Too often our leaders wait and wait

| July 27, 2017

“Too often, our leaders – from all political persuasions – wait and wait, and fail to authorise actions in support of effective adaptation. Or worse still, play to the gallery and jam in the wedge. Credibility is a precious commodity. A stock of it is created by persistently offering simple, clear advice that recognises a policy shift is on, and explains why – and where the national interest lies. It is a real pity to see credibility eroded so often by defaulting instead to offering false hope or railing against the inevitable.”

Chairman of Australia’s Productivity Commission Peter Harris said in a challenging speech entitled Productivity and Policy Challenges in an Environment of Pervasive Uncertainty delivered at the Economic and Social Outlook Conference on 20 July 2017 in Melbourne.

After analysing causes of uncertainty and a lack of policy commitment to productivity growth in Australia, Peter asked his audience:

Where to start?

  • A serious spring clean of urban planning
  • Address disease prevention as directly as we address workplace accidents
  • Change the early retirement paradigm
  • Data, the new resource discovery
  • Stop creating new barriers to trade and labour mobility.

We could, for example, restructure the approach to education throughout working lives to recognise the multiple careers people are likely to have, and make it simple and cheap to return to education. A right to return is no bad thing for an uncertain future. Retraining is currently inconvenient and expensive, and our key educational institutions are still emphasising a one-career-for-life approach to qualifications.  The system – both in terms of education and industrial relations – is set up against becoming a plumber at age 30, or a chef at age 40.

Or we could take the serious broom to the accrued debris of decades of unreformed investment-sapping limitations in planning and zoning and urban infrastructure costs.  I suggested how to the last Outlook Conference.
Maybe we could take a direct approach to a healthier workforce, move away from fee-based responses to disease and redirect funding towards prevention. We could use agents who make it their primary business to prevent performance-reducing disease. We do this now for accident prevention, but not for diabetes or drugs.
We could apply a whole-of-government data-based attack on employer expectations of early retirement, along with re-framing the age of access to our superannuation and pension systems.  We are living longer, but our working lives have barely increased at all in forty years. Someone is paying for that, and despite the view that we are putting lots into our superannuation, it’s not offsetting those extra years in retirement. Indexing both of the access ages to future improvements in longevity has an unmistakable logic, and depoliticises the whole thing.
And we need to open up the use of data more generally, as one of the very few perpetually renewable resources discovered this century.
Plus renewing effort at the removal of barriers to efficient resource allocation: eliminating non-tariff barriers, shifting the tax mix to allow greater labour mobility are good starts.
But we aren’t even close to doing any of that.
This article was first published in Australian Leadership on 25 July 2017.