Thursday, 20 September 2007
New South Wales Business Chamber
It is quite appropriate that I should be speaking after that little exercise in the blame game from the member for Dobell, because I want to speak about a very constructive proposal for dealing with the blame game from a group that would normally be associated with supporting the Liberal Party, which is the New South Wales Business Chamber. It released a report today entitled Australian business priorities 2007: Fixing the Federation. It has—obviously, by definition—said that reform of the Federation is a priority. But unfortunately for that chamber, with the Howard government, it has been falling on deaf ears. It states, for example:
... it can be argued that the failures of the Federation are impacting on the performances of both Federal and State governments.
... a climate has developed whereby interactions between the Commonwealth and the States have become subservient to the politics of the day, or are being dealt with through a complex, haphazard and undisciplined distribution of cash that inspires little confidence in the integrity of the process.
I think that is a very apt description of what has been happening recently in places like a certain hospital in Tasmania. I welcome the fact that the New South Wales Business Chamber has joined a list of other important organisations that recognise that Australia’s Federation is becoming increasingly dysfunctional and that this will impact adversely on Australia, both economically and socially. A report for the Business Council of Australia estimated the cost of the duplication and inefficiencies between the Commonwealth and the states to be approximately $9 billion per year. Every indicator is that this is not just some arcane argument about the nature of our governance; it is about the next round of microeconomic reform and it is about the efficient and effective delivery of services to citizens.
I do not agree with all the recommendations in this report. There are some I strongly disagree with, some which I think need a bit more consideration and some which, in my view, are for later. But it is very significant that this important business organisation has recognised the importance of fixing the Federation to the efficiency of our economy in the future and the quality of services to our citizens. In particular, I want to draw on recommendation No. 9 from the report, which is actually a direct articulation of Kevin Rudd’s policy, as outlined, in calling for the appointment of a federal minister for infrastructure who will work with the states to develop a national infrastructure plan. The report highlights this need, which Kevin Rudd has been speaking about for some time. The appointment of a federal infrastructure minister to provide national coordination and leadership in the planning, delivery and financing of infrastructure makes sense.
Australia has a $90 billion infrastructure deficit, so it is vital that a federal infrastructure minister be appointed and that infrastructure priorities are matched with investment capital. Currently, there is no vehicle to drive the coordination of infrastructure development that many business groups have been calling for. This is not the first articulation of this, but it is a very powerful one from this important business organisation about this need.
The shadow minister for infrastructure and the Leader of the Opposition have been talking about an independent statutory authority, Infrastructure Australia, so that infrastructure investment priorities can be determined based on need rather than on the margin of a seat. More broadly, going to this question that reform of the Federation is not about just processes of government but about practical outcomes, I outlined last week a 10-point plan for the reform of the Federation, and we have announced since that time the Commonwealth dental health program to work with the states. These will constitute a major commitment to fixing the Federation in areas like infrastructure, housing, education, health, water, aged care, local government and, most recently, the re-establishment of a national dental care program. It is fundamental to the future of our country. It is hard to imagine a 21st century leader of this country who is not committed to reform of the Federation. To my utter amazement we have one, which is the current Prime Minister, who has no interest in this question other than as troubled waters in which to fish for political advantage. We need some new leadership that cares about and will work on the task outlined by Australian business, amongst others, of fixing the Federation.