What would Bob Hawke and Paul Keating do?

In grappling with Australia’s contemporary economic policy challenges, asking ‘what would Hawke and Keating do?’ should do no harm and might do some good. The modern methods of policy development seem so distantly removed from the successes of the 1980s and early 1990s. Fortunately, the recently aired two-part ABC documentary on the Hawke years offers some insights. Hopefully, so do my memoirs, The Boy from Baradine, relating my experience as an economic adviser in the Hawke office during the transformative economic reform period 1986-1990.

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The risks of The Great Unwinding and normalisation of interest rates

By definition, the global financial crisis and the great crash of 2009 were disorderly. Monetary authorities around the world deployed unprecedented measures to stimulate devastated economies, including cutting interest rates so far that they turned negative and injecting staggering amounts of liquidity through quantitative easing. Now, more than a decade after the crisis struck, the same authorities are beginning to unwind the stimulus. But will "The Great Unwinding" be orderly, or will it be disorderly, like the crisis it was designed to resolve?

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The question mark that hangs over TPP

The government’s insistence that Labor immediately endorse the Trans-Pacific Partnership minus the United States (TPP11), without knowing what’s in it, is an early reminder that politics will again dominate policy this year. Opposition leader Bill Shorten and shadow trade minister Jason Clare have suggested the pared-down agreement be subjected to Productivity Commission economic modelling. Treasurer Morrison has dismissed this idea as absurd. Yet he gleefully brandished BIS Shrapnel modelling he claimed was of the opposition’s negative gearing policy when, in fact, it had been conducted months before the policy’s release and on a different set of assumptions. In the treasurer’s world, consistency is the sign of a small mind.

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Does Minister Josh Frydenberg dream of electric cars?

Putting increased take-up of electric vehicles in Australia on the same level of disruption as the introduction of the iPhone, as Energy and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg did on the weekend, is head-turning and welcome, but it needs to be backed by proactive government policies. High on the list should be support for the installation of fast-charging stations and an exemption of electric vehicles from the luxury car tax. As cost-effective carbon abatement policies, they should go straight to the pool room, to borrow a phrase from The Castle.

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Reformers face election hurdles

Get ready for lots of elections in 2018 – several by-elections, two state elections and, in all likelihood, a federal election. In election years, politicians go crazy, exaggerating even more wildly than usual, accusing their opponents of all manner of crimes and misdemeanours. With a large number of political careers on the line, all government policy thinking will be directed towards one goal – re-election. 

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The politics beats policy every time

Judging by the recent pronouncements of federal ministers, politics seems set to dominate over policy again next year. If the government gets its way, the two by-elections of late-2017 will be followed by five more in the first half of 2018, four involving Labor MPs and the other an independent. The government will use its restored parliamentary majority to refer the five to the High Court while blocking the referral of any more of its own who remain under a citizenship cloud.

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Same-sex marriage vote shows we need more free debates in Parliament

Last week’s civil debate in the Senate on same-sex marriage gives good people great heart that the Parliament can be better than it has been for most of the last seven years and much of its time since Federation. Rising above partisanship is easier said than done and, on issues on which the major parties have deeply different philosophies, it isn’t even desirable. But on matters where common ground could be found, it is time for a more collegiate approach to restore people’s faith in our democracy.

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Time to look at what's achievable

As the Turnbull government struggles with the citizenship fiasco, with more byelections in prospect for early 2018, and a looming party-room brawl over how to protect religious freedoms in the same-sex marriage legislation, now is the time to fill the policy vacuum by identifying a viable economic reform program for the new year.

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Time for the Coalition to govern, not go on political witch-hunts

Scoring political points against rivals is no substitute for governing. Yet this is the priority in Canberra: to try to damage opposition leader Bill Shorten. At a time when retail sales are feeble, wages growth is flat and private investment is faltering, the economic imperative should be to instil confidence through strong and decisive leadership. Instead, as if hooked on poker machines with a guaranteed losing result, the Turnbull government just can’t give up playing the game.

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When public trust in governments collapses, reforms get much harder

On Tuesday the treasurer will release a Productivity Commission report on the need for further economic reform. Judging from the terms of reference, the report will propose a new effort at federal-state reform. Yet public trust in our institutions – government, business and even non-governmental organisations – is collapsing. Any chance of a new round of socially desirable economic reform will rest on rebuilding the public's trust in our institutions.

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Australia has become a house of cards

Retail sales figures released last week add weight to my warnings as far back as 2014 that the Australian economy is a house of cards. The 2014 federal budget assumed consumers would dramatically increase their spending while real wages stagnated or fell. It predicted that home owners would spend up big on the back of their increased wealth from rising house prices. That hasn't happened and now, with house prices easing, consumers have become downright gloomy. Pull the house-price card out and the whole economy can collapse. Such is the folly of orchestrating a housing boom as a substitute for an economic strategy.

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The reds are in the Liberals' beds

A terrible rift has opened up within the Coalition: some ministers are accusing Bill Shorten of being an East German socialist while others are just as adamant that he is the Cuban variety. But listen not to what the Turnbull government says; watch what it does. While the Prime Minister seeks to distract the public by accusing Shorten of socialism he is demonstrating socialist tendencies on a regular basis.

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Our superannuation system picks on women for having kids

Amid the ongoing controversies about discrimination against same-sex couples wanting to marry and the operation of the racial discrimination act, it is astounding that a grievous form of discrimination against the majority of Australians is being allowed to persist without remedy. That’s right, you don’t need to be in a minority to endure discrimination, you just need to be a woman. In this day and age, it should be unacceptable that women’s retirement incomes on average are at least 20 per cent beneath those of men.

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Reform will have to wait, again

As the same-sex marriage postal survey rolls out and the responses roll in, Prime Minister Turnbull has pledged that his government will not be distracted from the urgent task of economic reform. It is a pledge he will be unable to keep. So many questions will arise during the conduct of the survey and its aftermath that the government will spend most of its time responding to them. And with the Coalition party room so deeply divided on legalising same-sex marriage, the goodwill needed to conduct a constructive debate on pressing matters such as the Finkel Review’s clean energy target is clearly lacking. When ministers make media appearances about portfolio matters, they inevitably will be asked their opinion on statements by opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage. Yet again, reform will have to wait.

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Malcolm Turnbull's winter of discontent

If the Turnbull government is puzzled about why it is languishing in the polls, it needs to look at just three statistics: wage growth, underemployment and electricity prices. Each is trending badly against the sensible centre of the Australian community to which Turnbull seeks to appeal.Middle Australia is struggling to make ends meet, while the government is seen, at best, as being distracted and, at worst, as actively operating against the interests of working people.

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PAYG workers are copping the most pain to pay off the deficit

Are we over-taxed? The answer to this question depends on who "we" are and what constitutes excessive taxation. Some object to paying any tax at all. Typified by the statement "get your hand out of my pocket", they see the role for government as being limited to protecting their private property rights. Others are willing to pay for the public services they receive and a more equitable distribution of income or, at least, of opportunity. Yet there are objective ways of determining whether "we" are overtaxed.

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