Scott Morrison – Reform agenda on backburner as PM seeks to avoid controversy
Yet we hope Mr Morrison doesn’t consider economic reform a matter of “vanity”. For previous Liberal leaders such as John Howard, it was a key plank of their government’s legacy.
It would be disappointing because Mr Morrison last April promised he would look “with fresh eyes” at a new round of productivity enhancing reforms to allow Australia to recover faster.
The only obvious attempt at reform is in an industrial relations bill currently before the Parliament.
That bill has some controversial aspects: for example it would allow for new enterprise bargaining agreements of up to two years for companies affected by COVID-19, which opponents argue will leave workers worse off overall. Labor and the unions have seized on the bill to launch a scare campaign to voters, despite it also meeting their demands for a new crime of wage theft.
The lack of bipartisan support certainly makes the government’s job to sell it difficult but these are important reforms to get right.
To be sure, there is a lot of rose-tinted nostalgia about the virtues of reformist zeal shown by Hawke-Keating and the early Howard years. It was a different time when politicians benefited from a broad consensus for opening up the Australian economy. However, it is true that politicians of that era seemed to have more courage in pushing for big ideas.
The Herald can offer broad guidelines for what the new priorities should be for economic reform but they should certainly not be restricted to the areas of tax and superannuation, which collectively dominated the debate 20 years ago.
One of the vital economic reforms to which Mr Morrison should be turning his mind is a real long-term climate and energy policy. His slow shift in policy direction this week might be a start but the confusion over the long-term path for emissions is delaying much-needed investment. It is also raising the costs for when Australia is forced to undertake deeper emissions cuts to comply with our Paris Treaty targets.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor continued the government’s seven-year record of obfuscation on Friday by launching a strategy paper on electric cars, which had limited practical policies. Bolder action is needed starting with a mature conversation about a carbon pricing regime.
There are other significant reforms in the pipeline which Mr Morrison should be championing. He should deliver on his election promise to set up a federal integrity commission to eradicate corruption from government programs. He should work closely with the states on reforms, such as the NSW government’s plan to overhaul the current property tax system system.
Whichever way he goes, Mr Morrison would have a better chance of building a consensus for reform if he sought, and then listened to, recommendations from public inquiries and agencies such as the Productivity Commission.
Governments all too often receive these reports and cherry-pick them to please vested interests. An inquiry under former Australian Competition and Consumer commission chairman Graeme Samuel into the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act recommended a blueprint for a national system to replace overlapping state and federal environmental bureaucracies. Yet without waiting for the report, Mr Morrison put forward his own plan which lacks the regulatory safeguards in Mr Samuel’s approach and appears designed to please the Nationals.
Mr Morrison has promised this year’s federal budget will include his response to the royal commission into aged care, which is due to report on February 26. It is an important issue and Mr Morrison must take the advice of the commission seriously, especially if it involves sweeping reform of the sector.
The government can justify a lack of big priorities given it has had its hands full dealing with the health and economic shocks of the past 12 months. But voters will wonder what Mr Morrison is offering if he goes to an election without an agenda.
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