Getting the National Reform Summit band back together

Growth is feeble, wages are flat, investment has fallen off a cliff, the budget is a mess and the car industry is shutting down, but apart from that the economy is doing just fine. Australia has always had a two-speed economy, with some parts hurtling ahead while others struggle in the slow lane. But now the two Australias comprise the fast-growing big cities of Sydney, Melbourne and to a lesser extent Brisbane, and the lagging regions. And regional Australians are disillusioned and angry about it – fertile ground for One Nation's nationalistic, protectionist policy prescriptions. It's time to get the band back together. Yes, it's time for a reconvened National Reform Summit.

Far from showing how easy it is for the 45th Parliament to agree on anything, last week's mayhem over the backpacker tax demonstrated how difficult the task is of legislating any change on which the major parties disagree. Yet Australia's economic, social and environmental problems demand real and urgent reform, not fiddling at the edge and blame shifting. Petty squabbling between the major parties and the hurt in the bush are contributing to the jump in the minor-party and independent vote from an already-high 23 per cent at the July federal election to an astonishing 34 in the latest Fairfax Ipsos poll.

The original National Reform Summit sought to find common ground among business organisations, trade unions and civil society groups. The Summit Statement released in August 2015 achieved that. New Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull immediately called the summit participants together for a discussion and again ahead of the December 2015 meeting of the Council of Australian Governments. A year has passed, an election has intervened, the new parliament is more fraught than ever and reform has become even more urgent.

KPMG, which hosted the last Reform Summit, has developed a reform agenda for the 45th Parliament that has a realistic chance of attracting bipartisan support. The suggested reform program comprises initiatives in the areas of budget repair, mending the social safety net, increasing productivity-raising infrastructure investment, further education reform, modernising the industrial relations system, making a start on reforming the tax and retirement income systems, and effective action on climate change and Indigenous economic empowerment. It is not an unrealistic wish list but an achievable down payment on a more comprehensive reform program.

But nor should KPMG's proposed eight-item reform agenda be seen as holy writ. Participants in the 2015 summit would have their own ideas to bring to the table. But the test of any policy proposal is whether the summit participants can agree on it and whether it is capable of attracting bipartisan support. If the summit participants could agree, perhaps through negotiation and compromise, the prospects of bipartisanship would be improved.

Any reform program would need to be balanced – taken forward as a whole – instead of being available for cherry picking.

It is easy to be pessimistic about the ability of the current Parliament to achieve essential reforms. Yet the major parties quietly negotiated a set of budget repair measures – contained in the Budget Savings Omnibus Bill (2016) – that sailed through the Parliament. And, after its own amendments were defeated, Labor voted for the government's superannuation measures. Opposition leader Bill Shorten has publicly invited Prime Minister Turnbull to speak to Labor more often, to see if they can find more common ground. The pair even seemed to suggest in their pre-Christmas parliamentary speeches that they quite like each other.

In purely political terms, finding common ground on reform is good for both Turnbull and Shorten; enabling Turnbull to get more runs on the board and Shorten to demonstrate his credentials as Australia's alternative prime minister. The default option is for the major political parties to bicker, play the blame game and watch the One Nation and other minor party vote go through the roof. Middle Australia yearns for the major parties to occupy the sensible centre, not the hard left or the hard right. Everyday Australians will continue to lodge protest votes for the fringe parties unless and until the major parties genuinely seek and find common ground. The reform task is urgent. Australia cannot afford its 45th Parliament to shirk the task. We're on a mission from God.