Opinion article

Building a fairer Australia after COVID-19

Logan Together Director, Matthew Cox; University of Queensland Institute for Social Science Research Professor, Tim Reddel; and public purpose strategy consultant Michael Hogan, write that the COVID-19 crisis offers an opportunity to 'build back better', creating a more equitable Australia by focusing on place-based solutions to societal disadvantage.

The coronavirus pandemic and associated economic crisis presents particular challenges for Australians in our least advantaged families and communities. As with most crisis events, those with the least resources and most insecure engagement with our economy and society will be among the hardest hit. They will also find it hardest to bounce back. 

While much is being done in the immediate response phase to support Australians to survive and navigate through severe dislocation, there will be more to do in the recovery phase.

Recovery from the anticipated economic recession – and entrenched unemployment, inequality and hardship – will require ambitious, enduring national interventions. These are extraordinary times; the ‘building back better’ agenda must be extraordinary in its scale and capacity to unify and mobilise public support.

There is already an encouraging public dialogue about what measures will be temporary, which should be sustained, about how life will be different, and how we shape a new normal.

For this, Australia has robust frameworks, strong capabilities and extensive experience, in particular from our frequent activations for natural and other disasters. In these situations, we have legislated institutional arrangements enabling phased, coordinated and focused efforts on prevention, preparedness, response, relief, recovery and resilience, at local, district, state and national levels. These are place-based and engage all sectors. They apply too in major health emergencies.

Over recent months our ‘tried and true’ disaster response infrastructure and approaches have been adapted and applied quickly to the COVID-19 pandemic response. This must also be the case for our pandemic recovery.

Fundamental to effective disaster recovery is the concept of betterment. This means not only repairing what has been damaged or broken but doing so in a way which enhances ability to withstand and recover from future events i.e. to be more preventive, more prepared and more resilient. Betterment can and should be at the centre of the tasks of social and economic recovery and rebuilding.

The opportunity to bounce back stronger

Sadly, the leadership, collaboration and institutional adjustments activated to address major disasters are often missing from our response to the creeping and compounding inter-generational disasters of poverty and marginalisation, violence and abuse.

But over recent weeks the widespread demonstration of joint leadership, shared responsibility, creativity, innovation, ’working for the sake of everyone’s health, safety and wellbeing’ give a glimpse of what can be activated for sustained public benefit. Old ideologies and paradigms have been challenged. We can ‘bounce forward’ from a strong evidence and practice base.

The Committee for Economic Development (CEDA) identified in its 2019 Disrupting Disadvantage report[i] that business as usual governance, program, data and investment arrangements have not been successful at breaking the cycle of entrenched disadvantage. The Productivity Commission, on the release of its 2018 Rising Inequality research paper, called for more targeted policy approaches crafted for particular people and communities. They identified, based on the available evidence, a failure to address `deep and persistent disadvantage’ impacting on at least 700,000 Australians.[ii] This figure will certainly rise with the impact of COVID-19. Going back to the status quo will not shift the dial for these folks.

Some communities and jurisdictions have taken steps in recent years to reimagine how to do community engagement, services, subsidies and supports. They have drawn on mounting evidence of what works, and looked closely at place-based, collective impact initiatives. Prominent local examples include Logan Together,[iii] the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment project in Bourke, Burnie Works in Tasmania and the Greater Shepparton Lighthouse Project. 

Steps have been taken to embed policy informed by that evidence. The Queensland Government’s Advancing Queensland Priorities provides a set of state-level goals and targets alongside a framework for place-based initiatives, Thriving Communities and, for Indigenous peoples, Local Thriving Communities.[iv] The Victorian Government released a new framework in February this year for placed-based approaches, Working Together in Place,[v] and is applying this in multiple communities across Victoria. 

Nationally, in 2018 the Australian Government committed to a prototype Stronger Places Stronger People initiative ‘in partnership with the States and Territories and to support ten place-based initiatives around Australia to demonstrate whether Collective Impact can interrupt disadvantage and create better futures for children and families’.[vi]  Various Australian entities are framing strategies for ‘inclusive growth’ and ‘well-being economics’.

Internationally, a plethora of organisations, strategies, frameworks, evaluations and networks have been built for impactful and integrated social and economic development at local and regional levels.[vii]

All of these provide a reference for rigorous, complex and innovative change programs and for successful execution of inclusive growth and place-based approaches. While the scale of our current health, economic and social crisis feels unprecedented, place-based approaches have a long legacy of success in Australia. 

A place and community perspective was an essential element of the Commonwealth Government’s efforts to redevelop post-war Australia, evidenced by the efforts of the Department of Post-war Reconstruction including the establishment of the Commonwealth Housing Commission in 1944. The Commission argued strongly that national policies and programs must be seen in a regional context which promoted a rising standard of human welfare and participation of local people in planning for their communities (Commonwealth Department of Post-war Reconstruction, 1949[viii]).

It wasn’t until the 1970s, through social development initiatives such as the Australian Assistance Plan and the devolved economic development program of the Department of Urban and Regional Development, that the Commonwealth Government again played a meaningful role in addressing place-based disadvantage.

Both the lessons of history and recent developments are vital in framing responses for general as well as location-specific pandemic response and recovery strategies. Social and economic policies must work together and state, market and civil society institutions and government at all levels matter.

Aligning instruments for recovery

The creation of the National Cabinet and National COVID-19 Coordination Commission along with other governance reforms, sweeping restrictions and powers, changed regulatory arrangements, new ways of partnering and working, immense public investment, and the mobilising of individuals, networks and societies have been lauded features of the pandemic response.

They can be leveraged to create the sustained changes we need to drive a lasting social development agenda for Australia.

The recovery phase of our country’s pandemic response provides an opportunity to ‘disrupt disadvantage’.  We can do so by:

  • building on our experience and expertise in disaster recovery and community engagement
  • adapting existing collaborative governance arrangements between government, civil society and the private sector
  • aligning our efforts to deliver local, state and national priorities in conjunction with communities
  • prioritising those who experience the most entrenched disadvantage and the biggest impacts
  • changing the way we invest in programs and people to better align social and economic outcomes
  • enabling capacity building and leadership
  • drawing on the growing momentum for and lessons from place-based initiatives and from post-war reconstruction
  • operationalising our knowledge about ‘what works’ in disrupting disadvantage
  • enabling innovation and community-initiated action, including by providing open access to more integrated evidence, localised data and examples of community-level initiatives that work
  • settling on some ambitious ‘nation-building’ priorities in areas that our society has realised matter more than we’ve valued them to date, like overhauling our current arrangements for childcare via a national early years / child development agenda, and
  • mobilising the social, human and economic capital of a diverse range of key entities and players.

The pandemic is a staggering health, economic and social crisis that has been met with a commensurate response. It needs an equally ambitious and transformational recovery.

It demands a new normal: an adaptive approach to policy and delivery arrangements; effective and accountable implementation; community mobilisation; and multi-faceted agenda coordination informed by disaster recovery methodology.

The old normal is no longer good enough. We wont make progress with implementation and delivery systems comprised of diverse institutions; hard-to-shift delivery and regulatory systems and instruments; complex grant programs, contracts and direct payments; low level evidence base and data informing design, delivery and evaluation of public goods and services; confusion, conflict, and ubiquitous turf wars between stakeholders; and approaches that don’t meld economic and social policy well enough.

It’s time for public consideration of a Building Back Better framework, and for leaders across all sectors and at all levels to come together, adapting our proven arrangements for disaster recovery, to devise a policy and implementation agenda that delivers an even fairer, stronger, smarter, more sustainable, more resilient and more democratic Australia.

[i] Committee for Economic Development Australia, Disrupting Disadvantage: Setting the Scene, 2019.
[ii] https://www.pc.gov.au/research/completed/rising-inequality
[viii] See Macintyre, S (2015) Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and reconstruction in the 1940s, New South Publishing, Sydney 
About the authors

Matthew Cox

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After chairing the working party that established the Logan Together initiative during 2014/2015, Matthew Cox was appointed its Director in July 2015. Prior to this role, Matthew spent a decade at the Australian Red Cross, heading the organisation’s human services and community and economic development program in Queensland.

Earlier Matthew had a career in local government and in communications and marketing. Matthew is a member of the Logan City of Choice Leadership Team and is currently its co-chair.


Tim Reddel

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Professor Tim Reddel leads the Social Solutions Lab at the Institute for Social Science Research, University of Queensland. The Lab's goal is to create greater public policy impact for social science knowledge and research through more collaborative, deeper, evidenced based, outcome focussed and mutually beneficial partnerships between researchers, end users and citizens.

Prior to his appointment to the Institute in August 2019, Professor Reddel worked in a range of senior executive roles in the Australian and Queensland public service, the community services sector and academia. He has previously led the Australian Government's Department of Social Services' Policy Office which was responsible for evidence, data analysis, research and evaluation strategies to support and enable quality strategic social policy. Professor Reddel is also an Adjunct Professor with the Cities Research Institute at Griffith University and was appointed to the Australian Research Council's Engagement and Impact Assessment Panel for Social Sciences in 2018 to examine how well universities were engaging with research end-users and delivering policy impact.

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