National reform summit: Bill Shorten calls on business and community leaders to work together on emissions trading scheme

Treasurer Joe Hockey at his opening address at the National Reform Summit in Sydney. Photo: Louie Douvis Mr Hockey, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and RBA Governor Glenn Stevens, and others, at the summit. Photo: Louie Douvis

Bill Shorten has called on Australia’s top business and community leaders to recognise the role of climate change in Australia’s economic outlook, imploring them to drop entrenched political differences to jointly design an emissions trading scheme.

His call, which reinforced the opposition’s intention to take an ETS to the the next federal election, came as Treasurer Joe Hockey also observed that the nation’s economic debate needed updating to reflect the multiple disruptions now being felt across commerce through the digital revolution.

Both men were among the first speakers at the National Reform Summit being held in Sydney’s CBD on Wednesday – a joint Fairfax Media/News Corp/KPMG event.

Taking a shot at the Greens and the Nationals, the Labor leader said sensible policy was best achieved by politicians in the middle of the spectrum. And while the stated spirit of the summit is one of finding common ground, if not outright consensus, Mr Shorten did not hesitate to make comments likely to be seen as political.

“I believe in reform, but reform with purpose,” Mr Shorten said.

Calling for “straight talk”, he said the reality most Australians feel from the nation’s economic performance was that is “wallowing in mediocrity”.

“We cannot simply continue as usual without long-term consequences, and even the current consequences are acute – the deficit’s doubled, wages growth is at record lows, economic growth is nearly a full percentage point below trend, annual growth’s been below trend for 11 consecutive quarters, and all but three of the previous 27 quarters,” he said.

Mr Shorten said unemployment had “a six in front of it” as 800,000 Australians remained jobless, and “there’s another 1 million Australians who are under-employed”.

He said climate change was the big lever for economic transformation with opposition to renewable energy often bordered on “hysteria”.

“Cutting pollution and driving investment in renewable energy lifts productivity,” he said.

“As leaders of our business community and think-tank world, you can play a critical role in elevating this conversation.

“Forty percent of the world’s economy, more than one billion people, have already embraced the opportunity of an emissions trading scheme – Australia needs to settle on and lock in an appropriate design for ours.

“If we do not get serious about tackling climate change, if we don’t get serious about investing in renewables, then we cannot say we are serious about economic reform.”

Mr Hockey used his contribution to recommend new thinking, telling the influential audience, that consumers must be at the centre of this new approach to policy, or it would inevitably fail.

“The big mistake from today would be to shape future reform based on a wistful glance in the rear-view mirror,” he told them.

“In some areas – like technology, financial services and communications – reform will be rapid and we will struggle to get ahead of fast moving consumers.

“In workplace relations, industry policy, innovation and the environment, external drivers will be the great disruptors. For example, having a debate about deregulating shopping hours is almost redundant given the emergence of 24/7 internet shopping.

“The Abbott government’s reform agendas in competition policy, financial services, trade policy and taxation need to carefully weigh the expectations of the sovereign consumer.

“Our productivity agenda must carefully consider the dynamics of an ageing population, private investment in public infrastructure and the need for our education system to be better and more responsive to global trends.”

While all speakers stressed the need to lift productivity, early contributions to the summit tended to emphasise the standard arguments with unions and social welfare advocates raising inequality as a major concern while business and economists argued for deregulation and policies aimed at wealth creation.

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