Coronavirus: Scott Morrison Needs to Speak to Hard-hit Young Australians

- May 2, 2020

Despite the sweet-sounding idea that we are all in this together, the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis are not being shared anywhere equally. Look at the University of Sydney, where casual workers are being laid off yet the overpaid vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, has refused to shave his $1.5m salary. Some, most especially the young, are being hit harder than others. Yet their ­voices haven’t been heard even though they will suffer long after the health crisis has passed.

Those with the loudest voices are those most cushioned by a trifecta of good fortune: they haven’t lost their jobs, they haven’t had a pay cut and they haven’t even had their hours cut. They include medical experts, government ministers and public servants fighting for wage rises. All tend to follow the same script on COVID-19.

No one expects young Australians to speak as one. But are there increasing differences between what younger and older Australians think about the nationwide shutdown? Given the young will inherit the consequences, good and bad, of the Morrison government’s responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, their voices ought to carry greater weight than they have so far.

Alas, the public broadcaster has done nothing to give the young a platform. Despite Aunty promising, under new chairwoman Ita Buttrose, to reflect greater diversity, the taxpayer-funded media giant caters to a small clique of privileged baby boomers. In a snub to younger Australians, the ABC has flatly refused to host the kind of robust debate one hears every day at the BBC about the economic, mental, physical and other health costs of shutting down an economy.

The Institute of Public Affairs, which I chair, has a strong focus on young Australians, for the simple reason that each generation owes the next generation respect. So we commissioned Dynata to conduct polling last weekend of a nationally representative sample of Australians to understand their views during this crisis.

We learned that, by a large margin, younger Australians have been more adversely affected by the national economic lockdown. Sixty per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds have lost their job, had their hours cut or had their pay cut. Among those aged 25 to 34, the number is even higher: 63 per cent have been seriously affected. By and large, older people haven’t suffered the same job losses. Among those aged 34 to 44, 45 per cent said they had lost their job, had hours cut or had a pay cut in the past six weeks. The economic impacts dropped away for those in the 45 to 54 age group, where 40 per cent were adversely affected, and for 55 to 66-year-olds, 28 per cent had adverse outcomes.

In other words, younger Australians have borne the brunt of job losses and pay cuts. But how often are their voices reflected among those with the loudest ­voices who purport to speak for the country?

According to the IPA-commissioned poll, young Australians are also more in favour of immediate easing of petty restrictions with appropriate social distancing in place than older Australians are. Fifty per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds want these restrictions lifted, and 52 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds do too. Among those aged 45 to 54 and 55 to 64 there is far less support for ending even petty restrictions, with 43 per cent and 38 per cent support, respectively.

The hit taken by young Australians on the job front is a reminder of the importance of work, the dignity that comes from getting up each day and going to work, rather than being paid a JobKeeper sum to stay connected with a workplace. That’s necessary for a few weeks but, beyond that, being paid to do nothing is no way to live.

If the Morrison government is smart, it will recognise that Labor and the Greens have failed young Australians. While the Greens have been especially canny at understanding younger voters on some issues, they can’t do the same on jobs. It’s not in the party’s defective economic DNA.

Indeed, by aping the ABC, calling for longer and deeper restrictions, both Labor and the Greens can no longer be complacent about garnering the youth vote at the next election. And if the Morrison government is really smart, it will realise that, instead of playing footsies with young Australians over climate change, the single most important thing the Coalition can do is become the party of jobs for them.

The worst thing that can happen to a young person is to be priced out of work by penalty rates, inflexible workplace laws and employers forced to worry so much about how to lay off staff, given our over-regulated economy, that they employ fewer people.

The Greens have never understood, and Labor has ignored what it surely knows, that getting a foot on the first rung of the workforce, no matter how low-paid it is, is the critical step to a lifetime of better-paid, more fulfilling jobs.

The government has a great opportunity here, by making job creation for young Australians its focus, by explaining day in, day out that industrial relations reforms, cutting red tape and green tape, fixing job-killing planning laws and broader tax reform are all pro-youth policies.

When the health crisis passes, the economic crisis will remain, and it will continue to hit young Australians hardest. How many small businesses will reopen? Those that do will necessarily be smaller in size. Who will chance their arm to open a business, pouring blood, sweat, tears and borrowed money into a venture that can be shut down overnight by government edict?

That prompts the question of who within the Coalition will do the political heavy lifting on jobs for young Australians. More than 20 years after the Hawke and Howard governments restructured a staid and inflexible economy, another round of serious economic reform is needed.

After the hiccup during the bushfires, Scott Morrison has worked hard to do the heavy lifting on COVID-19, taking centre stage at every chance. But can the Prime Minister show as much determination in reopening the economy as he did when shutting it down? Morrison was masterful at the last election; he became the PM for Australian tradies. If he can turn the Coalition into the natural home for more young Australians, it will hurt Labor and the Greens for years to come.

Morrison will be well aware of Peter Costello’s philosophy that balanced budgets are pro-youth policies. Costello is rightly proud that the Howard government bequeathed no debt to future generations. This was critical to the nation’s ability to confront the global financial crisis a few years later.

What happens next time there is a financial crisis? When the country is $1 trillion in hock, no treasurer can say we are well-placed to confront the latest challenge. Unless Morrison takes centre stage, daily, on jobs and productivity to rebuild the country and pay down debt to protect the next generation.

If Morrison can shift the dial, show greater empathy and start speaking to, not at, young Australians especially, he will have a chance of convincing those hit hardest and left voiceless by the national lockdown that the Coalition is the pro-youth party of jobs and entrepreneurship.

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