The National Reform Summit, sponsored by two rival Australian national titles, has forged broad support from business, unions, welfare and community groups on an agenda for economic reform – underlining the strength and influence of newspaper media.
Backed by The Australian and The Australian Financial Review, as well as KPMG, the summit issued a statement in which it called for all major political parties to reach a bipartisan view and act on the major challenges faced by Australia before it was too late.
“There needs to be a clear, long-term plan, implemented with purpose over the next decade to meet these challenges to help guide the community through the necessary adjustment,” the statement said.
Representatives from the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Australian Council of Social Services, the Council on the Ageing, National Seniors and Youth Action were among the 90 delegates at the conference.
Menzies Research Centre executive director Nick Cater and former Labor minister Craig Emerson were co-convenors.
One of the driving forces behind the summit was political inertia on major economic issues, while Australians faced the real prospect of a drop in their standard of living.
Tax reform and workplace changes to increase productivity were considered crucial areas for reform, as well as the need for a realistic plan to return the budget to structural surplus over the next decade.
Former Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson warned that Australia faced dire consequences if it did not boost productivity, saying the nation was “sleepwalking into a mess”. His comments were supported by Reserve Bank governor Glenn Stevens. “There is no avoiding the need to have the right labour market arrangements,” Mr Stevens said.
Mr Parkinson said Australia could sacrifice as much as 5 per cent of the economy in missed growth if it did not act quickly.
In terms of tax, Mr Parkinson said the system was basically the same as it was in the 1950s. It was too reliant on company income tax and personal income tax, he said. The summit also called on the government to place all options for tax reform on the table, not just the ones that were politically palatable.
There was general agreement on the need for lower company taxes, as well as a review of the retirement income system, including superannuation tax concessions.
In its editorial after the summit, The Australian Financial Review said the conference was never going to reach full agreement over a detailed action plan for securing Australia’s prosperity. “But it has made an overdue start to getting and then spreading acceptance of the urgency of the policy challenges confronting the nation,” it said
The Australian summed up in its editorial: “No summit will deliver instant reform but neither should it be the end of the process. Rather, it should help to energise a never-ending process. As co-convener and former Labor minister Craig Emerson said, the summit will have served its purpose if it has been able to create an environment that can ‘make good reform easier and opposing good reform harder’.”