AUSTRALIAN politicians are stuck in political trenches hurling insults rather than tending to the nation, bank chairman and former Treasury chief Ken Henry said today in a blistering review of Parliament.
Dr Henry, head of the National Australia Bank board, launched an extraordinary attack on all parties for letting down the broad community, being dysfunctional, and adding to pessimism about our future.
Australia was no longer the nation that other countries looked to for “world’s best policy”.
At a time when a national vision was needed, politicians were more interested in populism, embarrassing their rivals and blocking big projects such as infrastructure developments.
Dr Henry said a NAB survey found while 90 per cent of Australians thought this was a great place to live, only 50 per cent thought it would be that nice in 10 years’ time.
They were looking for leadership, with just one in five Australians confident the nation had a clear, shared vision for our future.
“Meanwhile, our politicians have dug themselves into deep trenches from which they fire insults designed merely to cause political embarrassment,” Dr Henry told a CEDA conference in Canberra today.
“Populism supplies the munitions. And the whole spectacle is broadcast live via multimedia, 24/7. The country that Australians want cannot even be imagined from these trenches.”
Dr Henry also addressed internal party warfare, which will be taken as a comment on dissent within the Coalition and the influence this has had on the policies of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
“Today’s dysfunction stands in marked contrast to earlier periods of policy success — where politics was adversarial, every bit as partisan, but when the tribal tensions within parties were generally well managed and the political contest appeared to energise policy, not kill it.”
However, he took aim at all major parties.
“Almost every major infrastructure project announced in every Australian jurisdiction in the past 10 years has been the subject of political wrangling,” said Mr Henry.
“In the most recent federal election campaign, no project anywhere in the nation — not one — had the shared support of the Coalition, Labor and the Greens.
“Every government proposal of the last 10 years to reform the tax system has failed.”
The NAB survey found business and the broader community were “in substantial harmony” on priorities such as Budget repair, but differed on the matter of immigration.
Business supported greater population growth because this provided more customers and a skilled workforce. But ordinary voters believed they had to live with the problems this caused.
“People are concerned about the impact of a growing population on traffic congestion, urban amenity, environmental sustainability and housing affordability,” Dr Henry said.
“And they worry about our ability to sustain Australian norms of social and economic inclusion. “These concerns are understandable. Australia’s business leaders have to accept responsibility for ensuring that strong population growth, and the investment opportunities that go with it, lift economic and social opportunity for all, without damaging the quality of the environment we pass to future generations.
“That means that we have to take an interest in traffic congestion, housing affordability, urban amenity and environmental amenity, including climate change mitigation and adaptation.”
However, governments were simply jamming more people into existing urban areas, instead of building new ones, Dr Henry said.
“On the basis of official projections of Australia’s population growth, our governments could be calling tenders for the design of a brand new city for 2 million people every five years; or a brand new city the size of Sydney or Melbourne every decade; or a brand new city the size of Newcastle or Canberra every year. Every year,” he said.
“But that’s not what they are doing. Instead, they have decided that another 3 million people will be tacked onto Sydney and another 4 million onto Melbourne over the next 40 years.”
Dr Henry said the policy priorities were:
● greater certainty in the domestic economy
● less red tape, less regulation and a simpler taxation system
● modern and efficient infrastructure
● better access to skilled domestic workers.
These advances would help Australia take advantage of its natural advantages.
“Not so many years ago, an optimistic nation of Australians could be proud of a country that pioneered world’s best policy and nurtured world’s best institutions,” Dr Henry concluded.
“But nobody any longer looks to Australia to see how it should be done.
“And yet, there are very few places with our potential, blessed with such as extraordinary set of opportunities. This is a country rich in opportunity, especially because of unprecedented development in several Asian economies with which we have strong complementarities.”