“We need a comprehensive road map for the actions and changes required to seize our opportunities and avoid our nation slipping back,” says Tony Shepherd.
Photo: Nic Walker
The Business Council of Australia’s 10-year manifesto for economic prosperity is at once a welcome contribution to public policy by the nation’s business elite and a damning indictment on indolent government more interested in 24-hour news cycles and instant policy fixes than long-term economic planning.
The BCA, which represents Australia’s top 100 chief executives, has taken a leadership position on setting an agenda for the nation’s economy. It has done so in the absence of such leadership from government.
This is a big plan. Business groups have issued general calls for action on the economy or productivity before, or specific entreaties to cut red tape or fix workplace laws, but the BCA’s comprehensive Economic Action Plan for Enduring Prosperity is a considered document that proposes 93 recommendations in nine policy areas.
The policy areas that government has to “get right” include: tax reform, sustainable population growth, infrastructure, vocational skills and education, regulation and red tape, international competitiveness, the financial sector, energy and innovation.
Fresh ideas for tackling Australia’s long-term challenges include the introduction of new productivity payments for the states to encourage them to undertake structural reforms and a recommendation that states should produce 15-year infrastructure plans.
It is the kind of policy blueprint that the reformist Hawke and Keating governments would have issued as a matter of course; it would not have been necessary for the BCA to produce this document in the Hawke-Keating era.
As BCA president Tony Shepherd notes: “Australia has done well for 20 years because of wise decisions taken in the past.”
Australia at the crossroads
It does not speak well of the quality of government at present that the BCA felt compelled to issue its manifesto. Let there be no doubt that the BCA – the business community – had to fill the policy void that has become a hallmark of self-serving, inward-looking federal governments of the past decade or more.
“Australia is at a crossroads,” Shepherd says. “We need a comprehensive road map for the actions and changes required to seize our opportunities and avoid our nation slipping back.”
Shepherd is not the first to declare that Australia is at a crossroads. It is one of those easy remarks that often feature in media releases and policy statements. But this time it’s true.
Australia will shortly be voting for a new government, yet neither of the major parties has at any time during the past three years set an agenda for the nation that will give voters the confidence that in voting for a particular party they will be voting for a vision of Australia for this and future generations.
At a time of growing economic uncertainty and plunging consumer confidence, the business community is growing impatient with political leaders that appear to have no plan and no appetite for committing themselves to policy specifics lest they attract negative headlines and jeopardise their electoral prospects.
A call to grow up
Today’s politicians prefer fluff to substance in the belief that this is much safer in a frenetic news environment in which a ravenous media demands quantity of announcements rather than quality, and political success is measured in terms of “winning” the day’s media coverage.
In issuing its blueprint, the BCA has unambiguously called on politicians to grow up.
“Our challenge to all parliamentarians in the coming months is to look beyond the news cycle and show the leadership and the focus on the long-term national interest the community is looking for,” Shepherd says.
“Our plan shows that a longer-term, comprehensive and more cohesive economic reform agenda is the only way to genuinely address our economic challenges, rather than ad hoc announcements that do nothing to prepare Australia for the future.”
A business-like approach
Shepherd argues that the BCA has taken a business-like approach to setting a national economic agenda.
“Business knows how to take a long-term view and clear actions to achieve its goals,” he says.
This is perhaps the one clunker in the BCA’s statement in support of its blueprint.
Business has in many respects been just as prone to taking short-term responses to the challenges brought on by the global financial crisis, continuing economic uncertainties and major structural change. The response of many leading companies – let alone smaller, lesser-resourced businesses – to these challenges has included denial, panic, confusion and misjudgment. For many companies caught in the cross hairs of structural change and economic downturn, the default position is to cut costs.
The BCA blueprint also begs the question: where has the voice of business been as the quality of government over the past decade has receded to the point that such a report was even considered necessary. Business leaders have been far too reticent – in public and private – as they observed the degeneration of political leadership and policy formulation, even as it threatened the economic and competitive framework in which their businesses operated.
Rather than risk being seen as political, or offending the sensibilities of the government and alternative government of the day and, more to the point, fearing retribution, business leaders have permitted the quality of government to unravel on their watch.
Political leaders must also bear blame for making it more difficult for business leaders to speak out on matters of policy: the threat of retribution is real and is a stain on Australia’s democracy. It is to be hoped that the BCA’s aggressive and informed intervention in the election process will cement the right of business to be an active participant in public policy discourse.
The time is now
But however small the voice of business in the past, the BCA, which has consistently been the more thoughtful of Australia’s many business lobby groups, is right to have come out with its blueprint now. It simply could not have waited any longer.
“The longer we wait to take action, the harder it will be and the more difficult the choices will be to shore up our standard of living over the long term,” Shepherd explains.
The BCA understands that its agenda is not going to turn economic policy on its head overnight; it does not expect its blueprint to be adopted in a single swoop by the major political parties on the cusp of the next election. It believes its reforms would have to be adopted over a decade. But it does hope to start some long-overdue discussion about the future of the Australian economy.
“[N]ow is the time to start a national debate about the kind of country we want and how we want to get there,” Shepherd says.
“Our nation is at a crossroads, so now is the time to generate a national debate about the kind of country the community wants Australia to be in 20 years or 30 years.”
It’s extremely unlikely that Rudd and Abbott have been thinking about Australia in 2043, and if they have, they’ve not been sharing their thoughts with the rest of Australia. Let’s hope that changes with the release of this timely blueprint for economic prosperity.