Review – Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia

By Georgia Cerni

Sophie Cousins’ book Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia is, in many respects, a proposal. For Cousins, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided Australians with an opportunity to reconsider the ways our society currently functions. Cousins aptly makes her case – while in some ways the pandemic reinforced burgeoning inequalities, it also presented us the chance to apply collectivist values to solve systemic problems.

In the shadow of the pandemic, Renewal was undoubtedly produced speedily. As such, the book provides an excellent analysis of Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cousins’ background as a journalist turned public health professional comes through strongly in Renewal. She commands each topic for discussion well, and the author’s public health background is particularly evident in her discussion about Indigenous communities.

Cousins’ discussion is lively and it flows seamlessly, while at the same time packing a punch with evidence-based research. It is likely the best analysis of 2020 we have thus far. Her discussion is foregrounded by her argument that the pandemic necessitated the need for collectivist actions and changes in policies. As such, we as Australians need to get off the path that neoliberalism has put us on and acknowledge its shortcomings in the interests of reimagining society.

Cousins’ optimism – that the pandemic has “afforded us a huge opportunity to reimagine the type of country we want to belong to” – is backed up in her larger discussion. Specifically, in the ways that she highlights key failures of neoliberal policy, which necessitates such a shift to occur. In identifying five key areas for review – government and politics, welfare, Indigenous affairs, education and health, and climate change and industry – Cousins identifies measures that could be undertaken in order to create tangible change.

Beginning with government, Renewal takes note of the successful fiscal measures implemented in response to the pandemic – wage subsidy program JobKeeper and the increase in JobSeeker allowance. Their implementation gives us a view of what things can look like when the federal government takes a more active role in response to crises. Cousins even argues that these programmes were always possible, but became probable “when [the federal government] abolished its neoliberal strictures on fiscal restraint during the pandemic”.

Interestingly, Renewal also looks at the emergence of mutual aid efforts in Australian communities. Mutual aid efforts increased not only in response to the pandemic in early 2020, but as a result of the bushfires in months previous. Cousins argues that these efforts emerged as Australians sought to fill the hole left by the lack of intervention and aid given by their federal government. Nevertheless, she notes that these mutual aid activities suggest Australians are willing and can work together in their communities.

Cousins makes a myriad of proposals in Renewal. The most convincing ones are those that are presented using comparisons to Australia’s past. For instance, in making the case for a Universal Basic Income (UBI), she details the welfare programs adopted by the Australian Government at the turn of the twentieth century and during the Second World War. These welfare programmes pale by comparison to the ones offered today. The essence of the argument offered by Cousinsis that Australia has dived into neoliberal philosophy in the last few decades, so much so that we often fail to realise the extent of it. This is particularly relevant in Cousins’ analysis of the higher education system and the aged care system. The former, she argues, has become defined by a precarious labour force and over-reliance on international students’ fee contributions, while the latter has seen failures highlighted in the Royal Commission. Both, Cousins argues, are resultant from burgeoning neoliberal policies and attitudes.

A key to Renewal is Cousins’ discussion of Indigenous affairs. The author uses the events of 2020 as a key discussion point, noting how the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic have the potential to guide further reflection on our Indigenous communities.

“Truth-telling is intrinsically linked to both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. The BLM movement tells the truth about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences; the pandemic, on the other hand, has revealed the truth about why our Aboriginal communities are so vulnerable to the virus.”

Cousins details the crucial role that Indigenous self-governance, through community-led programs and constitutional amendments like the Uluru Statement of the Heart, plays in establishing structure change.

Renewal is a little bit starry-eyed in its hopes for societal restructure, considering that Australia lacks the progressive policy-makers needed to help make this a reality. But it also makes the case of why we have to be bold, and why post-pandemic Australia is the precise time to do so. Moreover, Cousins’ work is incredibly informative and thorough. The in-depth, considered analysis of the past year urges the reader to consider 2020 as a jumping-off point for long-term, structural reform. Indeed, Cousins’ ability to communicate the need for such reform is her greatest strength. Her tone is informative and yet straightforward – the changes she argues for seem like simple common sense. In that case, Renewal should be essential reading.