Apr 9, 2013

The productivity challenge – Opinion – The Australian Financial Review

This election year shines a spotlight on one of the biggest challenges facing Australia – productivity. Since taking office in 2007, this Labor Government’s focus has been on building capabilities in the economy and getting the regulatory policy settings right. Both are fundamental for a healthy business environment. Both are fundamental to raising productivity.

Let’s look firstly at our seamless national economy regulatory reforms. One of the most significant since Federation came into effect recently with the introduction of single national regulators for the heavy vehicle, rail and maritime sectors. This means an end to decades of confusing, often contradictory laws that varied across the nation.

For example, truck drivers carrying cattle no longer need worry about different load limits that allowed 66 cattle to be carried in Queensland but only 60 over the border in NSW.  A fishing vessel crossing territorial waters between the Northern Territory and Queensland no longer requires fresh accreditation for each member of its crew. And train drivers now carry only one license, no matter what corner of the country they happen to be driving across. This long overdue and sensible reform was not easy to achieve. It was the result of years of tough negotiations across the COAG table. But it was worth it because replacing 23 separate regulatory authorities with three new national regulators will boost Australia’s GDP by $30 billion over the next two decades.

Productivity growth has directly benefited from the biggest capital works program in Australian history, the Nation Building Program. It is funding 350 major projects. No other Federal Government has invested so much in so short a time. We have doubled the road budget with more than 7,500 km of new and improved roads, targeting those that deliver the greatest safety and productivity benefits. Shortly, nearly two centuries after Hume and Hovell plotted its route, motorists and truck drivers will be able to enjoy a safe, duplicated Hume Highway linking our two biggest cities.

Further north, 1,300 people are at work on the Pacific Highway building bypasses, duplicating sections and eliminating dangerous bends.  And 25 years after it was first proposed, work is nearing completion on the $1.7 billion Hunter Expressway which will remove 30,000 vehicles a day from the congested New England Highway and improve traffic flows across the busy coal rich Hunter region.

We’ve paid special attention to that great workhorse of the 19th and early 20th century: rail, recognising its unique capacity to meet the needs of the 21st century. There are enormous environmental, safety and efficiency benefits in transferring freight off roads and onto rail which is why we have increased investment ten-fold. This includes rebuilding more than one-third of the nation’s rail freight network – some 4,000 kilometres of sturdy track that doesn’t buckle in the Australian heat, and replacing millions of decaying wooden sleepers with stable concrete ones.

Combine this with additional passing loops and the elimination of steep curves, and rail is once again becoming a viable means of carrying freight. More reliable track means that Oz Minerals can double the number of trains carrying copper concentrate from Coober Pedy to Port Adelaide. Travel times from Perth to the east coast have been cut by nine hours and the route between Melbourne and Brisbane by seven hours, making it now viable for companies such as Australia Post and Woolworths to return freight to rail.

Our investment in better infrastructure has not gone unnoticed. When we were elected in 2007, the OECD ranked us 20th out of 25 member nations when it came to investing in public infrastructure as a proportion of national income. Since then, there has been a 42 per cent surge in annual investment in the nation’s infrastructure placing us at the head of the pack, just behind South Korea, with our spending at 26.5 per cent of GDP, well ahead of the OECD average of 18.3 per cent.

There is still a giant task ahead of us. Glaring at the nation is the need for a second Sydney airport. Forty per cent of Australian domestic flights pass through Sydney Airport. Any hold up spreads like a virus across the national network. Last year’s Joint Study on Aviation Capacity in the Sydney Region found that Sydney Airport will soon not cope with demand.  Capacity pressure is already evident and passenger numbers will double by 2035 and quadruple by 2060.  By 2060, Australia would miss out on around $34 billion in GDP and around 78,000 jobs without a second airport.

We also need to redouble our efforts at tackling congestion. Idling in a queue of cars steals time better spent at the workplace or with the family and, if not tackled, will cost our economy $20 billion by 2020.  That is why we have invested heavily in urban public transport, with more committed than all previous Federal Governments combined since Federation.

As the old saying goes, ‘time is money’ and it’s an ancient truism known to anyone who must move goods to market. How quickly goods can reach that market, whether it’s to a boutique in Brisbane or a steel plant in Beijing, is the key to a more productive Australia. The role of Government is to help build the transport links that allow that economic activity to flourish not just today, but for decades to come.