Action Plan for Enduring Prosperity: First Column in The Australian

This column by BCA Chief Executive Jennifer Westacott was published in The Australian on 20 April 2013 under the title ‘Nation Deserves More Than Policies Based on Class Warfare and Self-Interest’. It is the first in a series of columns exploring the Business Council of Australia’s Action Plan for Enduring Prosperity.

Earlier this week, the Business Council of Australia announced it was developing a long-term economic action plan for Australia. Our motivation in doing so is simple – someone has to do it.

This is a serious time for our country, a time when we really need to focus on making Australia ready for the future. In many countries, creating jobs, raising living standards and securing long-term prosperity is an uphill challenge. In Australia, it’s a choice. A choice that no one seems intent on making at the moment – we are in the middle of a policy vacuum.

Acting now, while the economy is still in good shape, will allow us to secure national prosperity through careful, considered, incremental change.

At virtually any time in the past, the major parties might have had a right to be outraged by our audacity in proposing a long-term economic action plan. Not now.

What masquerades as policy debate is in reality mired in leadership battles and pragmatic politicking. Policies are reviewed in the shallow terms of class warfare and self-interest. As a nation we deserve more.

We expected predictable parties to criticise our action plan as being business looking after its own interests. More considered commentary has acknowledged that it’s being developed in the national interest – in the interests of the many, not the few.

There has been no real disagreement with the obvious truth that a plan for the future prosperity of our nation is required – and that our leaders have vacated the field.

We hope that our plan will stimulate our leaders to stop, think and act. We believe the plan will include policy initiatives that can be adopted and will contribute to our national good.

This year, the Business Council of Australia will be judging political parties on whether their policies will drive well-managed growth. We want honest and broad engagement in discussion of how each alternative would affect living standards. Now is the time to focus on long-term policies, not short-term politics and media cycles.

All the available research shows many people are worried about the future, for themselves and their children. Businesses are losing the confidence to invest.

In this policy vacuum, the BCA’s plan is not a wish list for business. It’s a wish list for the nation and an action plan for delivery, a plan that must see government, the non-government sector and business working together.

Over the next six weeks, The Weekend Australian has invited me to unpack the thinking that supports the plan. I will start by re-prosecuting the case for policy reform that facilitates continued economic growth.

This is not growth for growth’s sake, but the kind of well-managed growth that has given Australians a quality of life in recent decades that’s the envy of the world.

National prosperity comes from businesses and individuals being prepared to put money at risk, from governments facilitating prosperity with sensible regulation, quality infrastructure and services, and from a community sector that helps to build and maintain social cohesion.

It’s a compact that has served our country well for many years but it now needs to be reinforced by all its stakeholders. We need to ensure that the compact is not derailed by polarisation politics, and to work together to get Australia off the high-cost, low-productivity path that is now sapping our competitiveness.

We’ve asked ourselves and the many people we are consulting: what does Australia need to get right in the next five years in order to deliver enduring prosperity to all Australians for the next 30 years?

Our aim is to facilitate growth from enterprise and business, along with policy settings that drive fairness, inclusiveness, a fitter and healthier Australia, and the more efficient use of limited natural resources.

We’ve been asking people to consider how best to maintain economic growth and living standards in the face of economic megatrends – the rise of emerging economies, the transformative effects of digital technology, an ageing population and the need to adapt to climate change.

These megatrends occur at a time when the global economy continues to be volatile and our national fiscal position is weakening. This means that to secure long-term prosperity the only course to chart is a package of prioritised structural reforms.

We’ll propose specific suggestions consistent with our belief that national priorities must include markets and mindsets that are open to competition, inclusiveness and social and environmental sustainability.

We have identified nine areas Australia simply has to get right.

First, we must strengthen Australia’s fiscal policy settings, adopt a more competitive tax system and achieve fairer sharing of money between the commonwealth and the states.

We must focus on improving our approach to population growth and population change by better planning our cities and regions and adopting a more sustainable approach to development.

We must improve the planning, prioritisation and funding of infrastructure.

We must create the systems needed to drive innovation.

We must enable educated, skilled and creative people and drive productive and innovative workplaces. We must dramatically rethink our approach to regulation and strengthen governance and institutions.

We have to continue to embrace foreign investment, being open to the world and deepening our global engagement.

We all need a strong and stable financial system so we can invest in the future.

And the final area addressed by our plan is the development of a coherent energy policy that drives supply, improves competitiveness, is underpinned by an efficient market and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

We will be proposing specific prioritised policy recommendations in each of these areas based on a set of national goals and aspirations.

For example, in order to have income per capita that places us in the top five in the world, we require productivity improvements of 2 per cent a year.

The reality is in a capitalist, globally connected world, where our competitors are running faster and faster, we can’t stand still. To do so would present a vastly more difficult set of choices for future governments and generations of Australians as they also confront the rising costs of our ageing population.

We implore our leaders to make good use of the next six months, not squander them. The policies shared with us all now, and ultimately implemented, will shape our future.

Our plan is a call to arms to our leaders and the many Australians who know that our prosperity is not a done deal.

Many countries are now being forced to make very dramatic decisions that are impacting acutely on people’s living standards and limiting their capacity to continue to grow. We have the luxury of choosing the path we take, and it’s a choice we shouldn’t pass up.