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.
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.