Response to the Ministerial Statement on Productivity

12 November 2015


I relish the opportunity to talk about productivity and the opportunity to respond to this ministerial statement.

Our economy is undergoing a very important transition away from one based on high prices for our commodities into one that must be increasingly based on the ability of our people to turn technological and other change to our personal and national advantage.

We have had a remarkable quarter century of economic growth, but that quarter century of growth will be in serious jeopardy unless we build new sources of opportunity and new ways to create jobs. As the Opposition Leader says, Australia's choice is between being a smarter nation or a poorer nation.

We have made good choices before in the 1980s, 1990s and during the GFC, which I mention not as some sort of nostalgic shibboleth but as a demonstration that good decisions are not beyond us in this country. Our history should be behind us pushing us forward, not in front of us pushing us back.

Good choices are within our reach. But if we get them wrong, if we focus on the wrong things, we can kiss goodbye the living standards which have been the hallmark of our recent history and a benchmark for the rest of the world.

Being smarter not poorer is really about being more productive. Productivity growth is what we need if we are to create wealth, to lift living standards in this country and to ensure there is enough opportunity and enough employment to go round.

There are all kinds of ways to slice and dice the data on productivity growth, but in essence the story is that in the 1980s we had terrible productivity growth at 1.3 per cent; in the 1990s it was terrific at 2.1 per cent; for the first decade of the 2000s it was 1.4 per cent, roughly where it is now; and the IGR forecasts use the long-term average of 1.5 per cent.

I do not have time to dig into all the reasons for our productivity performance or the influences on it, or to discuss the softness in productivity growth right around the world. But the point is this: we can argue about what is causing our current productivity growth of 1.4 per cent, but it is beyond argument that that kind of productivity performance is insufficient to maintain and advance Australian living standards.

Faced with this serious challenge, it is disappointing to see that the sum total of the government's plan is to wage this ridiculous war on legislative punctuation, which they describe as 'red-tape reduction'.

When I heard last night that we were getting a statement this morning from the Assistant Minister for Productivity, I have to confess I did get my hopes up. I printed it out, I settled in, I made a coffee and I got the little pink highlighter out, but my hopes were dashed. I was combing through the statement looking for the value and ready to colour in the big points, but the lid never came off the highlighter. The felt never hit the page. Not a millilitre of pink ink was spent.

Instead of a well-considered plan to genuinely boost productivity in this country, we got a recycled version of the same old limp and lifeless slogans of repeal days past. This is the fourth repeal day in the life of this government. It has become a tattered, yellowing hand-me-down from one parliamentary secretary or assistant minister to another—from the Member for Kooyong to the Member for Pearce and now the Member for Eden-Monaro.

From past repeal days, it is worth reminding ourselves that, amidst all the fanfare and all the noise, we have had three sets of Omnibus Bills that have totalled $56.8 million in deregulatory savings. We have had the repeal of a law related to the registration of mules for defence purposes. We have had the repeal of a law relating to state navies. We have had changes from 'e-mail' to 'email,' from 'facsimile' to 'fax'. We have had acts repealed where the principal act had already been repealed. We have had the repeal of the Delivered Meals Subsidy Amendment Act 1980 when the main act, the Delivered Meals Subsidy Act 1970, had already been repealed in 2009. We had the removal of 40 hyphens, two commas and one inverted comma. We have had two full stops changed to semicolons and one semicolon changed to a full stop. We have inserted one new full stop, one colon, one hyphen and one comma. What a joke!

The Omnibus Repeal Day (Spring 2014) Bill has not even passed the parliament. The Bill from Autumn 2015, once it was introduced in March 2015, took nearly six months to get debated in the House of Representatives. Out of the $56.8 million in savings from the three sets of bills only $14 million has passed the parliament.

Those opposite are long on fanfare and short on reform. On this side we are up for genuine red-tape reduction. In government we abolished more than 16,000 acts and legislative instruments—16,794 to be precise—and we instituted the seamless national economy reforms that lowered business costs by $4 billion a year—something that I was personally proud to work on in another role in this building.

The government likes to claim, as the Assistant Minister did moments ago, that the decisions they have taken will save $4.5 billion per year. It is worth reminding everyone what this includes. It includes nearly $200 million from stripping away consumer protections as part of the Future of Financial Advice reforms and $5 million out of the pockets of cleaners through the abolition of the Commonwealth Cleaning Services Guidelines.

I could go on and on about the farcical nature of these so-called red-tape reductions, but I think you get the point. The point is this: when our country needs a serious plan to boost productivity in this nation they get instead, from their government, the recycled talking points of the Abbott era, the same over-claimed savings and the same hole in their economic agenda where productivity growth should be.

It says it all about those opposite that in a ministerial statement on productivity there is nothing about education, nothing about human capital, not even infrastructure and more specifically broadband infrastructure. When I printed out the statement, I thought that there was a page missing, I thought that I had got the ordering wrong, I thought the printer might have broken as I went through it, over and over again, looking in vain for some reference to human capital—arguably the most important driver of productivity in an economy like ours. There is nothing about teaching and training our people for the jobs of the future; nothing about giving them the tools they need to succeed in a modern market economy, characterised by the breathtaking pace of change by grasping new technological opportunities; nothing about lifelong learning or the workforce that we will need to be competitive; nothing on the sorts of issues that my colleague the member for Kingston spends her time working on when it comes to lifelong learning in this country.

Productivity growth will not come from eliminating commas in legislation nor, for that matter, from slashing penalty rates or jacking up the GST. It will take economic leadership, but the gains will come from the bottom up, from a better educated workforce and from better infrastructure, including 21st century broadband infrastructure. It is left to Labor to fill the gap in the economic debate left by the failure of those opposite to understand these basic truths. On this side of the parliament, the Leader of the Opposition and the colleagues on the front bench have released more considered and costed policies from opposition than any other alternative government in more than two decades, and many of them, if not most of them, are carefully calibrated to boost productivity in our economy.

Our plans to substantially reform universities so that we have more and better quality graduates actually finishing their degrees, high-quality degrees, that are workforce ready when they finish, will boost productivity in our economy. Our special focus on more graduates, teachers and start-ups in the science, technology, engineering and maths disciplines will boost productivity. Coding in Australian schools, primary and secondary, the language of the 21st century, will boost productivity. A start-up year at university to create a culture of innovation and invention will boost productivity, as well as a TAFE funding guarantee to provide certainty to the vocational training sector.

All of these things will make our workforce more capable and adaptable, and will contribute to the future growth of productivity in Australia, especially when you consider them hand in hand with our plans to turbocharge infrastructure by strengthening Infrastructure Australia and giving it the capacity to work with other financing options to build the infrastructure that we need to be a productive economy.

We are at a defining moment in our national economic trajectory. We need to work out how to make this extraordinary change work for us and not against us. It is always the right time to be thinking about and talking about productivity but acting as well, and that has never been more true than it is now.

We cannot count on our history. We cannot count on that quarter century of growth to deliver another quarter century of growth from here. If we do not become more productive, we will go backwards; we will not grow in a sustainable way.

The government's failure to treat productivity as a priority risks turning economic growth and opportunity into a memory. We need dedicated, forward-thinking investment in the drivers of growth and opportunity in this country.

The government cannot spin their way out of the challenges we face—soggy growth and sluggish productivity—and they cannot just have another day of editing away misplaced commas and hyphens because that will not cut it either.