31/03/2015 - 06:57

WA stalls on the start line, again

31/03/2015 - 06:57

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Perhaps Western Australia’s isolation doesn’t always work in its favour.

WA stalls on the start line, again

Perhaps Western Australia’s isolation doesn’t always work in its favour.

I’ve often figured that being a small population separated from the rest of Australia by an awful lot of desert has been an advantage in that we could be patient with regard to policy and grab only the things that worked.

Of course, many from the east (and plenty from here, too) consider that WA stands for Wait Awhile, pointing to this state’s sloth in accepting things like Sunday trading and small bars.

It is true; we were too slow to adapt to those changes that have now been implemented and changed this place so much for the better – especially Perth.

The Nullarbor protected slow-witted or politically powerful businesses for too long, keeping out those who were more responsive to consumer needs and making WA less attractive to migrants at a time when we really needed them.

I wonder whether we could afford to have been so slow on the uptake if we were nestled closer to the nation’s other major state economies.

Queensland, for instance, was for a long time out of kilter with its southern neighbours but, as Australia modernised, it was forced to play catch up. Few now would suggest Brisbane in any way resembles the overgrown country town it may have been considered 30 years ago. It is an exciting place to live and visit, mainly because of sensible planning laws created and implemented by a big, central city council.

Imagine high-rise on the oceanfront or along the river in Perth. It’s just too hard here, isn’t it?

More recently it has been South Australia making the running when it comes to progress. Insulated for a long time by heavily subsidised and politicised industries, such as car making and defence construction, the state has lately been coming to grips with the fact that those industries are on the wane and its young people are being drawn to the cultural mecca of Melbourne.

Nearly a decade ago, SA’s leaders realised that minerals development was important and reshaped the state’s approvals process to speed up exploration and mining projects. That move certainly attracted attention and investment. It’s disappointing, I think, that the Olympic Dam project expansion was shelved as it would have been significant to the state and, perhaps, the rest of Australia to have a truly major mining development so close to our nation’s population centres.

But SA is not letting that disappointment hold it back.

Lately, the state has been at the centre of two extremely contentious policy ideas, which show just how adventurous its leaders – political, business and workplace – realise they must be for SA to compete with its bigger neighbours.

To remind readers, in recent weeks the state immediately to our east has: signalled it wants to become a nuclear power player; and has renegotiated reduced penalty rates for retail workers.

These are very different concepts that have emerged in very different ways, but both signal the kind of flexible thinking all economies need to survive and prosper in a volatile and uncertain world.

The penalty rates issue is the obvious no-brainer.

SA relies on tourism and visitors don’t shop nine-to-five. Furthermore, with talent leeching out to major cities on the eastern seaboard, lifestyle and job opportunities become important to people, especially the young and those whose skills offer them mobility and choices.

It might be a relatively small change, but the deal between the union and employer group to halve penalty rates for retail workers on Sundays and remove them altogether on Saturdays is a massive win for common sense.

Even in the good times, penalty rates have forced businesses to close their doors on weekends. In this downturn, such rules that limit job opportunities are almost criminal. It is nearly as bad as our environmental laws stopping mine developments over what I think are marginal issues. Anyone who wants to develop a mine now ought to be getting all the encouragement they need.

As for the nuclear option, I can’t help respecting SA Labor Premier Jay Weatherill’s call for a royal commission into the development of nuclear power.

SA already exports uranium but restrictive laws or policies on the development of this industry by limiting mines, processing, power generation and waste storage have meant this nation’s ability to fully leverage its potential dominance of this important sector have been wasted.

Mr Weatherill, like former prime minister Bob Hawke, recognises that there is a tremendous opportunity for Australia to participate more fully in every stage of the nuclear business – one of the safest and cleanest ways available to efficiently generate electricity.

I just wish WA had made this move first. Instead, due to years of poor policy, we have yet to even develop a mine in this state.

Best we stopped waiting for others to do things first.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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