22/03/2005 - 21:00

Warnings on potential for lost opportunities

22/03/2005 - 21:00

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At the time it didn’t seem so extraordinary, but the more I dwelt on a couple of events I attended last week, the more it started to sink in.

At the time it didn’t seem so extraordinary, but the more I dwelt on a couple of events I attended last week, the more it started to sink in.

Journalists often take two pieces of information and extrapolate them into a trend, but this seemed stronger than that.

Two events, on different days by different organisations with different speakers, had two things in common apart from the venue and, by default, the menu.

Those key ingredients were two high-profile business people who rarely speak publicly and their concern about opportunity being lost to Western Australia and Australia as infrastructure, skills shortages, IR, regulation and bureaucracy stand in the way of us taking full advantage of the current boom.

First cab off the rank was Richard Goyder, incoming CEO of WA powerhouse Wesfarmers, one of the state’s most successful companies and biggest employers.

The outing, as part of the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia’s entrepreneurship series with University of WA, was billed as Mr Goyder’s first in his new role.

Given he hasn’t technically taken over he was, as expected, guarded about what he said – mainly taking the audience through Wesfarmers’ history and more or less underlying his corporate culture credentials in a company that takes that sort of thing very seriously.

But in the latter part of his speech, Mr Goyder did move away from historical references to deliver a warning that bureaucracy and regulation, particularly of the financial services sector, could choke the entrepreneurialism needed to maintain prosperity.

He said regulators and bureaucrats had to constantly reappraise their systems and processes, just as a successful company like Wesfarmers does, to ensure they didn’t have an overly restrictive effect.

The point was particularly valid now as the economy dealt with issues related to the recent boom, Mr Goyder said.

They were strong statements made without hyperbole.

At the time, the comments resonated in an unremarkable way.

By the end of the next day, however, I felt differently about that.

In the meantime, I had returned to the same venue to hear Alcoa’s Australian managing director, Wayne Osborn, speak at an Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce lunch.

Mr Osborn also spent a little time preparing the audience with a resume of Alcoa’s history in WA. But that, more clearly than Mr Goyder’s talk, was obviously laying the ground for what was to come – a warning about the challenges to the growth that WA has enjoyed in recent times.

As the Alcoa chief outlined his concerns on labour costs, the skills shortage, infrastructure (especially energy and water) and the need for a facilitative regulatory environment (there is again), I felt his message was not really aimed at the converted in the room.

Instead it felt like a speech for one person, new State Development and Energy Minister Alan Carpenter who was present for the speech.

“WA is competing for growth opportunities with Africa, South America and elsewhere,” Mr Osborn said.

“We think everybody needs to get attuned to this mindset.

“While WA has significant advantages, the state also faces challenges in securing growth.

“WA has the reputation for being an increasingly difficult industrial relations and regulatory environment. This makes it a less attractive place to invest or grow business in than its fundamentals suggest.”

On the approvals process for mining and resources projects, Mr Osborn was damning.

“All too often we’ve seen pressure groups oppose any development and drag out approvals with a never-ending loop of appeals and objections,” he said.

“The delays and uncertainties caused by constantly shifting regulatory goal posts will have a real impact on the state’s ability to attract investment.”

Mr Carpenter certainly looked a little uncomfortable with the whole occasion, not just Mr Osborn’s speech but, as the new minister, he may as well get used to it.

Right now industry is rightly concerned about how WA can make the most of the global boom for resources. The sector is making a pitch to Geoff Gallop and his team to make things happen in their second term of government, not procrastinate as they have been accused of doing, or, dreadful as the thought might be, actually hold back development with bad decisions.

On a national level, similar things are being demanded from the Howard Government.

That is my reading of these two speeches, a warning shot that government should not take booms, and the revenue they generate, for granted.

Mr Carpenter is seen as a can-do operator who is not afraid to take on bureaucracy or even Labor mates like the teachers’ union.

Obviously, industry believes it has a chance to get in early in his term and help set an agenda to keep the state moving with the man who could be our next premier.

Industry has stated in clear terms where the issues lie, so that no-one can say in four years’ time that they didn’t realise anything was wrong.

Not that that is necessarily needed, as Mr Osborn pointed out in a referral to former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s colourful language – these issues are the subject of chatter for “every parrot in the pet shop”.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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