BCA President Geoff Culbert AFR Business Summit Speech

12 March 2024

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This is my first speech as President of the BCA, and I’m going to make some pretty direct comments.

But before I start, I want to make it absolutely clear that what I’m about to say is not a criticism of the Government, the Opposition, the media, or the business community.

It’s not a criticism of anyone.

It’s a criticism of the environment we are operating in, and the short-term thinking that has crept into our society at all levels because of it.

This environment, and this short-term thinking, isn’t working. It is holding us back.

It is creating a gap between how we see ourselves as a country, and the reality of who we actually are. It needs to change.

We used to be a free-wheeling, pioneering nation that punched above its weight. A country that was bold and courageous and wasn’t afraid to have a crack.

We all love that image of Australia, and we celebrate it every time we see it – just ask the Matildas.

We celebrate our political leaders who embodied that image. It’s why we idolise Hawke, Keating and Howard.

They took on big, hard challenges, some of which hurt in the short-term.

But they drove long-term benefits for the country, and we still praise them for it today.

Importantly, they also had the support of our wider society to do it.

That was a different time, and the reality is the environment today is different.

Back then government had the time and space to pursue a long-term agenda.

Today we’re caught in an incessant cycle of short-term thinking where governments are forced to live from Newspoll to Newspoll.

They don’t have the space to act for the long-term.

The Opposition are incentivised to oppose everything the Government of the day says, and then promise to unwind it if they win the next election.

Our three-year term limits are too short, which means we’re permanently in election mode and governments are in a constant fight for survival.

Whether you blame the 24/7 media cycle, social media—it doesn’t matter. The reality is the world is now completely different and it’s created problems that are now embedded in how we debate the big issues that will define our future.

And what happens as a consequence? We reward popular decisions, not hard decisions.

It makes it impossible for either side of politics to go after a long-term reform agenda that will drive the success and prosperity of the nation.

And this is not a commentary on any political party. They’re all forced to play the same game.

I think we all see it. Australians are tired of it, and to be frank, I think politicians are too.

In my experience, people go into politics for the right reasons. They want to drive change, but the environment we live in holds them back.

We’ve been stuck in this cycle for decades and it’s hurting our competitiveness as a nation.

And if you don’t believe what I’m saying, look at the objective measures:

  • In the early 2000s we ranked 4th in reading, 8th in science and 10th in maths. Today we rank 12th, 10th and 17th respectively.
  • In 2004 we ranked 4th in global competitiveness. In 2023 we were 19th.
  • The last decade saw the lowest rate of productivity growth for 60 years.
  • We’ve been a net exporter of capital for the last four years in a row—sending more investment out than we bring in. This hasn’t been the case in over 100 years.
  • We’re the 13th largest economy in the world. By 2050 we’ll fall outside the top 20.

We are going backwards on so many critical measures. We have a burning platform and unless we do something about it, it will only get worse.

But in order to do something about it, we have to break out of this cycle of short-term thinking.

We have to identify the big issues that will define Australia’s future success. And we all need to work together to get there.

We need to create a rational de-politicised space for all the key stakeholders to come together to agree long-term plans.

Because the hard issues require long-term planning that will live beyond any government, and any election cycle.

This will be the position of the BCA.

We will have very clear principles on what we will and will not support, and it will have nothing to do with traditional sides or political perspectives.

No matter what the issue is, we will support policies which are in the interest of our long-term national prosperity, and work with everyone who shares the same goal.

We have been vocal in our support of the Government’s recent policies on issues such as Artificial Intelligence, and certain aspects of migration. We believe they are in the long-term national interest.

We will also challenge policies and ideas which are not in our long-term national interest. That is why we pushed back firmly on the recent IR changes.

We will be fact-based and evidence-based at all times. And it will always be based on the long-term national interest of Australia.

So where do you start? Well, I can see three areas where we need a hard shift to a long-term approach.

The first is our climate transition. We need to transition to a net zero future. That’s not the debate. The debate is how we get there.

At the moment, as a nation we can’t agree on what the target should be. Everyone is throwing out different numbers and there is no detailed, long-term plan for how we get there.

And the business community – who will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting – have no long-term certainty on what they can invest against in an environment where targets may change every time there is a change in government.

That is not a recipe for success.

What we need is for all parties to come together and agree on a target and a plan to get us there.

Not one that changes with each change of government, but one that is driven by science and economic reality.

And, importantly, one the business community can confidently invest towards.

Whether you like it or not, this is going to mean thermal power has a role in the transition period, and we will still need gas until battery technology gets to scale or other substitutes are available.

Anyone who argues against this doesn’t understand the reality of the energy market and is more focused on their personal soundbite.

That’s not helping us, and ironically it actually just moves us further away from the goal we all want to achieve.

Unfortunately, the politics of this has become so binary it’s making it so much harder to get there.

If everyone agrees that this issue needs to be addressed, and that getting to a net zero future is in our country’s best interest – and I’m not sure anyone would argue against that – we need an independent expert body to work with all stakeholders on a multi-year target that is realistic and achievable.

One that is backed by a ten-to-fifteen-year transition plan that everyone can commit to.

One that doesn’t demonise or politicise the fuel sources that get us there, and one that doesn’t change every time there is a change in government.

The BCA has suggested that someone like the Climate Change Authority could play that role. 

They could become Australia’s trusted, independent body for climate policy.

Everyone would need to lay down their guns and put their faith in the experts. It would also require everyone to sign up to the outcome.

I appreciate that this is a big idea - and it’s difficult - but it’s a conversation we need to have because what we’re doing at the moment isn’t working, and we need to admit that.

The second area where we need to break out of this jail of short-term thinking is tax.

I don’t think you would find a single economist who would argue that our tax system is fit for purpose. 

All of the data and evidence tells us that we are digging ourselves a $1 trillion hole due, in part, to our over-reliance on income tax with an ageing workforce.

The intergenerational injustice in maintaining the status quo is unacceptable.

Yet we tinker around the edges, and we shy away from meaningful reform. We accept the sad reality that our children will be working harder to pay for an ageing population off a smaller tax base.


Because to go after meaningful tax reform is seen as political suicide. It’s become a one-way ticket to losing the next election.

That’s the trap we’re in.

So, what would it take to go after meaningful whole-of-system tax reform?

It probably looks something like the last time we achieved it under Keating and Howard.

The case was built over time. Everyone was invited to the table. 

The conversation started with the assumption that this was a long-term priority that was in the best interests of the country – and that decisions and plans needed to be made on that basis.

Like climate, we probably need to get an independent expert, working with all stakeholders, to design a tax system that will meet the needs of generations to come.

One that is fair and broad based. One that can adequately fund the Australia that we all want to live in, but also makes us globally competitive and attracts investment.

And, importantly, one that avoids the need for short-term sugar hits every time there’s a gap to fill.

To achieve this, we would need to take political risk out of the equation.

And like climate, everyone would need to lay down their guns and stay the course through election cycles and changes in government. It can’t be a tool or a strategy to win an election.

Once again, this is a challenging and difficult idea.

We tried it with the Henry Tax Review, which was only partly implemented. 14 years on, the problem has only gotten bigger.

If everyone agrees that the current system is not working, that long-term reform is required and the wealth and prosperity of the nation depends on it, then we have to try again.

The third area we need to look at is the regulatory morass that is strangling our innovation and competitiveness by stealth.

As President of the BCA, you would expect me to say that, but facts don’t lie.

As I said before, we have slipped from 4th to 19th in the world for competitiveness.

If we finished 19th on the medal tally at the Paris Olympics this year there would be calls for a Royal Commission.

If you’re a small business owner looking to open a café in Sydney, you may need over 20 licenses across three levels of government.

There are 122 different awards to consider, and the Restaurant Industry Award is more than 90 pages long with pay determined across 6 employee classifications, five allowances, six overtime rates and six penalty rates.

The award was updated seven times in 2023 alone. And now you have to worry about the right to disconnect.

What problems are we trying to solve here?

Across our entire economy, businesses of all sizes grapple with the layers of regulation across three levels of government multiplied by eight states and territories.

We seem to be going in one direction—each year we layer on more.

And this goes to who we want to be as a country. Do we want to be a productive, agile nation that encourages entrepreneurialism and risk taking?

Do we want to be an attractive place for foreign investment? Do we want businesses to grow and create more high quality, high paying jobs?

Or do we want to be slow, complex, over-regulated and uncompetitive. Do we want to discourage businesses to grow and take risk?

We used to be the former. We’re rapidly on a path to becoming the latter.

Australia needs to go on a crusade against senseless bureaucracy.

We need an ease of doing business agenda, driven at all levels of government— one that is coordinated and, once again, not politicised.

We need to strip back everything that doesn’t matter. We need to harmonise everything that represents duplication, and we need to make this a national priority.

All that is easy to say, but when it requires three levels of government to work hand in hand across eight states and territories it starts to look much harder.

I get that. But if we don’t try, the situation is only going to get worse.

The BCA has recommended that the Productivity Commission be charged with the responsibility to go after this. To establish a five year ‘ease of doing business’ agenda and to identify the reforms required to turn this ship around.

Like climate and tax, the only way we’ll get meaningful long-term reform is if we take the politics out of this conversation and create an environment where it’s safe for everyone to come together.

One where we put our trust in the experts and are prepared to commit to a course of action that lives beyond the next election and any change in government.

If you take the view that slipping from 4th to 19th  in the world for global competitiveness is unacceptable, then you would not stand in the way of this idea.

Long-term reform on climate, tax and regulation are just three areas that I’ve picked out as examples.

In our Seize the Moment report the BCA has identified another seven areas that are being held back by this cycle of short-term thinking and are crying out for a long-term plan - things like overseas trade, people and skills, productivity in the workplace.

And I want to make an important point – this can come down to national will, not political will. Because the national dynamic can drive the political dynamic.

But we all need to find our voice on this or nothing will change.

We all need to ask ourselves the question—what kind of country do we want to be?

Do we want to get back to being that pioneering, free-wheeling, competitive Australia we used to be, and which we proudly celebrated?

If the answer is yes, we all need to find our voice and get into the conversation.

You could cherry-pick this speech for negative aspects. Some may say it’s pessimistic, but that’s the opposite of what I’m trying to say here.

I’m enormously optimistic about our potential.

But we’re not living up to it.

That’s the reason why I took on this role as President of the BCA.

Because the conversation needs to change—the system needs to change—and the business community has a critical role to play. The BCA has a critical role to play.

But it’s not just about the business community.

And I want to end on this point. I want to end by making it abundantly clear that this is not just about business winning.

This is about Australia winning.

This is about laying the foundations for our future success, for generations to come. And surely that is something we can all get behind. 


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