By Garry Shilson-Josling
In a world of global distrust, where are the true believers? The urgent need to share the benefits of reform shines through in economic reports from both sides of the Tasman.
If there’s one thing economists and policy-makers agree on, it’s that rising living standards eventually depend on productivity growth. Since the 1980s, that meeting of minds has driven economic reforms, which have remade the Australian and New Zealand economies. And, until fairly recently, their populations have agreed to go along with the reform agenda.
But the consensus is now in tatters amid resentment over how the costs and benefits of reform are distributed. Around the world, claims that everyone is included in gains from free trade, labour market deregulation and globalisation of business are no longer trusted.
The collapse of trust
Thanks largely to “Brexit” and the election of US President Trump, these issues of trust and inclusion are now widely recognised. They are a recurring theme in reports and speeches by business groups, think tanks, public officials and politicians. The pressure is now on proponents of reform to show how they plan to support those who miss out on its benefits and suffer its costs.
Australia and New Zealand face challenges that will need further reform. But ordinary people must regain their trust and rejoin the consensus before that happens. And trust is in desperately short supply these days.
It is easy to find evidence around the world of a backlash against reforms that expose people to economic uncertainty. Donald Trump’s election and the Brexit vote are just the high-profile examples. Closer to home, the mood has been sullen for a while.
In Australia, the unpopular WorkChoices labour market reforms laid the groundwork for the Howard government’s 2007 election defeat. The campaign against carbon pricing, a reform still championed by the Productivity Commission, tapped into the mood of wariness of change and paved the way for the Gillard government’s defeat in 2013.
Figures from CA ANZ’s future[inc] long-term prosperity project show the decline in trust in Australia has been among the steepest in the developed world. It was worsened by leadership squabbles and political scandals, according to Karen McWilliams, the Ethics and Sustainability Leader at CA ANZ.
In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern distilled the mood in her first one-on-one television interview in October last year. She queries the point of economic growth when wages are lagging behind inflation. “People are not feeling the benefits of any form of prosperity,” she argues.
The Edelman Trust Barometer shows the problem is worldwide, but is particularly marked in the US. The 2018 report, released in late January this year, found no global recovery in trust in institutions. A “world of seemingly stagnant distrust” prevails. “People’s trust in business, government, NGOs and media remained largely unchanged from 2017…”, the report says.
Some 53 per cent of respondents to Edelman’s 2017 survey believe the current overall system has failed them.
The Edelman survey-based gauge covers 87% of the world’s population and feeds into future[inc] reports. The assessment of 2018 results by the marketing and communication firm’s CEO Richard Edelman is chilling.
“America at the moment is at sea,” he says, pointing to huge drops in political confidence and in trust in media. In 2017, his reaction was similar.
Institutions have failed to protect people from the global crisis, globalisation and technical change, he says. Confidence in leadership is “pitifully low”, with public officials and regulators having the least credibility of all. The slump in trust has been so severe, Edelman says, that government is no longer an effective force in leading change.
The conversation changes
The implications are not lost on business leaders and public officials. Their speeches and reports are now routinely peppered with calls to admit that some people have been left behind by reform and to say how they will be cared for.
New Zealand’s Treasury Secretary, Gabriel Makhlouf, addressed the “mood of uncertainty” in August. Policymakers assumed it was obvious that everyone benefits from free trade and globalisation, he said, but that assumption was not supported by the evidence. That reality should be tackled head-on, he argued.
Reserve Bank of Australia Assistant Governor Luci Ellis, in a mid-November speech, similarly acknowledged the problem, saying inequality and inclusion are becoming topics of conversation among policy-makers around the world. A rising star at the Reserve Bank, Ellis too argued that the ultimate goal of reform has to be on the welfare of the population. “If a specific reform doesn’t deliver that, it ought to be modified, whether through explicit safety nets or other means,” she said.
The same thought runs through the recent Committee for the Economic Development of Australia report Australia’s Place in the World. CEDA’s CEO, Melinda Cilento, says proponents of reform need to be more upfront about its costs and the uneven impact. The dislocation to individuals and even whole communities “needs to be called out”, she says.
The productivity agenda
At its core, the past three decades of reform was about lifting productivity – the quantity of goods and services produced with an hour’s work. It’s not about simply working harder but, as Luci Ellis put it in her November speech, “trying new things, and gradually getting a bit better at what we do”.
Bodies charged with finding ways to do this on both sides of the Tasman have recently identified their new targets for higher productivity.
In a benchmark paper last year, New Zealand’s Productivity Commission identified five key areas that should be targeted for reform. They are international trade, innovation, competition, evidence-based policy, and the labour market, especially in the areas of skills education, immigration and housing.
The Australian Productivity Commission’s wish-list, in its 2017 five-year review, is just as wide and deep. Its 28 recommendations range across health care, better functioning cities, education, market efficiency, and effective government.
Policymakers clearly have lengthy to-do lists even if they focus just on this narrow measure of economic progress. But both productivity commissions insist that productivity growth has wider social benefits, the wellbeing to which Luci Ellis refers. So it should be no surprise that broader measures of wellbeing often lead to recommendations that look a lot like reforms aimed at lifting productivity.
A wider vision of prosperity
The Legatum Institute Prosperity Index is one such broad measure of wellbeing that captures more than just output per hour. It’s published every year by the London-based think tank and compiled from a diverse list of economic and social indicators. They range from unemployment and political freedom to how safe people feel walking alone.
CA ANZ produced two papers this year digging deeper into the Legatum numbers for 2016 with the help of some additional data sources. The papers, part of the future[inc] program, assess what Australia and New Zealand need to do to ensure prosperity. For New Zealand, the focus is on staying at the top of the 149-nation ranking. For Australia, it’s about halting the slide from first place in 2008 to sixth in 2016.
Many of the Legatum recommendations have an economic focus and could easily have been produced by either of the productivity commissions.
For New Zealand, the future[inc] report says barriers to exports should be lowered, local government rejigged to promote competition and innovation, and a strategy developed for skilled immigration. Even a call to preserve the natural environment is aimed at maintaining the export sector’s green credentials rather than conservation for its own sake. For Australia, the future[inc] report urges an embrace of trade, globalisation and competition.
The 2017 report from Legatum, released in late November, showed that after four years in first place New Zealand has now dropped to second, replaced by Norway, while Australia has dropped from sixth to ninth, a new low. The results add a sense of urgency to the reform agenda.
The way forward
The nature of the proposals from the Australian and New Zealand productivity commissions suggest selling the benefits of reform may become easier in time. Improved access to education, better health care, more liveable cities and affordable housing can all lift productivity.
But they also offer desirable benefits for individuals. Consensus on their worth should be easier to achieve than agreement on harder-edge reforms that expose workers to job insecurity or lower wages.
Some other proposals in the future[inc] reports, while not directly aimed at productivity, could help to rebuild confidence in economic reform. Both the Australian and New Zealand reports urge an attack on educational disadvantage. The Australian report recommends greater transparency in government decision-making and support for agencies tackling corruption. The aim is to rebuild trust in governance. The New Zealand report argues for more affordable housing, not to increase labour mobility, but to strengthen the bonds holding New Zealand society together.
These proposals offer some hope that trust in the economic reform process might be rebuilt and more difficult reforms tackled. They are only recommendations though. Optimism over possible future reforms should be tempered by a reality check on reform currently under way.
The major reform currently on the table in Australia is a 5% cut in the company tax rate first proposed in the 2016/17 budget. Its key selling point is that it will boost wage rates. But Treasury’s modelling shows the increase will be small, no more than about 1% allowing for inflation and tax, and will flow through only gradually over a period of decades. And the modelling assumes that any government spending cuts used to balance the budget will have no negative impacts.
Whether it’s because of that devil in the detail or just the generalised distrust of reform, the public isn’t buying it. The latest Essential Research poll on the subject shows 50% of people disapprove of the company tax cut plan, while only 30% approve. This suggests the task of rebuilding consensus about the need for reform has some considerable way to go.
Garry Shilson-Josling is a business journalist. He was previously chief economist at both Australian Associated Press and MMS Standard and Poor’s, and an economist at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.
This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of Acuity.