest assets we should have right now is speed of reaction, patience and tolerance. If systems do slow down or falter. They will keep going. They have no choice.