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We're all in this together - just don't expect the goodwill to last long

Opinion

Nobody really knows what happens post-COVID-19 but Robert MacDonald has a stab at predicting the future.

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“Nobody knows anything,” wrote William Goldman, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of such hits as All the President’s Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in his 1983 memoir, Adventures in the Screen Trade.

Goldman was making a point about what makes a successful Hollywood movie – no one knows, no matter how much they think they do and no matter their track record.

Which is where we are currently in the discussion about what the commercial world will be like once COVID-19 is under control.

Those on the left can see the end of capitalism as we know it now that we have proof – if ever we needed it – that a self-interested profit-driven private sector can’t be trusted with looking after the common good.

We are, they hope, in for a new, golden age of benign government oversight, even a universal basic income, perhaps.

Those on the right can see a future of smaller government – if only because of the necessary cuts to public service numbers needed to pay down the massive cost of the COVID-19 economic rescue packages.

Others can see a rebirth of the manufacturing sector.

Much of the speculation looks and sounds like wishful thinking rather than likely outcomes.  Nobody really knows anything.

But there are some near certainties of what will happen next.

The lawyers will have a field day. Class-action suits will be rife. They’ve already started.

Shine Lawyers is working on a class-action suit on behalf of the 2700 passengers on the COVID-19-infected final cruise of the Ruby Princess, which docked in Sydney on 19 March.

The Flight Attendants Association of Australia is exploring possible action against  Qantas, alleging the company didn’t do enough to protect staff against infection.

That’s just the beginning. Law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth, noted in a recent report that:

“Decisions are being made now to confront today’s challenges and ensure survival, rather than with a careful eye to the future risks that might emerge from the existing uncertainty.

“All of that means that class actions are an inevitable risk, with funders and plaintiff law firms already beginning to mobilise.”

Corrs identifies a wide range of potential class-action targets – from listed entities, accused of not doing enough to be pandemic-ready, to travel operators reluctant to provide refunds and technology and data handling firms whose systems crack under surging, COVID-19-related online traffic.

The Business Council of Australia and the Australian Institute of Company Directors see the prospect of legal action against listed companies as such a real threat they want Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to amend the Corporations Act to freeze class actions.

Corrs speculates that even state and federal governments could face class-action suits given the “massive incursions by government into the private sector in ways not seen outside of periods of war.

“While many will benefit from government attempts to stem the virus and its impacts, many will also suffer.

“Whether or not there will be an appetite (let alone a viable basis) to pursue legally complex and challenging claims against government remains to be seen.

“However, the potential size of the reward means the possibility cannot be ruled out.”

Another (near) certainty is that the authorities will soon announce charges against individuals or companies trying to rort one of more of the new economic support packages, in particular the new JobKeeper scheme.

The piles of money are so large the rorters will definitely have a go.

The Australian Treasury can see it coming. It has published a short fact sheet, titled, “JobKeeper payment – protecting integrity”, which says, “the JobKeeper Payment has robust features to ensure integrity and allow swift and effective action to be taken against fraud and other abuse.

It warns that entities that seeking to abuse the scheme, “will face penalties commensurate with the seriousness of their conduct”. And the penalties are severe – up to 10 years’ jail

Deterrent enough you might think but a head on a pike does carry a certain weight.

Another certainty is that vested interests of all sorts will keep asking for more.

The Australian universities are a case in point.

On Sunday, Education Minister Dan Tehan announced the Australian Government would guarantee existing funding levels of $18 billion of funding to universities this year, even if domestic enrolments drop.

The universities’ response?  Thanks, but not enough. They’re predicting 21,000 job cuts and revenue declines of up to $4 billion, even with the promised funding.

And a final near certainty – howls of indignation when governments turn off their various stimulus packages.

Six months from now – or whenever we’re back to normal – lots of people will have forgotten that $1500 a fortnight under the JobKeeper program was a temporary measure, rather than an entitlement.

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