Dr Ken Henry.

Leading banker takes Australian politicians to task on governance, finance, infrastructure, urban prospects

Australian politicians’ ears must have been burning when bank chief Ken Henry addressed the country’s Committee for Economic Development in Canberra on Thursday, because he wasted no words in portraying the destruction – instead of construction – of a sound future they continued to guarantee.

The Unconventional economist on MacroBusiness, Leith van Onselen, wrote: “Dr Henry pulled no punches in admonishing the Government’s negligence in managing Australia’s mass immigration programme.”

Mr van Onselen also raised questions arising from Australian Productivity Commission reports, including An ageing Australia: Preparing for the future.

But migration & age were just 2 of the questions raised by Dr Henry, who chairs the National Australia Bank. He talked about the notion that endless growth was a practical proposition for Sydney & Melbourne, how every proposal for major infrastructure was drowned in political wrangling and – in the sector he knows best – how every tax reform proposal of the last decade had failed.

Below are some excerpts from his speech:

Business at odds with community

“According to our research, Australian businesses see our strong rate of population growth as a positive. …. In the broader community, there is considerably less support for a larger population. People are concerned about the impact of a growing population on traffic congestion, urban amenity, environmental sustainability & housing affordability. And they worry about our ability to sustain Australian norms of social & 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 & 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 & environmental amenity, including climate change mitigation & adaptation….

“If we want better access to skilled domestic workers, then we are going to have to offer those workers the prospect of better lives. If we want modern & efficient infrastructure, then we are going to have to take an interest in the design of our cities; we are going to have to take an interest in regional development; and we are going to have to take an interest in the planning of new urban centres.

“If we want less red tape & less regulation, then we are going to have to demonstrate that regulation is not necessary….

“Meanwhile, our politicians have dug themselves into deep trenches from which they fire insults designed merely to cause political embarrassment. 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….

“Almost every major infrastructure project announced in every Australian jurisdiction in the past 10 years has been the subject of political wrangling. In the most recent federal election campaign, no project anywhere in the nation – not one – had the shared support of the Coalition, Labor & the Greens.

“Every government proposal of the last 10 years to reform the tax system has failed.

“And the long-term fiscal, economic growth & environmental challenges identified in 4 intergenerational reports over the past 15 years?  The opportunities identified in the White paper on Australia in the Asian century? Simply ignored.

“The reform narrative of an earlier period has been buried by the language of fear & anger. It doesn’t seek to explain; rather, it seeks to confuse & frighten.

“Meanwhile, the platform burns.”

Growing Sydney & Melbourne

Dr Henry also spoke about the Australian budget & tax system, a strongly growing but aging population, climate change & energy security, and making the most of the Asian century.

“How will we fund the biggest infrastructure build in our history? And what about infrastructure planning?” he asked, before questioning the sense in adding 7 million people to the populations of Sydney & Melbourne:

“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 5 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.

“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.

“Already, both cities stand out in global assessments of housing affordability & traffic congestion.

“And even if we do manage to stuff an additional 7 million people into those cities, what are we going to do with the other 9 million who will be added to the Australian population in that same period of time? Have you ever heard a political leader addressing that question? Do you think anybody has a clue?

“At the very least, we are going to have to find radical new approaches for infrastructure planning, funding & construction. And that includes energy infrastructure, critical to our economic performance and our quality of life.

“The biggest challenge confronting the energy sector is that climate change policy in Australia is a shambles. At least 14 years ago, our political leaders were told that there was an urgent need to address the crisis in business confidence, in the energy & energy-intensive manufacturing sectors, due to the absence of credible long-term policies to address carbon abatement. It is quite extraordinary, but nevertheless true, that things are very much worse today.”

  • Dr Henry was Secretary of Australia’s Treasury Department from 2001-11, and was appointed a director of the National Australia Bank in November 2011 and chair in December 2015. From June 2011-November 2012, he was special advisor to the prime minister with responsibility for leading the development of the white paper on Australia in the Asian century. He’s a former member of the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia, the Board of Taxation, the Council of Financial Regulators, the Council of Infrastructure Australia and chaired both the Howard government’s tax taskforce in 1997-98 and the Rudd government’s review of the tax system in 2008-09, and he’s governor of the organisation he was addressing above, CEDA.

Links:
23 February 2017: NAB chair Ken Henry’s full speech at CEDA
Unconventional economist on MacroBusiness, 24 February 2017: Australia can’t build its way out of population ponzi
Unconventional economist, 24 February 2017: Bigger cities are engines for inequality
Australian Productivity Commission, November 2013: An ageing Australia: Preparing for the future
Committee for Economic Development of Australia

Attribution: NAB, CEDA, MacroBusiness.

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