Could a Depression-style works program deal with Canberra’s COVID-19 jobless?

Richard Denniss 2 April 2020 22
Bermagui's Blue Pool

Bermagui’s Blue Pool was built between 1936 and 1939. Photo: Visit NSW.

As Canberra prepares for the health and economic crises that accompany the spread of COVID-19, there is no better time for our governments to not just create jobs here in Canberra, but to create sources of beauty and joy for years to come.

It’s nearly 100 years since the NSW Government saw the Great Depression as the opportune time to build beautiful Art Deco ocean baths along its coast. But, long after the benefits of ‘job creation’ have passed, those beautiful structures are still a source of ‘joy creation’ every single day.

Like the Federal Government, the ACT Government is about to spend record amounts of money to help usher our community through what will almost certainly be the worst economic downturn in Australian history.

While one-off cheques and boosts to welfare payments are an important first step, the coming months and years will not require the ‘targeted and temporary’ measures Scott Morrison keeps talking about, but structural changes that can be sustained over the next two to three years.

Even if the worst effects of coronavirus has passed in six months’ time, history tells us that it takes years of sustained effort to get the unemployment rate back down to ‘normal’ levels. And let’s never forget that there were more than 700,000 unemployed people in Australia well before anyone had even heard of COVID-19.

As the private sector goes into ‘hibernation’ there are only two possibilities: the public sector can either try to fill the hole left by the private sector’s retreat or we can sit back and watch as GDP declines and unemployment skyrockets.

Richard Denniss

Richard Denniss says Depression-era works could benefit the community. Photo: Supplied.

So, what can we do here in the Territory? The ACT Government needs to bring forward as much future economic activity to the present as it can. Anything that needed maintenance or repair in the next few years should instead be getting painted, recarpeted, repaired and refurbished in the coming months.

The same goes for small scale infrastructure projects. Private sector demand for installing solar panels, batteries and efficient hot water systems will collapse and there is literally no better time for the ACT Government to invest in energy projects that not only create jobs today, but will lower electricity prices and greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come.

Likewise, the construction of social housing, new school classrooms and small community facilities like tennis courts, walking tracks and bike paths can all be rolled out quickly while delivering benefits for decades to come.

The ACT public needs its government to do things it has never done before and build things we have only ever dreamed of. As the Great Depression taught us, things that were ‘unaffordable’ in normal times become a bargain in times of crisis.

Why not pay a local entertainer (I’m looking at you, Chris Endrey) to bring back a virtual ‘In Canberra Tonight’ which could host paid performances by local comedians, musicians and other artists delivered via the internet from their homes?

Such a service wouldn’t just provide much-needed laughs and cohesion, it would provide much-needed income to our arts community, and provide a great source of local information.

And imagine if we paid painters to create murals on public and private buildings, and beautify all sorts of public spaces from bus shelters to toilet blocks. And speaking of toilet blocks, could we rip down the worst of them and build some beautiful ones? What better way to encourage hand washing than to build modern public toilets?

And, of course, we need to provide new services to support people in need. Some of our empty hotel rooms can be used to provide crisis accommodation for those who can’t safely self-isolate at home, especially those fleeing domestic violence.

An easy way to keep some of our commercial kitchens going, ensure that those on the lowest income are eating well, and simply make sure that people are doing OK, would be to significantly ramp-up Meals On Wheels-type services for those who are self-isolating but might not normally be eligible for support.

Implementing such a labour-intensive plan would need a lot of volunteers, not just to deliver the meals but to call afterwards and check-in on vulnerable people. The ACT Government is well placed to build a huge database of people looking for casual work, or to volunteer their time, to provide such support.

Then there are big new projects.

To help in the next 12 months, projects need to be big, labour intensive, and able to be completed with a mix of skilled, semi-skilled, and unskilled workers. There’s a lot of work that needs doing to restore habitat destroyed by summer’s fires and, like new bike paths, such work is at the lower-end of construction complexity.

Our summers are going to get hotter and Canberra’s population is going to get bigger, so perhaps it is time to start building beaches around the foreshore of Lake Burley Griffin. Or how about a giant wave pool?

In thinking about how we ‘stimulate economic activity’ we need to stop thinking just about the size of the economy and start thinking about the shape of the economy. What better time than now to ask what we need more of, and what we do with less of?

Only one thing is certain about the economy this year – the public sector will grow significantly to try to fill the hole left by the private sector. What is uncertain is how big the public sector will grow and what direction that growth occurs in. What do you think we need more of? What do you think would make Canberra a better place in five years’ time?

Richard Denniss is the Chief Economist at independent Canberra-based think tank The Australia Institute @RDNS_TAI.


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22 Responses to Could a Depression-style works program deal with Canberra’s COVID-19 jobless?
Rob Thomas Rob Thomas 12:51 pm 03 Apr 20

The comments section of facebook posts are direly unsupported. Perhaps people can help fill them?

Michael Quirk Michael Quirk 11:31 am 03 Apr 20

The even more limited funds available should not be squandered on the extension of light rail. Need projects that deliver real and timely benefits such as health, social housing, cyclways, city maintenance.

    Kosher Ayatollah Kosher Ayatollah 5:54 pm 06 Apr 20

    Our ability to do many things is limited here in Canberra. It would be great to be able to build fixed rail (monorail or light rail) using locally manufactured steel in our own prefab facilities. Housing built using local materials, prefabbed in local factories. Canberra currently is not well placed to get access to raw products other than wood, so we cannot easily manufacture and export many items, especially with our poor railway infrastructure.

Bill Gemmell Bill Gemmell 9:26 am 03 Apr 20

Could be a chance to develop some sustainable homeless shelters, food forests in most suburbs and fix the tree canopy. Other projects could be repairing the path network and restoring those little parks that are so appreciated in neighbourhoods.

Rodney Broughton Rodney Broughton 8:42 am 03 Apr 20

Build that bike/ walking path from quangers to cooma on the old rail line. People would line up for the work.

Amanda Evans Amanda Evans 8:38 am 03 Apr 20

Plant trees and yes.. fix the bike paths.

Vindalu Vindalu 7:41 am 03 Apr 20

Belco bus interchange could be made into a floral and social masterpiece. Gardens instead of woody weeds. Kiosks, public art, public toilets, etcetera, etcetera, instead of being phone staring central.

Geoff Williams Geoff Williams 9:32 pm 02 Apr 20

Do some clearance burning?

Peter Norton Peter Norton 8:35 pm 02 Apr 20

The trades that are qualified to undertake these infrastructure works are generally still working. Need projects more suited to retail and hospitality skills.

    Stephen Mee Stephen Mee 5:00 pm 03 Apr 20

    Peter Norton reskill. Will not be enough jobs in that sector due to oversupply and no call.

Elise Burriss Elise Burriss 8:11 pm 02 Apr 20

Mountain bike trail building!

Pat Murray Pat Murray 2:17 pm 02 Apr 20

Build Stage 2 of the light rail to Woden.

    Emmac Ph Emmac Ph 2:47 pm 02 Apr 20

    Pat Murray no, don’t.

    David Newman David Newman 3:14 pm 02 Apr 20

    Pat Murray, great in concept but we need project where the majority of the costs go into local wages, not overseas companies building hardware. I support Stage 2 but funding it this way would not meet the goals of this idea

    Stephen Page-Murray Stephen Page-Murray 6:16 pm 02 Apr 20

    Pat Murray

    Tuggeranong. Then add the links to Belconnen and the airport

    Pat Murray Pat Murray 6:22 pm 02 Apr 20

    Stephen Page-Murray Good idea.

Geoffrey John Randal Geoffrey John Randal 1:37 pm 02 Apr 20

Renovate and extend the ACT network of bike paths? Expand the footpath system to accommodate motorised scooters, mobility scooters and more pedestrians? Replant Canberra's urban forests? There's plenty to do!

    Farg Gough Farg Gough 2:50 pm 02 Apr 20

    love this idea!!

    Ruth Brown Ruth Brown 11:50 am 03 Apr 20

    Will cyclists actually use the bike paths if they get renovated or will they continue to risk life and limb (their own) by insisting on riding on roads while ignoring road rules?

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 1:26 pm 03 Apr 20

    Ruth Brown What upgrading and improving paths for people to cycle does (and where this has been done shows this), is get more people cycling and they will use the paths rather than the road. Otherwise these people would be using the roads at present, but they don't. In places with good cycling infrastructure about 50% of people cycling are female, but many less females cycle when the cycling infrastructure is substandard. There are about half the number of women cycling in Canberra to men.

    As for people who cycle on roads, this is often done because there is little alternative. Bikes paths don’t go everywhere and there are gaps in them. The maintenance of them is lacking too. It’s sad to watch a road being resurfaced with little apparently wrong with it, while the shared path next to it, with grass growing through it, is ignored.

    Even with lack of maintenance and paths missing in some places, or taking an indirect route, from my experience, more people do use the paths than the roads. People who only drive though would not be aware of this, because their experience is limited.

    Kosher Ayatollah Kosher Ayatollah 5:42 pm 06 Apr 20

    Ruth Brown The problem with many cycle paths built until relatively recently is they've been for recreation, not commuting. Queanbeyan is still of this mindset.

Mario Vozella Mario Vozella 1:33 pm 02 Apr 20

Possible , but you have to be very careful of any further spread.....

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