We need talk, and action

23/04/2008 - 22:00

The biggest talking point in Australia during the past week has, not surprisingly, been Kevin Rudd’s talkfest, the Australia 2020 summit in Canberra.

The biggest talking point in Australia during the past week has, not surprisingly, been Kevin Rudd’s talkfest, the Australia 2020 summit in Canberra.

Mr Rudd has often been criticised for putting grand symbolism ahead of substantive action, and that line of attack has continued in this case.

The summit participants ranged across all sorts of lateral ideas, as they were meant to.

Yet the follow-up discussion this week coincided with reports of petrol prices hitting record highs and the prospect of dramatic increases in mortgage stress among home buyers.

Many people would like to see their elected representatives focus on these hip-pocket issues.

The federal government also has a crucial budget to formulate in coming weeks, as it seeks to manage big spending cuts in order to offset some of the inflationary pressure flowing from locked-in tax cuts.

The prime minister hasn’t had a lot to say on these matters; he seems to have been fully occupied in recent weeks with international diplomacy, appointing a new governor general and participating in discussions at the 2020 summit.

Perhaps Mr Rudd is confident that his treasurer Wayne Swan, not renowned for his deep economic knowledge, has matters under control.

Mr Rudd may surprise us all by pursuing some of the ‘dry’ economic and business reform proposals that emerged from the summit.

Who would have thought that a wholesale review of the tax system would become one of the main talking points post-summit?

Mr Rudd has certainly raised expectations in this regard, calling for a root and branch review of the tax system.

Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA chief executive James Pearson put the summit into perspective when he said its success would depend on whether state and federal governments, in partnership with business, can convert the ideas into sound policy.

There was no shortage of big ideas, with recommendations including: the development of policies to address labour shortages; wide-ranging reform of business regulations; overcoming underinvestment in infrastructure; and reform of Australia’s system of federation.

Those issues have kept ministers, policy advisers and think tanks busy for decades and it would be extremely optimistic to expect sudden and dramatic breakthroughs.

The most pressing issues for the business community in WA include the sharp increase in interest rates and the chronic shortages of labour.

They are both putting the brakes on WA’s strong economic growth, which continues to drive the national economy.

Pressure on economic and social infrastructure – which means everything from roads, railways and ports to electricity distribution, education and health services – is another constraint on the state’s growth.

The infrastructure pressure is most acute in regional areas, which play such an important role in fuelling the economy.

In regard to labour shortages, there is a general acceptance that policies need to move beyond training and upskilling of the existing workforce.

CCI WA used its recent Building Human Capital report to push for policy reforms that will increase the size of the labour force.

The CCI WA report, released some months ago, found that WA will need an additional 400,000 workers over the next decade in order to sustain the recent rates of economic growth.

On current trends we will have a shortfall of 150,000 workers.

Now that’s a big challenge.

There is potential for incremental gains in workforce participation, for instance by making it easier for married women to enter the workforce.

And there is always scope to improve training.

But the biggest opportunity to address what has become a chronic problem is to increase Australia’s population by lifting migration, both temporary and permanent.

Support for his change is likely to increase as more and more Australians are affected by the existing shortages.

Its not just engineers and welders in the Pilbara that are needed. And its not just a business issue.

Labour shortages cut to every part of the community.

Doctors and nurses, school teachers, waiters, panel beaters, cooks, tradesmen of all kind are in short supply.

The shortages are adversely affecting the quality of life for most people in Australia.

As this issue becomes protracted, there is likely to be increasing community acceptance of increased migration.

Let’s not forget, Australia is one of the most multicultural nations on earth. Our community has people from all corners of the globe representing all cultures.

This diversity has added to the richness of life in Australia, socially and culturally.

Migrants have also made a huge economic contribution and, given half an opportunity, will be able to help Australia continue its prosperous growth.


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