Three ways to care for one another and for our cultural life

Avoid language of war. Adopt the language of care. 

I get that politicians like to look as though they’re in control, and of course, we do need clarity and confidence when there’s so much at stake. But there are so many ways to communicate that without resorting to the language of war.

Military analogies retraumatise the survivors of war, debase the values of community, and distance us even further from the people we have elected to make responsible decisions on our behalf.

We’re not in a war. We’re in the most devastating disruption of our cultural life that most of us have ever known. And that demands an ethical approach and a cultural approach.

To look after our health, we need to look after our culture. 

All over the world, the places and the events that bring us together are disappearing. The artists and creative workers who make and present that work are out of jobs, and creative businesses are closing by the day, without any clear prospect of what comes next. The cultural life of the entire world has been suspended.

All this talk of social distancing is causing great distress. We’re human beings – we want to be together, to express ourselves, to respond to one another’s ideas, to visit galleries and experience performances and cheer at the weekend game.

And we can still do all of that – in different ways. It’s physical distancing, not social distancing, that we need to observe – and it’s so important that we shift that language, fast.

People won’t readily change their behaviour unless we know how we’re going to stay connected, how we’re going to express ourselves and be inspired. A health emergency of this scale needs to begin with a clear arts and cultural plan. That’s its necessary foundation. It cannot be a mere afterthought.

Plan unintended consequences.

Possibly the most disappointing things about all this is how unprepared governments are. As Sam Mostyn pointed out on last Monday’s QandA, the corporate sector has been plotting these scenarios for some time, and their contingency plans have long been ready to go.

It’s heartening that there will be another 5,000 workers at Services Australia (formerly Centrelink), and it will be important that they’re skilled up quickly and responsibly to deal with the complex issues they’re about to face.

Similarly, our parliaments will need to rediscover their purpose and rethink their structures.

We rely on our governments to understand the macroeconomic implications of tough decisions. To understand the fundamental interconnectedness of our industries. The scale of fiscal policy measures needs to be grasped. Governments need to rediscover the very role of government itself. Fast.

Alongside the National Cabinet, we need unity cabinets at federal and state levels which include opposition parties. We need parliamentary committees dedicated to planning our recovery. And we need separate committee whose sole focus is the much longer term. How has this changed us? How do we make decisions, and what needs to change? And how will we create the Australia of the future? Let’s make sure that do that thinking and that work – now.