Gary Johns, 6 October 2015

Malcolm Turnbull has had a good start, but he has to turn his “positive and productive’’ Australia mantra into policy.

Right now, timidity rules in Australian politics.

The Palaszczuk government, for instance, is running dead in Queensland. It is doing nothing, and the electorate loves it.

Full marks to Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg for having the temerity to raise again the need to privatise some Queensland government assets if the state is to clear its public debt.

Every state government is struggling to do simple things, for example to allow competition in the taxi market.

Uber is the canary in the mine. Any government that does not smooth the transition to Uber as a competitor to taxis is failing in its duty to consumers. Yet, apart from the ACT, they struggle to do so.

Acknowledging the political climate, between now and the election, the Prime Minister needs two credible sets of plans.

Plan one is to signal long-term decisions about taxation and federal-state responsibilities. Turnbull needs to be wary, however, because raising the GST and taxing superannuation are not reforms.

Plan two is short term and should rely on Ian Harper’s competition policy review.

Harper recalled the golden days of reform, the 1980s and 90s, when governments opened the Australian economy to greater competition by lowering import tariffs, deregulating markets for foreign exchange, admitting foreign banks, deregulating domestic aviation, and partially deregulating and reforming the waterfront, coastal shipping and telecommunications.

These initiatives widened consumer choices, lowered prices and exposed local producers to more intense competition from abroad. What is today’s equivalent?

Harper’s first principle for competition is that policy should promote the long-term interests of consumers.

This is Turnbull’s mantra made concrete. He should, however, choose his targets carefully. He should hit hard any exploiters — union and business alike.

Rip into 7-Eleven and Australia Post for allowing some of their franchisees to exploit workers.

Rip into the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and the Health Services Union and any other union that has received funds from bosses and/or stolen from its members.

Rip up that part of the Fair Work Act 2009 that places restrictions on the freedom of employers to engage contractors or source certain goods or non-labour services.

Rip into state governments for regulations that restrict numbers of taxi licences and competition in the taxi industry.

Rip into liquor licensing restrictions that allow Coles and Woolworths to squeeze completion from smaller retailers.

Promote direct charges for roads to ease traffic congestion. Direct road pricing need not lead to a higher overall financial burden on motorists.

Existing indirect taxes, such as fuel excise, registration and licence fees, should be reduced as direct charging is introduced.

Rural and regional drivers would benefit most from a move to replace indirect charges with cost-reflective direct road user charges.

Rural and regional drivers typically pay large amounts in fuel excise while imposing little cost from congestion or road damage.

Technologies are available that allow greater use of cost-reflective pricing. Revenue generated from road pricing should be used for road construction, maintenance and safety. Promote user choice in the delivery of human services, health and education.

Government should play a stewardship and policymaking role only.

The commonwealth should get out of regulation and provision altogether.

Regulation should be independent and service provision in private hands.

In schools, for example, this could be achieved by providing more autonomy to the school decision-makers, such as allowing principals to hire teachers with special skills or qualifications to meet the needs of students and families in the community.

A major part of the Harper recommendations is an informed consumer.

“In order to choose what is right for them, users must be able and willing to gather and process the right information,” the Harper review said in its final report.

Ideally, this information should be freely available, aggregated (for example, on a single website), easy to interpret and access, and relevant to the users’ needs.

Users should have access to objective, outcomes-based data on available services, and/or to feedback from previous users of the service.

Myhospitals.gov.au publishes comparative data on hospital performance, including average waiting times and infection risks.

Myschool.edu.au enables parents and carers to search detailed profiles of Australian schools simply by entering a school’s name, suburb or postcode.

As acknowledgment of the role of the charitable sector, a useful next step would be a “mycharities” website with measures of charity performance and effectiveness.

Credibility is key. Real reform aims to help consumers. It does not recirculate taxpayer dollars just to make government look useful.

Extracted in full from The Australian.