07/08/2007 - 22:00

Driving reform vital

07/08/2007 - 22:00


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One theme emerged strongly when 10 prominent Western Australian business executives attended a WA Business News boardroom forum last week to discuss the future development of Perth – frustration at the slow pace of change.

Driving reform vital

One theme emerged strongly when 10 prominent Western Australian business executives attended a WA Business News boardroom forum last week to discuss the future development of Perth – frustration at the slow pace of change.

The group was diverse; it included company directors and business advisers, architects and property developers, and people from culture and the arts.

They discussed specific projects such as the Swan River foreshore development, sinking the central city railway and improving public transport. But like many people, their thinking had moved to a different level.

They want to see the people of Perth seize the rare opportunity afforded by our extraordinary prosperity to make the city more vibrant, exciting, diverse, and appealing.

Their greatest fear was a government that was timid, that found reasons to not do things, that meekly accepted the bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles that stand in the way of enterprising Western Australians.

This is not to advocate some form of extreme laissez faire; rather, it is a call for the balance to be tilted, for government to be more decisive, and importantly, for government to step aside more often so the private sector can pursue new opportunities.


Leading the way

Former Victorian premier, Jeff Kennett, won many admirers when he visited Perth earlier this year. In his usual forthright manner, he challenged the people of Perth to think more critically about their city and how it has developed.

His criticism of opponents of retail trading hours deregulation and daylight saving showed the spirit and vigour that characterised his term as premier.

Mr Kennett pulled Victoria out of a very dark chapter in the state’s history but unexpectedly lost office when voters opted for the softer, more reassuring Steve Bracks.

Critics point to Mr Kennett’s ousting as a sign that he was out of touch.

Maybe he was, maybe he ended up pushing too hard and too fast, but at least he can look back at a record of reform that profoundly changed his state.

He left Victoria in a far better condition than he inherited it, not just in terms of dry economic statistics but perhaps more importantly in terms of its spirit.

Are there any recent WA premiers who could make the same claim?

Bob Hawke and Paul Keating provide another very different reform model.

In their prime, from 1983 to 1986 – and with important support from WA senator Peter Walsh – they introduced sweeping reforms that laid the groundwork for 20 years of prosperity.

Importantly, they adopted a consultative style that enabled them to bring the Australian people along for the ride.

In their hands, consultation wasn’t a long-winded, protracted exercise that resulted in wishy washy outcomes that pleased nobody.

It was a means to engage and inform the community before pursuing brave reform.


Where are we now?

Having a frank understanding of Western Australia’s current condition is an important starting point for any reform debate.

Clearly we live in extraordinary times, with economic growth staying higher and lasting much longer than almost anyone had anticipated.

The boom has created amazing wealth for many people…but still only a minority.

The vast majority of Western Australians are still wage and salary earners, working as teachers, nurses, public servants, shopkeepers.

In some respects, the state’s economic boom has had negative consequences for many of these people. They have seen housing become more expensive; they have found it harder to hire tradesmen or employ shop assistants.

With the state’s population growing faster, Perth isn’t as easygoing or laidback as it used to be.

Rapid growth is putting pressure on social and economic infrastructure, from hospitals and police services to ports and roads.

We can’t deny these pressure points, nor should we beat ourselves up.

We should acknowledge problems where they arise, and offer a measured, well-informed critique, and we should also celebrate the state’s many achievements.


Some perspective

Interstate and overseas travel provides the best perspective on life in Perth and WA. Unfortunately, the state’s isolation means that many people have little if any meaningful exposure to other cities and cultures.

Travelling to Bali and spending time with other tourists hardly qualifies.

That can make it hard to convince Western Australians that life in this state is remarkably good for most of us.

Under-treasurer Tim Marney is one person who has tried to tell it like it is.

In an entertaining and disarming speech to a Committee for Economic Development of Australia function earlier this year, he used the insatiable demands of his dog Brutus to illustrate the challenge facing governments that are constantly under pressure to deliver more tax cuts, while also delivering more spending and better services.

“People want to consume. They want…the services and the goods that government provides and the demand is insatiable,” Mr Marney told the conference.

“We have one of the best health systems in the world and a huge reform agenda but there will continue to be examples where people demand better services.”

Mr Marney then switched to an overhead slide of his two young sons.

“As a result of the quality of services that the state government provides…these guys have got a great future,” he said.

“I am extremely proud to stand before you as…a public servant…and know that I have contributed in some way to that very favourable outlook that these people have. They’ll be fed well, they’ll be educated well, their teeth will be good.”

That led to a discussion about the disadvantage suffered by indigenous children, most who struggle to have the opportunities other Australians take for granted.

Acknowledging the good things about life in WA should give the people of our state a sense of confidence.

Equally, the state’s economic prosperity should give the government confidence to pursue further reform and commit to big projects that enhance our city and our state.


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