Speech: Rebuilding Foundations for Reform

November 5, 2015

Economics is often said to be the dismal science.

Well, there should be nothing dismal about today’s discussions.

And that’s not just because we are in marvellous Melbourne – somewhat damply glowing with joy and pride at the way in which Michelle Payne gloriously despatched first another glass ceiling and then her detractors with a pithy candour politicians can only envy.

We are living in the most exciting times in human history.

Free markets, globalisation, long periods of peace and above all the acceleration of technological change has produced economic and political transformations at a speed never seen before.

In the lifetime of almost everyone in this room, China has gone from barely contributing to the world economy to becoming the single largest national economy.

In just a generation we’ve seen the Internet and the smart phone connect most people in the developed world and before long most people in the entire world to each other and potentially to all the knowledge mankind has accumulated.

The first iPhone was released only eight years ago; Google was founded 17 years ago; Facebook with 1.5 billion active users - and YouTube with 1 billion users - are ten years old, Twitter is nine years old and Airbnb and Uber are seven and six years old respectively.

Most of the companies reinventing our world would still be at school if they were humans.

And the venerable elder statesmen of the digital age - Microsoft and Apple - are 40 and 39 years old respectively. Think about it.

In the midst of all this change - economic, political, technological - the opportunities for Australians have never been greater or the horizons wider.

But how do we seize those opportunities, how do we ensure that in the midst of this dynamic region, in the midst of so much growth and change, we are able successfully to transition our economy to one that wins and keeps on winning.

We talk a lot about reform, especially here, but that’s just a means to an end. Let’s talk about where we want to be - a big national goal.

Surely it is that we should continue to be a high wage, generous social welfare safety net, first world economy. A nation that is as fair as it is open to opportunity.

And how do we do that?

Clearly as an open market economy in a much larger, more competitive world, we must be more productive, more innovative, more competitive.

Across the board, we must acquire not just the skills but the culture of agility that enables us to make volatility our friend, bearing fresh opportunities, not simply a foe brandishing threats.

So reform, since that is the topic of your conference, should not be seen as a once in a decade or two convulsion, accompanied by a hyperbolic scare campaign.

Rather it should be seen as a change of political culture that sees us like the sailor, surrounded by the uncertainty of the sea and the wind, who knows only two things for sure - where she needs to go and that she has the skill to get there.

Sometimes the sailor reaches the mark with rapid ease, her sails big bellied in a following wind; sometimes with slow and deliberate tenacity, sails close hauled, tacking into the teeth of a gale.

But her vision is as clear as her destination is certain. How to get there and how quickly is the measure of her skill.

As we focus on our future course, it requires us above all to be open and honest about our circumstances, understanding and explaining both the challenges and the opportunities.

It is fair to point out where mistakes have been made and being only human inevitably concentrating on those made by our opponents while treading lightly past our own.

But over the years I’ve noticed the public, on whose goodwill all hope of reform depends, is impatient with the blame game.

The first step in persuasion is to understand and respect the intelligence of your audience - in this case that is the Australian people.

We need to explain that every vector, every sinew of our government’s policy is designed to deliver better jobs and greater opportunities - in short a more prosperous and secure future for them and their children and grandchildren. And above all that one that is fair both to those who want to get ahead and those who, for whatever reason, are not able to do so.

That is why good open discussion and consultation aids the task of reform. Because it is not enough to persuade the public that your motives are good - you also have to demonstrate that you’ve taken decisions in a thoughtful, open, consultative way, that you’ve carefully weighed up the various options and arguments.

And that is why we are not trying to reduce complex issues to slogans, why we are not playing the rule in rule out game, that’s why we welcome every contribution to this debate.

So, across government, business, the labour movement, the wider community, we need to have a grown up discussion which first clarifies the policy goals and then identifies and removes any obstacles that may be hampering our capacity to generate growth, productivity, investment and jobs.

We need to work practically and in partnership, to anticipate economic opportunities as they emerge and to be brave enough and smart enough to make the most of them.

If a particular policy approach doesn’t deliver as required or anticipated, we have to be ready to reappraise it, reset as and when needed so objectives can still be met.

If a policy doesn’t work, chuck it out, if you see somebody is achieving your objective in a better way remember the sincerest form of flattery is plagiarism, copy them, take it over. Adjust, tweak, agility is the key, the objective is what we’re all about. Remember we are like that sailor of whom I spoke, we know where we want to go. We are surrounded by uncertainties and we have to adjust our course, our tactics, our policies to get there. Agility in today’s world, in a world of volatility is absolutely key and that requires a very significant change to the political culture and political discourse.

This new discourse, this new culture that embraces change, which is by the way no more than what the business world does all the time, I mean we have, what we are seeking to do is to talk about policy in the same way practical men and women in the business world have been doing forever. What we need to do is embrace change, be adaptable, flexible, innovative.

Structural shifts in today’s global economy are not dissimilar in scale and scope to the transition from the agrarian to an industrial society, but it is the velocity of change that is unprecedented.

It is the velocity of change, the rapidity. The changes that used to take centuries are now taking years, maybe a decade.

Right now, for us in Australia, there is also the challenge of making the transition to the post mining boom era. As you know at the beginning of the last decade, the rapid industrialisation of emerging economies led by China and in particular by China’s massive stimulus response to the Global Financial Crisis, drove unprecedented demand for raw materials like coal and iron ore.

Prices rose sharply, they delivered a massive windfall gain to Australian incomes and a boom in new resources projects globally. In Australia alone, mining investment rose from less than two per cent of GDP in the early 2000’s to a peak of over seven a decade later.

As this new supply has come on stream, as China is rebalancing to have more consumption, move towards - still a long way to go I might add - move towards a more conventional share of GDP than it is today.

We’ve seen a sharp fall in our terms of trade. This was always going to happen by the way, this was always going to happen.  We can’t rely on rapid growth in commodity prices to fuel future income growth.

But there are enormous opportunities available to us and to his great and enduring credit, Andrew Robb, fellow Victorian has opened up the doors to these markets and in particular the China market with the Free Trade Agreement. 

It’s not so long ago I was in this very room of this hotel with a Chinese online business JD Worldwide, the largest in China which was opening up its virtual doors to Australian businesses. Did you know that the Chinese online commerce market is already larger than that of the United States? The rapid growth of this economy at the consumption level is remarkable. For the first time in 300 years, if you believe Angus Matterson’s work, which of course we must, the number of Asian middle class consumers equals the number in Europe and North America combined.

Our services exports have been growing by nine per cent over the last five years which has seen rapid growth in agricultural exports, food and drink and so forth, education, tourism, design - right across China you see the work of Australian architects.

Now these are enormous opportunities. How do we equip ourselves best to take advantage of them? A key focus of our Government is innovation. I said earlier, we need to be more innovative, we need to be more technologically sophisticated. We will deliver next month an innovation statement, a set of policies that will focus on how we attract and retain talent, how we support and encourage start-ups. How we, across the Government and the country, encourage a culture of innovation, ensure that our children are requiring the STEM  skills that they need, that they have the understanding or familiarity with machine languages that they will need in the future.

Let me say a little about tax, it is much in the news but the Treasurer will be speaking later. The object of the taxation system is plainly to raise the revenue the Government needs for its services it provides. But it must do so in a manner that backs Australians to work, save and invest, that backs them in rather than holds them back. That has, in the language of the Melbourne Institute, the minimum dead weight loss, the minimum handbrake on economic activity.

Now of course any set of tax reforms must be fair which is why picking off one of the by now very venerable reform proposals, I am waiting to see one that hasn't been around for a decade or so. We need a new idea here. I am looking at Chris Richardson, in particular. Surely there must be one!

They have been kicking around for a while and there is no harm in that. That is why picking off one of these by now venerable proposals in isolation to others is always going to be misleading. I think you understand the point I am making there. A reform package must at the very least, raise the revenue we need, share the burden fairly across the community and do so in a way that incentivises employment, investment and innovation. Fairness I repeat is absolutely critical. Any package of reforms which is not and is not seen as fair will not and cannot achieve the public support without which it simply will not succeed.

There are many other elements of reform in this field and I’ll just touch on one of them the Ian Harper report – that will not gather dust. It poses important challenges for all Government, especially, or including if not especially State Governments. There are very big - still very big structural breaks on growth. I heard the Chairman of the Productivity Commission talking this morning on the radio about the supply side constraints on development and planning. The Federal Government's arms are a long way from those levers. Nonetheless, it is something we have to recognise.

It is one of the reasons why we have a Minister for Cities and the Built Environment, why we are engaging with cities, with States on matters of infrastructure in a thoroughly non-ideological manner. Why we will support and indeed invest in infrastructure based on what it delivers, analysed in a rigorous, cost benefit manner and without discriminating between one type of infrastructure or another.

I have outlined a few ways here where we are seeking to deliver those goals. A high wage, generous social welfare net first world economy, one that is more innovative, more competitive, more productive.

That is the goal of the Government. That is what we are seeking to do in this field. We will use every measure that we can to achieve that. Everything we do will be assessed by that test.

Is this making Australia more prosperous? Is this making us more competitive? Is it enabling us to compete more effectively? Is it enabling us to seize the opportunities of the future rather than, as some would have us hiding under the doona, shuddering at the changes around them.

We are living in the best times in human history. There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. The challenge for our Government is to do everything we can, with your help, with all of the ideas and the advice, with all of the consideration and thought that you and so many other Australians can muster, to do all we can to ensure that we enable Australians to do their best, enable them to realise those opportunities, seize that future, confident, optimistic, proud and strong. This is a great era of opportunity. We are a great nation with a great future. Thank you very much.

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