No one should be left behind in the recovery

This opinion article by Business Council chief executive appeared in The Australian on Monday 27 April 2020.

As we take stock of Australia’s achievements so far in weathering this extraordinary crisis and start looking to the long road ahead, I hope we take with us the lessons we have drawn from over the past few weeks.

These include the significance of humility and compassion, the real value of profitable businesses, and the understanding that we cannot achieve anything without cooperation and compromise.

As we prepare to stoke the recovery and revitalise the economy, our efforts should be grounded in the philosophies of aspiration, ambition, freedom, fairness, the value of well-regulated markets and enterprise.

The Prime Minister is right to identify this as a time for ‘harvesting’ reform ideas. We truly do have a once in a generation opportunity to recraft the kind of society we want to be and the type of economy we need to achieve it.

We must be an open trading economy. We must be an aspirational society that rewards hard work and puts money in the pockets of ordinary Australians, and an entrepreneurial society where we can keep and attract the best and brightest people.

We must be a nation that attracts investment, creates more and higher paying jobs, skills its people, innovates, bridges the metropolitan and regional divide, plays to its strengths whether they are existing or new, values successful businesses and successful Australians, and can hold its own against the rest of the world.

As a nation of close to 26 million people, Australia must have a growing, competitive, and open trading economy.

So, how do we arrive at this destination?

On skills and education, our priority is a system that enables people to rapidly upskill as the world of work changes and where they have a portable account to easily access lifelong learning. We need to urgently simplify the system so people can study in modules or micro credentials when, and how, they need to quickly learn new skills.

On workplace relations, our priority is to simplify the complex awards structure and restore faith in the enterprise bargaining system. Let’s not surrender the cooperation and shared interests we have established in managing this crisis and remember that secure work comes from secure and successful businesses working with their employees.

On regulation, we should look at the measures that have been suspended during the COVID-19 crisis and ask whether we really needed them in the first place?

On infrastructure, we need to address how we fund the right enabling projects that will boost productivity by allowing us to move around faster, ease congestion, and more easily export our world leading goods and produce.

On our regions and places, we need to think about how we maximise their potential and nurture them as places of economic growth. A central part of growth will be playing to our strengths. Our industry policy needs to support what we are good at and allow us to reach for areas where we can excel, all underpinned by foundation capabilities and supported by digital infrastructure such as 5G.

We finally have the chance to crack the code between innovation and commercialisation, so we can convert our great ideas into actual economic gains for the country. This will require a more positive approach to investment in research and development, and improved incentives for collaboration between universities and industry.

On taxes, the starting point is the principle of ensuring we are a globally competitive society. We will emerge from this with our reputation as a safe country enhanced, we now just need to ensure we also have the advantage of an efficient and competitive tax system that actually encourages investment to our shores.

The type of tax system Australia should strive to achieve is one that rewards effort, serves as a magnet for capital, jettisons distorting, inefficient or incentive-sapping taxes, better positions us to embrace the digital economy, and solves our commonwealth and state funding issues.

In resuscitating our economy, we can tackle some of our most vexed problems.

Every dollar we invest in energy, should be a dollar towards a lower carbon economy and lower cost energy bills. When we spend money on housing, we should think about investing in social and affordable housing. Unemployed people need a system that assists them to rebuild their confidence, reskill and retrain so they can reconnect with the workplace and experience the dignity of work.

During the bushfires, businesses stepped up. They donated millions in cash and in-kind assistance and put in place practical measures such as extending leave arrangements and speeding up payments to suppliers.

And now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the banks that have stood alongside government to put a floor under the economy to stop us falling through. It is the utility companies that have given breathing space to those who need it, the telecommunications and digital companies that have given us the capacity to work from home, our manufacturers that have converted their production lines to produce life-saving equipment, and our supermarkets and big retailers that have ensured we can safely buy our daily essentials.

As we embark on weighing up the reforms to take Australia forward, I encourage us to steer clear of ideological constraints, sidestep ruling things in and ruling things out, and avoid starting the process with the words ‘under no circumstances’.

Instead, why don’t we identify what kind of society we want to be, what kind of economy we have to be, and the various measures that will get us there as quickly as possible? The choices we make that will determine the strength of our recovery must be governed by some simple rules of thumb – does this create a new job, a secure job, a better paid job, and does this get someone back to work?