10/09/2008 - 22:00

Political leaders must recognise the potential for growth

10/09/2008 - 22:00

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The wealth in human and material capital can bring a prosperous future for WA, according to James Pearson, if we choose to embrace the opportunities.

The wealth in human and material capital can bring a prosperous future for WA, according to James Pearson, if we choose to embrace the opportunities.

 

SINCE our earliest days as an independent nation, Australia's leaders have acknowledged the similarities between this country and the US, and the opportunities our relationship offers.

The great waves of immigration to America - a land blessed with great wealth in natural resources - led to the great prosperity. The catalyst has been a firm belief in individual freedom that allows men and women to pursue their dreams, through hard work and taking risks.

I believe that a similar combination of human capital and natural resource wealth in Western Australia offers the opportunity for Western Australians to dare for similar great prosperity.

It is a historic opportunity made real by the world's demand for the output of our world-class resources and agricultural industries, and the goods and services businesses we have built on those foundations.

My concern is that complacency and misplaced contentment will prevent us from seizing the opportunity to realise the full potential of our great state.

I define complacency as an assumption held by many in WA that the good times will roll on regardless.

I define contentment as a readiness by too many people in WA to accept that the way things are today is the way they always should be, with perhaps some small allowance for evolution.

WA has natural resources that are the envy of the world. We have talented, educated people from our own shores and from overseas. But Western Australians who dare to be great are too often fettered by a system limits the freedom to pursue dreams.

That dream might be as modest as to open a shop for business on a Sunday or after 7pm on a weeknight, or as grand as to develop a new resources project that could benefit the poorest and most disadvantaged and remote people in our community.

But that dream is at risk of being denied by lack of effective planning, outdated laws, cumbersome bureaucracy, heavy taxation and the reluctance of politicians to offend special interest groups.

I want to ask you a question. What do Ghana, Chile, Botswana and Mexico have in common? They all are ranked by the international mining industry as having policies that are more welcoming of investment in resources projects than WA.

To those who say we offer less sovereign risk than some of these other countries, I say that is just an example of the excuses that are too often made in WA for not dealing with cumbersome approval process that duplicate, delay and add significantly to the already high costs of doing business in WA.

And it is not just the rest of the world. Here in Australia, states and territories that have far less natural resources or numbers of people have overtaken us as competitive destinations for investment in the resources industry.

WA has slipped steadily behind. First South Australia, then Queensland and now the Northern Territory have overtaken us. These other jurisdictions are all rated by the international mining industry as having policies more conducive for exploration investment than WA.

Many of us have parents born overseas, and many who now call WA home were born outside this state. Perth, just like the rest of WA and just like our nation, hosts one of the most diverse communities of people on the planet.

We are many, and we have made Perth our home for many reasons. And while we need to educate and train our young people to make them ready for the jobs that our businessmen and women and companies are creating, we also need more people, many more people, to join us in making Perth and WA their home.

The need for Perth to become a modern, dynamic and vibrant international city - a great city - has never been greater.

The need for the towns of regional WA to be made more liveable and to be able to make the most of the extraordinary investments that are pouring in, to have their own chance at greatness, is real.

We must meet these challenges in order to keep the economy strong, maximise business investment, and to attract and retain the extra workers the state needs.

WA will need an additional 400,000 workers over the next decade if the state's economic growth and prosperity are to be sustained. On current trends, we will have a shortfall of 150,000 workers. This is the single greatest challenge facing WA business and industry.

We need a well-planned and coordinated response from our political leaders, and the broader community.

We need to encourage entrepreneurialism in business and the arts. We need to allow parts of our cities and suburbs to become centres of vibrancy. We need to set ourselves a higher benchmark. Above all, we need to create an inspiring vision of what Perth and our state can be.

The importance of being great and addressing our international standing was highlighted by Premier Alan Carpenter when he announced, late last year, his intention to deregulate WA's retail trading hours laws. It's an area of reform long overdue.

At the time, Mr Carpenter said: "I'm the Premier of WA, which is a modern-world, important economy, I'm not running a provincial council in Albania, it's time to move forward."

Sound policies are needed to maximise economic growth and business investment, and make Perth and WA a better place to live and work.

During the election campaign, CCI released the 'Strategies for Growth' paper, which sets out the action needed by the next state government to maximise economic growth and business investment, and make WA a better place to live and work.

The chamber put forward practical solutions for the challenges facing WA, and we sent Strategies for Growth' to election candidates, so that the next government understands what it must do to secure the future for our state.

Unfortunately, even at the end of the four-week campaign, there was little recognition of the challenges that need to be addressed.

It is not just the fault of our elected representatives, however. As politicians, undoubtedly they are polling and convening focus groups that would, I imagine, say that community expectations are being met.

I would say that politicians are at risk, in the final analysis, of following public opinion rather than leading it.

It is not the job of leadership to take the easy option. It is a task of leadership to educate and to inspire. WA must expect better of our politicians.

To paraphrase Colonel Henry Knox, who fought alongside General Washington in the Continental Army that won for the US its independence from Britain: "We want great men [and women] who, when fortune frowns, will not be discouraged."

My challenge to the men and women of WA's new parliament is to articulate a vision of what our great state can become and to develop the policies and strategies that will set us on that journey.

I call on them to encourage investment and economic expansion, not restrict it with out-of-date laws and cumbersome regulations.

I ask them to stimulate small businesses by reducing the burden of taxation that weighs on firms when they succeed and want to grow.

I urge them to form a government that understands and responds to the needs of business and industry, and which does not let ideology or pressure from vested interests to get in the way of sound policies to encourage investment and competition.

Above all, I dare the next government of WA to be great.

The CCI, on behalf of WA business and industry, is ready to work with the next government to achieve that aim.

Can we do it, together?

As they say in the US - yes, we can.

- James Pearson is chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA. This is an edited version of a speech he gave to the American Chamber of Commerce and Industry last week.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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