What comes after COVID-19? - ACTU Australian Unions
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What comes after COVID-19?

While the Morrison Government contemplates tax cuts for the wealthy and returning to a punitive approach to welfare payments, Australian unions have been thinking hard about what comes after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The future we are planning is productive, sustainable, and fair. And we can get started on it now.

The ACTU launched its National Economic Reconstruction Plan this week. Developed in collaboration with Dr Jim Stanford and the Centre for Future Work, the Plan is a positive statement about Australia’s future.

“We need big and bold Government investment and action in order for Australia to return to health – both socially and economically”, ACTU President Michele O’Neil said this week.

“With almost one million people officially unemployed and many hundreds of thousands out of work, or without enough work, the Australian people need to see that the economy isn’t going to fall off a cliff.”

The Plan addresses problems in the Australian economy that began long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The rise of insecure work, wage stagnation, and increasing inequality were evidence of a failure of leadership by governments that lacked the imagination and courage to make much-needed reforms. Now, with the massive disruption caused by COVID-19, we are experiencing out biggest declines in output, employment, and incomes since the 1930s.

Michele O’Neil spoke about the ACTU’s ideas for free, universal childcare, vocational education, and new rules for Australian content in manufacturing and services on ABC Insiders last Sunday. These big ideas are backed by four principles: sustained government support, prioritising local worker and jobs, targeting employment growth, and helping the people need it most.

The Plan also zeroes in on the other great challenge of our time, climate change, by supporting the rapid decarbonisation of Australian manufacturing.

A Sustainable Manufacturing Strategy (SMS) to revive Australian manufacturing and take advantage of huge leaps in renewable energy technology. The SMS commits $12 billion over three years in government spending on projects to help transition manufacturing businesses to low-carbon technologies.

This means reforms to procurement rules to help boost manufacturers and local suppliers. A beefed-up Clean Energy Finance Corporation will offer zero-interest, long-term loans to renewable projects with direct links to manufacturing. The Commonwealth support upgrades to equipment, invest in the national energy grid to speed up decarbonisation of the energy sector, and offer technology grants for research and development in sustainable manufacturing. Five Sustainable Manufacturing Clusters will strengthen Australian expertise and capacity in key areas including renewable hydrogen production, green primary metal manufacturing, and electric vehicles. A $1 billion Superpower Investment Fund will undertake co-investments in renewable manufacturing activities.

Manufacturers, their suppliers, regional economies, and workers all stand to benefit from these investments. Accelerating the transition to cheap, renewable energy could save Australian manufacturers $1.6 billion in energy costs every year. The SMS will create 100,000 new manufacturing jobs and ensure Australia’s energy security into the future. It shows that a thriving economy that works for all Australians can also be a sustainable one.

So how are we going to pay for it?

The COVID-19 crisis has exploded the myth that debt and deficit are always bad for an economy. The pandemic has shown that sometimes going into debt is necessary to protect lives and livelihoods. A survey released this week showed that Australian economists overwhelmingly agree that the government should continue to borrow to get us out of the pandemic crisis. Economists also agree that, if used wisely, debt can be a tool to invest in Australia’s future beyond COVID-19.

That’s why the Plan focuses on sustainability, productivity, and a jobs-led recovery. It doesn’t call for tax cuts to high earners, which will mostly go into savings accounts, or bankroll renovations by a small number of wealthy homeowners.

The Plan also acknowledges that, without investments in the future, millions of Australians will be left behind. This week, the Federal Government announced extensions to JobKeeper and JobSeeker. But cuts to both payments and the reintroduction of mutual obligations are a worrying sign that the government plans a return to ‘business-as-usual’ as we emerge from the pandemic.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and the National Economic Reconstruction Plan shows how.

You can download the Plan here.