Neoliberalism is spreading coronavirus faster than any “reckless teenager” ever could. Privatised guards at quarantine hotels, private aged care centres that put profits ahead of staffing levels, and the fact that those in charge neglected to have their health professionals appropriately evaluate the risk of the Ruby Princess, are the major causes of Covid-19 transmissions and deaths in Australia.
Put simply, if Australia relied on a well-paid, well-trained and well-resourced public sector to protect us then there might have been no shutdown in Victoria, no restrictions on interstate travel and no forecast of double-digit unemployment. For decades, advocates of the outsourcing and privatisation of public services have boasted of the cost savings of doing so. Today, we are counting the cost. We will be counting it for years to come.
When you don’t care about the future, cost-cutting is easy. If you stop getting your car serviced, insuring your house and going to the dentist you can save thousands of dollars a year. But, contrary to decades of neoliberal rhetoric, there is a big difference between saving money and increasing efficiency. Some short-term savings can cost you a fortune in the long run.
In 2018 Scott Morrison announced the royal commission into aged care quality and safety, after shocking evidence of abuse and neglect were reported. While the royal commission is ongoing, the 2019 interim report found:
We have seen images of people with maggots feeding in open sores and we have seen video and photographic evidence of outright abuse.
The combined impact of the evidence, submissions and stories provided to the Royal Commission leads us to conclude that substandard care is much more widespread and more serious than we had anticipated.”
Among the serious problems found were “Dreadful food, nutrition and hydration, and insufficient attention to oral health, leading to widespread malnutrition, excruciating dental and other pain, and secondary conditions.”
Australia is one of the richest countries in the world and while our governments spend more than $50bn a year on the aged pension and $43bn on tax concessions for superannuation – to provide “dignity” for older Australians – high levels of mismanagement and profit mean that even $20bn in commonwealth funding isn’t enough to keep maggots, let alone Covid-19, out of Australia’s privatised aged care system.
Most aged care homes in Australia are privately owned and operated, but in Victoria, there are 178 government-run centres. And unlike their private “competitors”, the government-run aged care centre are burdened with “red tape” – such as minimum staffing levels. At the beginning of August, five of the Victorian cases involve one publicly run home and the remaining 923 cases were in private and not-for-profit homes.
Of course, the private sector hasn’t just done a poor job of keeping Covid-19 out of aged care homes, it’s done a poor job of keeping people infected with the virus contained in their quarantine hotels too.
Victoria’s reliance on a poorly trained and poorly paid pool of private security providers seems likely to be a major cause of Australia’s largest Covid-19 outbreak and it’s now been revealed that a private guard at a Sydney quarantine hotel not only contracted the virus, but worked shifts at a court house and food market after he was infected.
And then there is the Australian Border Force. Australia’s parliamentary democracy was built on the premise of ministerial accountability for the delivery of services by a strong and independent public service. How old fashioned and “inefficient” was that!
In 2015, the Coalition government created Border Force by merging the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service with the immigration detention and compliance functions of the then Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
The minister for home affairs, Peter Dutton, spelt out the rationale for this enormous consolidation of (his) power, in a speech lauding the formation of this new mega-agency. In Dutton’s words, his preferred structure “removes unnecessary duplication and enables the deployment of a greater proportion of resources into the front line. It also contributes to a more efficient government footprint that will assist in achieving fiscal repair and ensuring the sustainability of government operations.”
Dutton went on to declare that “By removing the traditional silos of immigration and customs, my department – and within it the Australian Border Force – will deliver an improved capability that truly focuses border policies, strategy and operations in an integrated and holistic way.”
Despite mouthing banal neoliberal platitudes about footprints, fiscal repair and silos, when the Ruby Princess allowed passengers with Covid-19 to disembark, neither Dutton nor his agency showed any kind of remorse for the debacle that resulted in deaths and economic destruction. The entire rationale for creating Border Force was to remove “silos” and increase efficiency, but the minister for home affairs’ only excuse for the most deadly failure of border protection in modern history is to blame other departments.
One of neoliberalism’s best tricks is to blame “the market”, “the bureaucracy” or “rogue individuals” for the predictable consequences of government decisions. But sadly, even before Covid-19 came along, there were allegations that the companies who employed security guards do not put enough effort into training or monitoring their staff.
Likewise, with aged and disability care. While there are shocking examples of individuals neglecting and even abusing those in their care, there is also enormous evidence that some of the lowest paid workers in the country work unpaid overtime to provide the best care they can in some of the worst facilities you could imagine. If a company is well managed, how could the poor performance of a single staff member go unnoticed for months or years?
Neoliberalism hasn’t just undermined the quality of specific sectors like aged care and security but, by undermining the centrality of secure jobs that come with sick leave, career leave and annual leave, it has undermined the foundations of the modern welfare state that Australia spent the 20th century building. People without sick leave feel the need to go to work when they are sick because they have no other choice. People with full-time work don’t need to cobble together an income working shifts at multiple sites. And people with stable employment are more likely to have been given the training they need and be surrounded by others who have received that training.
It’s not the fault of individual security guards, aged care nurses or Border Force officers if their employers haven’t given them the training they need to do their important work well. It’s the fault of their employers, and ultimately, of governments that are willing to contract out some of the most important, sensitive and intimate work in Australia to whatever private company offers the lowest price or the largest donations.
It’s not the market’s fault that there are no minimum staffing numbers or minimum training standards in commonwealth-funded and privately run aged care homes. It’s the Morrison government’s. And it’s not the market’s fault if the private security guards protecting us from Covid-19 are poorly trained.
As individuals we have a responsibility to wash our hands, respect social distancing rules and wear masks when appropriate. But if we really want to protect ourselves from this pandemic, and future threats, we need to ensure we hold government ministers responsible for the outcomes they deliver.
The biggest threat of neoliberalism isn’t further funding cuts or more deregulation. It’s the ability to convince Australians that the minister for home affairs isn’t responsible for Border Force, and Border Force aren’t responsible for protecting our borders.
• Richard Denniss is the chief economist at independent thinktank The Australia Institute