By Michael Chaney
Business Council of Australia
The 2007 federal election will be one of the most important in many years in regard to determining the direction of the country’s future. From the Business Council of Australia’s perspective, the election will determine whether we will continue moving forward or whether as a nation we will opt for complacency and let our hard-won gains slip away.
Australians have grown accustomed to the opportunities and prosperity a strong economy provides: jobs and wealth creation; access to goods and services; and new business and investment opportunities. But our position hasn't come about by accident. Nor will future prosperity.
The benefits of past reforms in providing the platform for 16 years of economic growth are clear. What is unclear is how much longer those benefits can be sustained in the absence of a reinvigorated reform agenda. We’ve seen a strong consensus develop among our political leaders that a comprehensive agenda of reforms is vital to renewing our economy and avoiding the prospect of slipping backwards. At the same time we have yet to see a sufficient level of concerted action that will allow us to advance our economy. We need to see action in many areas.
Elections provide the opportunity for political leaders to outline their visions for the future. Although Australia could emerge from the 2007 election with new pathways to prosperity supported by a government committed to acting on important reforms, we could also see an election campaign in which political parties focus on luring voters with quick fixes and instant rewards.
The Business Council of Australia, whose members employ nearly one million Australians, believes the community wants more than just pork-barrelling and promises framed around the short term. Our research has revealed a changing mindset among Australians, who are now more aspirational about the way they view the future. After 16 years of growth and prosperity, the community understands the importance of keeping the economy moving forward. People understand that the global economy brings both opportunity and threats. But as a nation we’re more confident in our collective ability to meet the competition and challenges and to make the most of new opportunities.
From the BCA’s point of view, this translates into a potentially new political dynamic in which the standard election offerings of pork-barrelling and ad hoc policy responses will not be enough.
To frame election thinking around a single, basic objective – elevating the country’s living standards into the world's top-five band by 2012 – the BCA is outlining a set of reform standards for the 2007 federal election. These standards will be used by the BCA to assess whether the economic policies of the political parties contribute to passing on prosperity or eroding it.
Workplace reform is a key plank of these reform standards. Workplace reforms by both leading political parties during the past 20 years have been fundamental to jobs growth, productivity and increased prosperity in the community. The latest changes to workplace laws have attracted considerable debate and a lot of misinformation by those opposed to change. The BCA’s reform standards make clear that there can be no winding back of the core elements of workplace deregulation, given their crucial importance to future prosperity.
Education is also central to future prosperity. In a global-knowledge economy, the quality of Australia's education, training and innovation systems is vital to its future.
The BCA’s reform standards call on political parties to review and update these systems across a number of fronts to achieve better outcomes, including raising the quality of teaching and the nationwide consistency of curriculums, and achieving uniformly high standards of literacy and numeracy.
Climate change and the development of a long-term strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are complex challenges facing Australia’s economy and will be the subject of significant debate in the election campaign. Yet the issue does not lend itself to quick fixes or simplistic political posturing.
As the BCA standards make clear, lasting solutions require a balance between protecting Australia’s economic strengths and achieving sustainable cuts in greenhouse gas emissions at both industry and community levels. The BCA’s reform standards also call for politicians to commit to a broad reform of federal–state relations. Many of the challenges and opportunities faced by Australia, including in areas such as infrastructure, health and business regulation, require improved co-operation between federal and state governments.
If we are to tackle long-term challenges, it is during an election year that strategic vision and discipline must come to the fore. Elections should not be seen as just another reason for political parties to skirt the tough decisions necessary to sustain prosperity in Australia.