Monday, November 23, 2020

THE POST-COVID ECONOMY: How our economy has changed

Talk to virtual Comview conference

I want to talk to you about how the Australian economy has changed as a result of the pandemic, including a once-in-30-year change in the macro-economic policy mix, and consider how the economy can recover from this unique recession.

You don’t need me to tell you that the coronavirus is the greatest threat to the health of Australians and the entire world since the “Spanish” flu pandemic a century ago. Nor that the recession this pandemic has precipitated is the greatest blow to our economy, and the world economy, since the Great Depression of the 1930s. What I may need me to remind you of is that, despite Victoria’s second wave, Australia has so far had more success in suppressing the virus than almost all the other advanced economies, and this should mean we suffer less economic damage than they do. It’s also true that our major trading partners – China, Japan and South Korea – have also done well in controlling the virus, which is another good sign for our recovery relative to the other rich countries. However, the pandemic is far from over and we don’t know when that will be. We could still suffer setbacks, and it’s hard to see a full return to business and consumer confidence until it’s clear the pandemic is over. With the rich countries likely to grab the vaccine before the poor countries get it, it seems likely that international travel will be the last thing to return to something like we were used to.

Why this recession is unlike previous recessions

Usually, recessions occur not simply because the economy runs out of puff, but because an inflationary boom prompts the macro authorities to apply the interest-rate brakes, but they hit it too hard and the boom turns to bust. The mood of optimism flips to pessimism, and greed turns to fear. This time, however, there was no boom and no inflation. The economy had not properly recovered from the global financial crisis more than a decade earlier, it was growing slowly and the mood was already sombre.

This time, the recession was driven by governments’ attempts to limit the spread of the virus by closing our borders, shutting down a large part of the economy and requiring people to leave their homes as little as possible. This means the contraction in demand came suddenly and completely, rather taking months to decline, as it usually does. Note, however, that had the government not ordered a lock down, economic activity would have fallen anyway as people tried to avoid being infected.

But the fact that it was the government’s own actions in ordering the lockdown meant that its fiscal policy and monetary policy response to the recession was faster and larger, particularly its two big measures, the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme and the temporary supplement to JobSeeker unemployment benefits. JobKeeper’s objective was to maintain the link between employers and their workers even if the lockdown left them with little work to do, so that once the lockdown ended, normal trading could resume. Together with other measures, another goal was to help protect the cash flow of firms during the lockdown. At one point 3.5 million workers were benefiting from JobKeeper, who otherwise would have been unemployed. With the lockdown having soon been lifted in all states bar Victoria, it’s now clear that much of the collapse in employment and hours worked in April has now been reversed, with Victoria now following. So there has been a significant bounce-back, with much of the 7 per cent decline in real GDP during the June quarter reversed in the two following quarters. Even so, the bounce-back has been far from complete. And although the collapse of many businesses has been avoided, many failures haven’t been.

How the coronacession has changed the economy

In a recent speech, Reserve Bank governor Dr Philip Lowe listed five respects in which the pandemic is leaving its mark on the economy. The first is on the labour market. The rate of unemployment is expected to peak at about 8 per cent by the end of the year, with the rate of under-employment even higher. Unemployment will then decline only slowly and still be above 6 per cent by the end of 2022, the year after next. This suggests wage growth will continue weak.

Second, weak population growth. Restriction of international travel and migration, and a lower birth rate, mean the population is expected to grow by just 0.2 per cent in the present financial year, the lowest since 1916, and be weak the following year. This compares with growth averaging 1.5 per cent a year over the past two decades. Even when eventually international travel resumes, it’s not clear that our rate of immigration will return to what it was. And, even if it does, it seems unlikely that the two or three years of lost population growth will be made up. Australia has had one of the fastest rates of population growth among the advanced economies, with higher rates of economic growth to match. This may not continue, although it may not mean lower rates of economic growth per person. If so, we’ll have a smaller housing industry and less need for investment in new infrastructure.

Third, a changed property market. The market is being hit by a range of conflicting factors: a recession; lower population growth; record low interest rates; government incentives to support residential construction; and changes to the way that people work, shop and live. Rents for CBD retail properties have fallen, as have vacancy rates for office blocks. Residential property prices have fallen in Sydney and Melbourne, particularly for apartments.

Fourth, attitudes to risk. Businesses and households seem to have become more averse to the risks involved in decisions to borrow and spend, despite the fall in interest rates. This is understandable when there is so much uncertainty about what the future holds but, as Lowe reminds us, economic growth depends on business people and consumers being willing to take calculated risks to advance their prosperity. Lowe worries greater risk aversion may add to the signs that the economy has become less “dynamic” – slower to change over time. These signs include low numbers of new firms, less switching between jobs, slower adoption of new technology, and fewer workers moving from low to high productivity firms.

Fifth, digitisation. It seems clear that the pandemic and the lockdown has hastened the adoption of digital technology. Doctors’ longstanding resistance to telehealth and electronic prescriptions has broken down. Many firms have used technology to allow their staff to work from home, and much of this may continue after the pandemic is past, with big implications for time spent commuting, CBD retailing and transport infrastructure needs. Online meeting technology has reduced the need for travel. There has been huge growth in online retailing, which is unlikely to be reversed. Electronic transactions have greatly reduced cash transactions.

The changed macro management policy mix

For the first 30 years following World War II, the main policy instrument used to stabilise demand as the economy moved through the business cycle was fiscal policy, with monetary policy playing a subsidiary, supporting role. That changed in the late 1970s when the advanced economies acquired a serious problem with high and rising inflation, and “stagflation” destroyed confidence in the simple Phillips curve trade-off between inflation and unemployment. The conventional wisdom became that monetary policy, conducted by an independent central bank, should be the main instrument used for stabilising demand, with fiscal policy playing the subsidiary role.

But roughly 30 years later, the coronacession has a seen a reversion to fiscal policy playing the dominant role in short-term stabilisation, leaving monetary policy as a back-up. Ostensibly, this is because the need for stimulus was so great and because, with interest rates already so low, monetary policy was left with little room to move. In the recession of the early 1990s, for instance, the official interest rate was cut by more than 10 percentage points. In the response to the global financial crisis of 2008-09, the rate was cut by more than 4 percentage points. In the response to the coronacession, the RBA has been able to cut by less than 1 percentage point before taking the cash rate virtually to zero, at 0.1 per cent. Since March the RBA has also resorted to “quantitative easing” – buying second-hard government bonds from the banks and paying for them merely by crediting amounts to the banks’ exchange-settlement accounts with the RBA – but how much this does to stimulate demand for goods and services (as opposed to demand for assets such has houses and shares) is open to doubt. By contrast, the federal budget has provided a total of $257 billion in direct stimulus over serval years, equivalent to 13 per cent of nominal GDP in 2019-20. (This compares with stimulus in response to the GFC of 6 per cent of GDP in 2008-09.)

Behind these immediate reasons for fiscal policy resuming the leading role, however, are deeper, structural factors. As Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy has observed, there has been “a fundamental shift in the macroeconomic underpinnings of the global and domestic economies, the cause of which is still not fully understood”. This is a reference to the “secular stagnation” or “low-growth trap” I discussed at last year’s Comview. Your modern, independent central bank – and the policy mix that gave top billing to monetary policy – was designed to cope with the problem of high and rising inflation. But, as former Reserve governor Ian Macfarlane has explained, inflation in the advanced economies has been falling for the past 30 years and is now below central bank targets. Low inflation means low nominal interest rates, of course. And, as Treasury’s Kennedy has reminded us, the global real interest rate, similar to the neutral interest rate – the real official rate that’s neither expansionary nor contractionary – has been falling steadily for the past 40 years. This has been due to structural developments that drive up savings (the supply of “loanable funds”) relative to the willingness of households and firms to borrow and invest (the demand for loanable funds), he says. This “is likely due to some combination of population ageing, the productivity slowdown and lower preferences for risk among investors,” he says.

All this says that fiscal policy’s return to primacy over monetary policy is not just a temporary development, but the culmination of structural forces building up over decades, suggesting this will be a lasting change. It may be many years before inflation returns as a problem.

Fiscal policy and monetary policy: pros and cons

Monetary policy’s great advantage is that it can be changed so quickly and easily, by a decision of the RBA board (this covers the decision lag and implementation lag), whereas fiscal policy changes involve possibly protracted development of measures and consideration by cabinet (the decision lag), and then often delays before the measures can be put into effect (the implementation lag). But, once implemented, monetary policy changes probably take longer to have their full effect on the economy (the impact lag) than does fiscal policy.

But fiscal policy measures – whether on the tax or spending sides of the budget - can be targeted to fixing particular problems, whereas monetary policy is a “blunt instrument” or one-trick pony: it uses interest rates to encourage or discourage borrowing and spending. Fiscal policy includes the budget’s automatic stabilisers (to which, Kennedy has argued, JobKeeper and the JobSeeker supplement, being open-ended, were temporary additions).

Economists at the IMF and elsewhere argue that fiscal policy multipliers are higher than earlier believed. This is partly because leakages to imports are less significant when all major governments are stimulating simultaneously in response to the same global shock (such as the GFC or a pandemic). But it’s also because the effect of fiscal stimulus isn’t reduced by the “monetary policy reaction function” – the decisions of independent central banks to raise interest rates because they fear the fiscal stimulus will add to inflation pressure.

Finally, and as I said in last year’s talk, monetary policy’s “comparative advantage relative to fiscal policy is controlling inflation, not stimulating demand when the economy is again caught in a liquidity trap”. Because we are likely still to be caught in a low-growth trap even when the pandemic is a receding memory, l have no trouble believing the econocrats’ repeated warnings that the road to recovery will be long and bumpy.


Monday, November 9, 2020

Reserve Bank suffering relevance deprivation syndrome

I’m sorry to say it, and it’s certainly not the done thing to say, but the Reserve Bank looks to me like that emperor with a serious wardrobe deficiency.

Apart from the nation’s allegedly “self-funded” retirees – whose angry letters to Reserve governor Dr Philip Lowe must by now be absolutely blistering – no one wants to question last week’s decision to make what must surely be the smallest-ever cut in the official interest rate, and engage in a bit more of what central bankers prefer to call “quantitative easing” or “balance-sheet expansion” rather than use those verboten words Printing Money.

I guess there’s no reason any borrower would object to paying lower interest rates, no matter how microscopic the reduction. Nor are the nation’s treasuries and governments likely to object to having their own interest bills cut a fraction.

As for the experts in the financial markets, their vested interest lies in having the central bank stay as busy as possible, organising events where they can lay bets. An inactive Reserve is a central bank that’s not helping them justify their lucrative but unproductive existence. “Negative interest rates? Might be a fun day out. Bring it on.”

But I’ve heard from a lot of retired central bankers who disapprove of the Reserve’s scraping of the barrel. And last week Dr Mike Keating, a former top econocrat, also questioned the wisdom of keeping on keeping on.

Some other people have seen the Reserve’s decision to, in Lowe’s words, “do what we reasonably can, with the tools that we have, to support the recovery” as a sign it judged last month’s budget not to have done enough.

Maybe, but I doubt its motives are so noble. Alternatively, Lowe’s reference to “doing what we can” with “the tools we have” could be taken as a tacit admission that his tools can’t do much.

As Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy made clear last week, monetary policy’s “scope . . . to provide sufficient stimulus is limited and has necessitated the large levels of fiscal support”. His speech was devoted to making sure his financial-markets audience – and the rest of us – understood that the headquarters of short-term management of the macro economy has now shifted from Martin Place, Sydney to Parkes Place, Canberra.

No, I think what we’re seeing is our most well-resourced economic regulator (well-resourced because it prints its own banknotes) desperately trying to look busy and relevant because it’s lost its main reason for existence, but can’t be shut down or even sent on “furlough” – the latest euphemism for being put on unpaid leave, in the hope the need for your services will return.

No country could leave itself bereft of a central bank. The Reserve can’t be shut down because one of its infrequent but vital roles is to flood the financial markets with liquidity whenever they become dysfunctional (as happened in the global financial crisis and, in a smaller way, in the early days of the pandemic).

But the fact remains that the Reserve’s primary function – the short-term stabilisation of demand - has gone away and isn’t likely to come back in my lifetime (another 20 years, max). That is, its problem is structural (long-lasting) not cyclical (temporary).

Your modern, independent central bank was designed to respond to the problem of high and rising inflation. And during the 1980s (and, in Australia, 1990s) its ability to do so was clearly demonstrated.

But, as former Reserve governor Ian Macfarlane has reminded us, inflation rates in the advanced economies have been falling for the past 30 years, and now seem entrenched below the central banks’ targets. And, as Treasury’s Kennedy reminded us last week, the global (real) neutral interest rate has been falling for 40 years.

Central banks need independence of the politicians so they can raise interest rates to fight inflation. They don’t need it to lower rates. But with inflation having gone away as a problem, it’s now 10 years since the Reserve last raised rates (and even that proved unnecessary and had to be unwound).

When nominal interest rates were high, cutting rates in big licks did seem effective in helping revive growth and employment. But with interest rates now so low and getting lower in the 12 years of weak Australian and advanced-country growth since the financial crisis, there’s little reason to believe cutting rates is effective in reducing unemployment and underemployment.

Last week Lowe insisted that an official interest rate down at 0.1 per cent does not mean the Reserve has “run out of firepower” – by which he meant that there’s still plenty of money he can print.

True. But, as Reserve assistant governor Dr Chris Kent has explained, the dominant purpose of the money-printing is to lower “risk-free” (government bond) interest rates further out along the maturity curve beyond the official overnight cash rate.

And this doesn’t provide a reason to believe slightly lower interest rates will induce households and firms to borrow and spend in a way that fractionally higher rates didn’t. Whatever people’s reasons for not spending, the high cost of borrowing isn’t one of them.

The old jibe that cutting interest rates to induce growth is like “pushing on a string” for once seems apposite.

Remembering the retired Reserve bankers’ point that it chose to limit its intervention in financial markets to short-term and variable interest rates for good reason – to limit monetary policy’s distortion of private sector choices - one thing we can be more confident of is that printing money and cutting rates when few people want to borrow for consumption or real investment will be effective in inflating bubbles in the prices of assets such as houses and shares.

How this would leave the unemployed better off is hard to see. Risking our heavily indebted household sector becoming more so doesn’t seem a great idea.


Friday, November 6, 2020

Treasury chief warns big changes are on the way

When finally the pandemic has become just a bad memory, we’ll see it has left big changes in the way the macro economy is managed and the way we work and spend. Whether that leaves us better or worse off we’ve yet to discover.

That’s the conclusion I draw from Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy’s (online) post-budget speech to the Australian Business Economists on Thursday, the restoration of a tradition going back to the 1990s.

Kennedy observes that, although “fiscal policy” (changes in government spending and taxing) has always responded to large shocks such as recessions, for the past 30 years the accepted wisdom in advanced economies has been that the preferred tool for stabilising the ups and downs in demand is “monetary policy” (changes in interest rates by the central bank), leaving fiscal policy to focus on structural and sustainability (levels of public debt) issues.

This mix of policy roles was preferred because central banks could make timely decisions, using an appropriately nimble instrument – the official interest rate. Interest rates, it was considered, could help manage demand without having much effect on the allocation of resources (the shape of the economy) in the long-run, Kennedy says.

In previous downturns, monetary policy played a major part in helping to get the economy moving. In response to the 1990s recession, Kennedy reminds us, the Reserve Bank cut the official interest rate by more than 10 percentage points. In response to the global financial crisis of 2008-09, it cut rates by more than 4 percentage points.

By now, however, the Reserve has run out of room. In its response to the coronacession, it cut the rate by 0.5 percentage points to 0.25 per cent. This week it squeezed out another cut of 0.15 percentage points and went further in “unconventional” monetary policy measures. That is, printing money.

Why so little room? Interest rates are down to unprecedented lows partly because, as I wrote last week, the rate of inflation has been falling for the past 30 years.

But Kennedy explains the other reason: the “natural” or “neutral” interest rate has been “steadily falling globally over the past 40 years”. The neutral interest rate is the real official rate when monetary policy is neither expansionary nor contractionary.

(Note that word “real”. Conceptually, nominal interest rates have two parts: the bit that’s just the lenders’ compensation for expected inflation, and the “real” bit that’s the lenders’ reward for giving borrowers the temporary use of their money.)

“The declining neutral rate is due to [global] structural developments that drive up savings relative to the willingness of households and firms to borrow and invest,” Kennedy says.

“While the academic research is not settled on the relative importance of different structural drivers, it is likely due to some combination of population ageing, the productivity slowdown and lower preferences for risk among investors,” he says.

Because this is a “structural” (long-term) rather than “cyclical” (short-term) development, “a number of central banks have suggested that interest rates will not rise for many years”.

Kennedy says the size and speed of the shock from the pandemic necessitated a large fiscal (budgetary) response. This would have been true even if a large response from conventional monetary policy had been available – which it no longer was.

Monetary policy is a one-trick pony. It can make it cheaper or dearer to borrow, and that’s it. As we saw with the early measures – particularly the JobKeeper wage subsidy and the temporary supplement to the JobSeeker dole payment – fiscal policy can be targeted to problem areas. “Monetary policy cannot replace incomes or tie workers to jobs,” he says.

So the move from monetary policy to the primacy of fiscal policy is not only unavoidable, it has advantages.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the federal government has provided $257 billion in direct economic support over several years, which is equivalent to 13 per cent of last financial year’s nominal gross domestic product. That compares with the $72 billion the feds provided in economic stimulus during the global financial crisis, or 6 per cent of GDP in 2008-09.

Kennedy notes that fiscal policy is about stabilising the economy’s rate of growth over the short term; it can’t increase economic growth over the medium to long-term. According to neo-classical theory, that’s determined by the Three Ps – growth in population, participation in the labour force, and productivity.

But whereas over the 10 years to 2004-05 our rate of improvement in “multi-factor” productivity averaged 1.4 per cent a year, over the five years prior to the pandemic it averaged half that, 0.7 per cent.

There are many suggested causes for this slowdown (which can also be observed in the rest of the rich world). Treasury research has highlighted signs of reduced “dynamism” (ability to change over time), such as low rates of new firms starting up, fewer workers switching jobs, slower adoption of the latest technology, and fewer workers moving from low-productivity to high-productivity firms.

Kennedy says it’s not clear how the pandemic will affect Australia’s long-run rate of improvement in productivity. But it has the potential to cause some large structural changes in the economy. We’ve seen the way it has forced businesses to innovate.

“Necessity is a great ramrod for breaking down the barriers to technological adoption,” he says.

Remote working is one example. In September, almost a third of workers worked from home most days. If this continues it could have “significant implications for transport infrastructure planning and for the functioning of CBDs”.

An official survey in September found that 36 per cent of businesses had changed the way products or services were provided to customers. The ability to pivot displayed by many firms indicates potential for innovation and adaptation.

On the other hand, there’s a risk that closures among smaller firms will lead to even more market concentration and slower productivity growth. Let’s hope not.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

We should stop backing losers in the Climate Change Cup

The big question for Scott Morrison and his colleagues is whether they want to be a backward-looking or forward-looking government.

Do they want to enshrine Australia as the last giant of the disappearing world of fossil fuels, and pay the price of declining relevance to the changing needs of our trading partners, with all the loss of jobs and growth that would entail?

Or do they have the courage to seize this opportunity to transform Australia into a giant in the production and export of renewable energy and energy-intensive manufactures, with all the new jobs and growth that would bring?

In recent weeks, the main customers for our energy exports – China, Japan and South Korea – have done something we’ve so far refused to do: set a date for their achievement of "carbon neutrality". Zero net emissions of greenhouse gases.

Faced with this, and the free advice from fellow conservative Boris Johnson that he should get with the program, Morrison has defiantly declared that Australia would make its own "sovereign decisions".

This is infantile behaviour from someone wanting to be a leader, like the wilful child who shouts, "You’re not the boss of me!"

It goes without saying that Australia will make its own decisions in its own interests. No other country has the ability or desire to force its will on us. But nor can we force our will on them. They will go the way they consider to be in their best interests, and it's clear most are deciding to get out of using fossil fuels.

We remain free to change our export offering to meet our trading partners’ changing needs, or to tell them all to get stuffed because producing coal and gas is what we’ve always done and intend to keep on doing. Our sovereignty is not under threat. No one can stop us making ourselves poorer.

A report issued on Monday by Pradeep Philip, head of Deloitte Access Economics, called A New Choice attempts to put figures on the choices we face in responding – or failing to respond – to global warming. I’m not a great believer in modelling results, but the report does much to illuminate our possible futures.

In last year’s election, Morrison made much of Bill Shorten’s failure to produce modelling of the cost to the economy of his plan to reduce emissions in 2030 by much more than the Coalition promised to do in the Paris Agreement.

Had he been sufficiently dishonest, Shorten could easily have paid some economic consultancy to fudge up modelling purporting to show the cost would be minor, but for some reason he didn’t. However, Morrison didn’t resist the temptation to quote the results of someone who, over decades of modelling the cost of taking action to reduce emissions, had never failed to find they would be huge.

It’s true that the decline of our fossil fuel industries will involve much expensive disruption to those businesses and the lives of their workers, as they seek out new industries in which to invest their capital and find employment.

But what’s a lot more obvious today than it was even last year is that this cost will be incurred whether it happens as a result of government policy, or because the decline in other countries’ demand for our fossil fuel exports leaves us with what financiers call "stranded assets" – mines and other facilities that used to turn a profit, but now don’t.

Last year it was possible for the cynical and selfish to ask why we should get serious about climate change when no one else was. Today the question is reversed: how can we fail to act when everyone else is?

One of Morrison’s great skills as a politician is his ability to draw our attention away from some elephant he doesn’t want us to notice. In the election he got us to focus on the cost of acting to reduce our emissions. The bigger question we should have been asking is, what’s the cost to the economy if we and the others don’t act to stop future global warming?

Whatever number some modeller puts on that cost, our "black summer" should have left us needing little convincing that climate change is already happening and already imposing great destruction, pain and cost on us. Nor is it hard to believe the costs won’t be limited to drought, heatwaves and bushfires, and will get a lot worse unless we stop adding to the greenhouse gas already in the atmosphere.

On a more positive note, Deloitte adds its support to those experts – including Professor Ross Garnaut and the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood – finding that "in a global economy where emissions-intensive energy is replaced by energy from renewables, Australia can be a global source of secure and reliable renewable power. Countries such as Japan, South Korea and Germany have already come to Australia asking for us to export renewable hydrogen for their own domestic energy consumption."

We have a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to simultaneously boost economic growth, create sustainable jobs [and] build more resilient and cleaner energy systems".


Monday, November 2, 2020

Economies malfunction when we can't trust our leaders

With the federal, NSW and Victorian governments all mired in questionable conduct but refusing to accept responsibility for their actions, a reminder of the value of ethical behaviour to the good governance of the nation is timely.

A report, The Ethical Advantage, by John O’Mahony, of Deloitte Access Economics, and commissioned by Dr Simon Longstaff’s Ethics Centre, reminds us that while ethical behaviour and trust are different things, a long record of ethical behaviour builds trust, which can be quickly destroyed by unethical behaviour.

To be successful, business leaders need the trust of their customers, employees and suppliers. The less people trust them, the harder they must work – and the more they must spend on marketing and security – to remain profitable.

It’s true you can go for a fair while abusing the trust of others, but when eventually they wake up, they tend to be pretty dirty about it. For years our banks took advantage of their customers’ trusting inattention by, for instance, failing to advise loyal customers of the better deals they were offering new customers. Now they wonder why their customers hate and distrust them.

Years of declining standards of behaviour on both sides of politics, and refusal to accept responsibility when things go wrong, have led to declining levels of trust in our politicians, and lowering respect for our leaders.

The imminent threat posed by the pandemic prompted our federal and state leaders to stop bickering and pull together, with oppositions anxious to be co-operative. The result was a marked increase in public confidence in the Prime Minister and premiers – a bonus Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk banked on Saturday.

But no sooner had the threat eased – but not passed – than we were back to politics as usual. Our leaders don’t lead, they try to score points off their opponents. Great way to kill their newfound popularity.

Unsurprisingly, the report finds that there remains significant scope for us to raise our levels of ethical behaviour and trust. The Governance Institute of Australia’s ethics index, based on an annual survey of Australians’ perceptions of the level of ethical behaviour in society, gave us a “somewhat ethical” score of plus 37 on a scale of minus 100 to plus 100.

This was for last year, before the pandemic, and down from plus 41 in 2017. Across industries, healthcare was seen as the most ethical, with a score of plus 67. Then came education, charities and not-for-profits, and agriculture. Banking, finance and insurance was seen as the least ethical industry, with a score of minus 18.

According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, just 47 per cent of Australians trust business, government, media and our non-government organisations to do the right thing. Worse, none was seen as strongly competent or ethical – with government being seen as the least competent and ethical out of all our institutions.

Remembering the “steady stream of state and federal political scandals”, the report says, this weak ethical performance is no surprise. Royal commissions have uncovered unconscionable behaviour in religious and other institutions, widespread misconduct in the banking, superannuation and financial services industry, and alarming lapses in aged care quality and safety.

Behaving ethically requires us think a lot about what’s right and wrong in the things we do, the way we treat people and the choices we make. For some action to be legal doesn’t make it ethical. Grant Hehir, Commonwealth Auditor General, says “we care not only about whether an entity is following the legal rules, but also whether it is acting within the intent of the law and community expectations”.

Nor is an action ethical because “it’s what everyone does”. Professor Ian Harper, of Melbourne University Business School, says “we all have values and moral convictions – ethics is about having the courage to apply these in the real world”.

The report says that, apart from the pandemic, we’re facing big challenges to our future, including from climate change, an increasingly risky geo-political environment, new technology and the future of work, and reconciliation with Indigenous Australians.

The actions needed to cope with these challenges “will require leadership of a quality that enables society to cohere in the face of external and internal pressures that would otherwise cause divisions.

“In these circumstances, trust will be at a premium – especially for key institutions. In turn, this will depend on the quality of ethical decision-making by individuals, groups and organisations,” the report concludes.

When the unethical behaviour of business and politicians causes them to lose the public’s trust, governments lose the ability to make tough “reforms”. As the pandemic demonstrates, only when politicians can clearly be seen as acting in the whole public’s best interests will they be safe at the polls.