19/12/2006 - 22:00

Balance needed in federal business debate

19/12/2006 - 22:00


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The Business Council of Australia needs to reconsider exactly what it is that it believes to be a functioning and appropriate federation.

The Business Council of Australia needs to reconsider exactly what it is that it believes to be a functioning and appropriate federation.

Much noise has been made on this issue recently; indeed, the Western Australian Public Accounts Committee is about to embark on a wide-ranging enquiry on this very issue.

On October 25 2006, BCA president Michael Chaney addressed the National Press Club regarding what the council views as the “emerging shift in the mindset of the Australian community”, a shift that is “from the “battler” mindset to one of the “aspirant”.

Mr Chaney’s reflections on the significant economic reform that has been undertaken in Australia, and the consequential impact on the Australian psyche, are indeed correct.

However, it concerns me that the BCA has taken to viewing the federation and the various Australian government legislatures as simply a mechanism to promote the ideal business world.

As he states in The Australian Financial Review on November 22 2006: “The most constructive response state governments can make to the High Court’s decision [regarding the constitutional validity of the WorkChoices legislation] is to show that, through co-operation, a true common market can be achieved in Australia”.

There can be no doubt that creating an environment within which business can flourish, innovate and employ is one of the fundamental roles of all Australian governments. This is reflected in the policies of governments of both political persuasions during the past 25 years.

However, the constitution and its federal checks and balances exist also for reasons beyond the corporate goal. 

Greg Craven summarised this point to The Australian on October 17 2006 where he stated that: “Some things are more important than commercial efficiency. One of these is the assurance of liberty. A constitution that maximises profits but fails to protect freedom is no good bargain”.

I want to make the point that I am not simply, as a state member of parliament, taking the state’s rights position. It is my firm view that the federation is in dire need of change, some of which will need to be substantial and probably involve referenda.

Indeed, my first speech to parliament reflected this. If this results in state governments withdrawing from some areas for a better outcome, then I will certainly not complain.  However, Canberra is not the panacea to all things that stand in the way of commercial efficiency or the common market.

Innovation is not isolated to the commercial sector. Indeed, some of the greatest initiatives that have resulted in commercial gain have risen out of innovation in the government sector. 

The links between innovation and competition are clear. Competition between governments has always had a positive impact on the business community in Australia. 

The effects of Joh Bjelke-Petersen on the NSW taxation system, and the High Court’s view on Chifley’s attempts to nationalise the banks in the 1940s, are a direct result of our federal system of division of power and inherent competition, and certainly were very business friendly.

Undoubtedly, our federal system has caused some problems – multiple product standards, payroll tax systems and different employment registration systems are frustrating and complex and a drag on the economy – and I would expect these to be rectified over time through the natural workings of the COAG relationships. 

However, competition between states has also resulted in significant best practices in areas ranging from health, stamp duty, Aboriginal affairs, tourism and property development. 

One unitary government, all supreme, in Canberra is not what is in the best interests of the business community or the community generally.

It is worth considering what effect the election of a left leaning federal government will have on the views of the BCA and its embrace of the now extremely wide ranging corporations power.

Mr Chaney notes that business’s reputation remains low and that the BCA will focus on a more considered business policy “that recognises that the business of business is also the business of the community”. 

I think that the business world is often unfairly maligned in respect of its investment in the community. Indeed, many social initiatives in my electorate could not simply take place without the support of the business sector or local chambers of commerce.

But it should not be lost that our federation is not only about our business world and that the business community is there to serve the general community (as shareholders are more than receivers of dividends and participate in the community beyond their shareholdings).

This is why good business policy is, generally, good community policy.

I am pleased that the BCA is taking a genuine and sophisticated interest in our federation, as it quite rightly should.

However, it must not lose sight of the fact that our federation is not simply there to create the perfect business environment or common market, nor will the business community be best served by over-centralisation in Canberra.

Ben Wyatt is the state member for Victoria Park


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