Malcolm Turnbull gets the National Reform Summit band back together

By inviting the key participants in the National Reform Summit to a meeting on Thursday, Turnbull is signalling a new philosophical approach to the task of government.

It seems Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is encouraging the band to get back together. By inviting the key participants in the National Reform Summit to a meeting on Thursday, Turnbull is signalling a new philosophical approach to the task of government. For the last two years Australia has endured a government that operated on the basis of conflict, constantly warning of the enemy without and the enemy within – the enemy within being anyone who didn't fall in line with the government.

Surveys confirm that a wave of optimism is now sweeping the nation. Turnbull's elevation will boost the Coalition's prospects but it will also bring out the best in Labor. Before the change of prime minister, next year's election run-up was shaping up as scare campaigns at 10 paces. Now it is more likely to be a contest of ideas. The winners will be the Australian people.

By the time of the convening of the National Reform Summit, backed by The Australian Financial ReviewThe Australian and KPMG, the Abbott government had ruled out any changes to the taxation of high-end superannuation, capital gains and negative gearing, while Labor had ruled out any changes to the GST. Effectively, tax reform was dead. But the signatories to the National Reform Summit statement agreed that nothing should be taken off the table. That didn't mean that any one group supported any particular tax. But it did mean all groups were willing to have a conversation based on objective analysis of the economic and social impacts of the system as a whole as they sought common ground on reform proposals.

The Business Council of Australia, Australian Council of Social Service and the Australian Council of Trade Unions obviously sensed a change in Canberra, reaching out to Prime Minister Turnbull and encouraging his more positive approach to economic and social reform.

Beyond tax reform, the summit groups will be encouraged by the strong interest shown by the Turnbull government and the Shorten opposition in accommodating disruptive technologies. These new technologies might spur the desperately needed next round of productivity growth. The ACTU recognises they could form the basis of a high-skill, high-wage future for working Australians. Encouragingly, Turnbull, too, has spoken of a high-wage economy.


Achieving sustainability in retirement incomes policy is now back on the agenda after being taken off it by the Abbott government as it prepared its anti-Labor scare campaign. And the summit groups have indicated a willingness to consider reviews of major spending programs that look at better ways of delivering services without sacrificing quality.

As the global economy enters a new era of vulnerability the need for reform is obvious and urgent. Both the government and the opposition seem to accept their responsibility to explain the realities to the Australian people who, having understood the problem, will cooperate in the implementation of solutions. They always have. But they are sick of the scare campaigns and the shifting stories to suit changing political circumstances.

While the Turnbull government signals a greater consistency of approach in telling the story of the nation's challenges following the end of the mining boom, the Labor opposition has had the courage to level with the Australian people by releasing contentious policies mid-term. Parliament can once again become the clearing house of ideas.

The National Reform Summit considered four work streams: productivity growth and workforce participation; tax reform; fiscal policy; and retirement incomes policy. Time limitations precluded other major policy areas being added to the agenda. The Abbott government removed all reference to one such policy area – the white paper on Australia in the Asian century – going so far as to dismantle the website. But it did conclude trade agreements with Korea, Japan and China.

A down payment on a new era of policy co-operation could be an agreement by the major parties on a way to pass the enabling legislation for the China-Australia free trade agreement that gives legislative effect to the government's stated policy of labour market testing of lower-skill work visa categories. Having done that, the two parties might consider reviving and refreshing the Asian century white paper process.

The signs are positive that politics in Canberra might be thawing after the big chill of the last couple of years. May a large number of policy flowers bloom.

Craig Emerson was a National Reform Summit convenor and is an adjunct professor at Victoria University's College of Business.