To get the economy going, we’ll need more than hard hats

That’s the headline for my latest article in Independent Australia. Opening paras

WITH THE economy in recession as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and depressed conditions likely to continue for a year or more to come, attention has turned to strategies to promote recovery.

Unsurprisingly, most participants in the policy process have turned to the kinds of strategies they have always favoured.

High on the list for many is increased investment in physical infrastructure projects and particularly transport infrastructure. Such projects, always announced with an impressive-sounding number of associated jobs, lend themselves to images of legions of workers toiling with picks and shovels (the term “shovel-ready” is commonly used for projects ready to be implemented rapidly). And the announcement of such projects gives rise to media-friendly images, mercilessly satirised by the ABC program Utopia, of politicians in hard hats and hi-vis vests, busily engaged in building the nation.


the biggest investments we need to make are in people, not concrete. The pandemic has exposed huge weaknesses in our social infrastructure, from aged care and public health to university education. These are the areas that desperately need more investment if we are to make the economic transformation we need.

7 thoughts on “To get the economy going, we’ll need more than hard hats

  1. I was reminded of this again when looking at a job in Aotearoa: Malcolm said the NBN would be a useless boondoggle and he made sure it turned out that way. It’s hard not to conclude that we’d be better off tearing the bloody thing up and starting again. That is the sort of shovel-based infrastructure investment we need, though. More runways and motorways we don’t need, and especially in NSW where the plan is to quarry one of the last koala refuges to make concrete.

    Meanwhile, in New Zealand they’re apologising to the few places that are stuck with ADSL or wireless internet. I’d have to live more than 10km out of almost any town in the Waikato to avoid fibre to the home (if for some reason I wanted that). And gigabit plans are about $150/mo.

    Sadly at least for now my boss doesn’t like the idea that “work from home” might allow me to have a home quite that far from the office.

  2. Thanks, JQ.

    It is clear that all that talk of “The Knowledge Economy”, a few short years ago, has not made a dent in the prejudices of policy-makers, that “real work” is white blokes heaving around physical objects. A 30-second web search suffices to show the mistakenness of that.

    In effect they’re still living in a pre-transistor fantasy world, which does not bode well for facing up to the challenges that we face in the real world.

    OR, the alternative explanation arises from the fact that heavy construction is notoriously corrupt. And that bodes even less well.

  3. JQ,
    You state:
    “The pandemic has exposed huge weaknesses in our social infrastructure, from aged care and public health to university education. These are the areas that desperately need more investment if we are to make the economic transformation we need.”

    I don’t disagree, but I think the threats are much greater. If you haven’t already, perhaps you may like to look at Home Front?

    “Never before have we faced the level of threat that now confronts us. We stand on the edge of major ecological and social tipping points that could manifest in the coming decades.

    Demands for appropriate risk management and immediate action at emergency speed are now coming from some unexpected quarters. To protect human populations, environmental systems and to avoid further tipping points we are now told that it will be necessary to act as fast as humanly possible to lower the earth’s temperature to within a safe climate range.

    HOME FRONT documents the existential threat of climate change from a uniquely Australian economic and national security perspective.”

  4. The bias towards physical infrastructure is reinforced by the growth of industry super funds. Not just where the money is coming from, these funds need something concrete/tangible on their books to reassure their members. I suppose they could support social infrastructure indirectly via government bonds. An issue with investment by industry super funds is the riskiness of favouring investment in their own industry, or mere whim. To the casual observer, the former could already be the case with construction. A recent worrying case of the latter is Greg Combet barracking for his own version of the already iffy proposal for an express train to Melbourne Airport.

  5. May, that’s how the process is supposed to work. We can’t drive full time farm workers out of the industry and into the cities by paying seasonal workers a decent wage, or even the minimum wage.

    This flows through though – the 98% who don’t live in rural areas benefit by getting cheaper food. So the real question is: would you support organised crime and slavery if it saved you a dollar a year? The evidence suggests many voters do… or charitably, that’s just not important to them. I’m struggling to be charitable, because we hear so much about “keeping food prices low” both from politicians and from food retailers (“down, down, morals are down” as the jingle goes). Any time Labour talk about fair wages that’s the response.

  6. @ may
    A friend here in Canada experienced the backpacker work scheme. IIRC, he used terms such as “exploitation” & “highway robbery” but avoided “slave labour”.

    On the other hand, a couple I know went to Sydney on some kind of one-year youth work visa,enjoyed themselves immensely, and were treated very well..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s