Speaking


A New Productivity Push - Speech

"A NEW PRODUCTIVITY PUSH"

SPEECH TO THE AUSTRALIAN ECONOMIC FORUM
SYDNEY

28 JANUARY 2016

Princeton economist Paul Krugman once put it neatly: ‘Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything.’

As an economist, I love hearing real-world examples of how firms are raising productivity. A couple of years ago, I visited a manufacturing firm that makes mining machines. So baroque had the production line become that when they revamped the layout, the firm found that it was able to get the same work done on a line just one-thirteenth the length. The result was a one-third improvement in productivity for the company.

Visiting Fortescue’s operation in the Pilbara, I heard about its company-wide competition called ‘Have a Crack’, with the prize being $50,000 for the best productivity-boosting suggestion. The winning idea increased the efficiency of the machines that load iron ore onto bulk carriers, saving the company tens of millions of dollars each year. Not a bad return on investment.

This kind of innovation is what companies like the ones represented here today do so well. Coming up with the creative improvements which let workers do more with fewer resources. Honing in on the little productivity gains which make a big difference to profits and growth. As you well know, this is work that never ends. Companies like yours are always looking for fresh ways to stay ahead of the curve as technology and the global economy evolves.

Smart governments need to do the same.

Read more
1 reaction Share

Prisons dilemma: an economist's perspective on incarceration - Speech

SPEECH TO THE JUSTICE CONNECTIONS CONFERENCE 2015

PRISONS DILEMMA: AN ECONOMIST’S PERSPECTIVE ON INCARCERATION

Rosie Anne Fulton is an Indigenous woman from Alice Springs who suffers Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. She has endured a lifetime of abuse and disadvantage. Far from attracting help and support from government agencies, her problems landed her in a Kalgoorlie prison.

After being caught driving without a licence and whilst intoxicated in Western Australia, Rosie Anne was incarcerated under that state’s mental impairment laws. She was detained indefinitely without any conviction and ended up serving 22 months in custody before being released thanks to the advocacy of the Aboriginal Disability Justice Campaign.

Marlon Noble’s situation is no less shocking. Charged with sexual assault when he was 19, the court quickly found him to be mentally impaired. Like Rosie Anne, it was decided Marlon was unfit to stand trial and he was instead held in custody. The Department of Public Prosecutions eventually withdrew Marlon’s charges after finding that there was little evidence to support the original allegations that had landed him behind bars. Marlon was released, but not before languishing in prison for a decade without a conviction. Marlon said of his experience: “I don’t like it in jail. Scary place. You got no families in there, no brothers or sisters to talk to. You’re on your own.”

How did Australia become a place where locking people up for long stretches is the default setting in our justice system? And how can we, in good conscience, allow this to continue as the incarceration rate skyrockets? 

Economists would be familiar with the famous thought experiment in game theory known as the ‘prisoners’ dilemma’. The nub of it is that two people, by virtue of being unable to communicate, end up making a decision that is bad for both of them.

I want to argue today that Australia’s justice policies suffer from what we might call a ‘prisons dilemma’. For want of a serious conversation about what works and what doesn’t, we’ve become stuck in a situation where we spend huge amounts on jails yet end up perpetuating cycles of disadvantage, poverty and crime. As a result, our community suffers, and so do the individuals who are incarcerated.

To turn that situation around, we need to lower Australia’s incarceration rates. Achieving that will demand a recipe of responses rather than any single solution – in my time with you today I’ll talk a bit about what I believe our priority responses should be. But to get Australia’s imprisonment rates down, and keep them down, we also need to adopt a rigorous, evidence-based mindset which evaluates all current and future policies against this objective. We already know that a lot of what we do in the justice system doesn’t ‘work’ if this is our goal, yet we continue with existing policies anyway. Putting the question: what works? at the centre of justice policymaking would be a big step forward for Australia.      

Before I go about prescribing policy, let’s take a step back. I first want to paint a picture of the trends in our incarceration rates, and then look at what is behind those trends. This will help us better understand the ‘prisons dilemma’ that we face in Australia today.

Read more
Add your reaction Share

The future of Australia's tax system: opportunity, growth and integrity - Speech

The future of Australia's tax system: opportunity, growth and integrity

Speech to the Corporate Tax and Transfer Pricing Summit

Sydney

It is always very gratifying, when I come to events like this, to see so many smart people coming together to work through the hard questions about what our tax system should look like for the future.

We’ve come together at a time when these questions could not be more topical, or their answers more contested. For those of us who’ve been toiling away in the tax space for some time, it has been both surprising and exciting to see usually-esoteric issues of tax system design move to the front and centre of the political debate in recent months. People care about tax at the moment; people are interested in tax at the moment, and that means there has rarely been a better time for your ideas to have an impact in the wider community. To be a tax expert today is like releasing a breakthrough pop hit after years of playing in grungy pubs – one morning you wake up, and lo and behold, the world wants to listen to you.

We’ve been hearing a lot recently about how important Australia’s tax system is – how it can support or obstruct growth; how it can encourage investment or scare it away; how it can make us an international magnet for business or see us lag behind in international competitiveness.

As the member of Labor’s shadow ministry whose primary responsibility is tax, I wholeheartedly agree that our tax settings matter. But just as the federal budget is not the entire economy, we shouldn’t confuse building an efficient and equitable tax system with the much bigger task of setting Australia up to grow and flourish.

In my time with you today I want to look at how the tax system intersects with a range of other policy settings and choices which have as much – if not more – influence over whether we can continue as a country of fair opportunity and strong growth. In looking to the global picture and questions about multinational tax policy, I’ll also argue that we should be thinking about Australia’s international competitiveness in far broader terms than how big a tax break companies can get if they do business here. 

Read more
2 reactions Share

Robots, remuneration and restructuring: how do technology and inequality shape one another, and what should we do about it? - Speech

ROBOTS, REMUNERATION AND RESTRUCTURING: HOW DO TECHNOLOGY AND INEQUALITY SHAPE ONE ANOTHER, AND WHAT SHOULD WE DO ABOUT IT?* 

Annual Sir Leslie Melville Lecture

Australian National University

Sir Leslie Galfreid Melville was a remarkable Australian. Born the year after federation. Trained in engineering and science before wisely settling on economics. Inaugural professor of economics at Adelaide University at age 27. Founder of what would become the Reserve Bank’s research department. Leader of Australia’s delegation to Bretton Woods. ANU Vice-Chancellor for most of the 1950s. Appointed to chair the Tariff Board by McEwen, it is to Melville’s enduring credit that he quit the post rather than succumb to McEwenism. 

Having been born at the dawn of the twentieth century, Leslie Melville lived to see the start of the twenty-first. As one obituary noted, ‘there has not been another Australian economist to hold the range of jobs that Melville did’.[1]

It is virtually impossible to think about Melville’s life without being conscious of the technological changes that took place during it. The twentieth century – or the ‘Melville Era’, as Australian economists might call it – saw an explosion in technologies. In transport: planes, helicopters, mass-market cars and space shuttles. In communications, radio, television and the Internet. In health, antibiotics, sewered cities, the pill, and genetic engineering. Not to mention atomic bombs, vacuum cleaners, smartphones, radar, the bra, and plastic. And yet for most of the twentieth century, we not only saw rising living standards, but falling inequality. Melville’s working years – the 1920s to the 1970s – saw the largest reduction in inequality in Australian history. 

My focus today is on two challenges: how do we continue the pace of innovation in the twenty-first century that we saw in the twentieth? And how do we ensure that prosperity is broadly shared? By acknowledging the tendency of technological change to increase inequality, we can harness the gifts of Prometheus without suffering their destructive tendencies. As it happens, I will argue that a single policy recommendation offers the greatest promise to make us more entrepreneurial and more equal.

Read more
Add your reaction Share

Closing the income gap - Speech to the 2015 Economic and Social Outlook Conference

CLOSING THE INCOME GAP

2015 Economic and Social Outlook Conference

University of Melbourne

If you returned from work one day and found your home flooded by a gushing faucet, the first thing you’d do is turn off the tap. But once you’d stopped the water rising, could you then go about your evening as though nothing else was amiss? Only if you’re willing to overlook the rather pressing problem of everything you own being underwater.

That’s the approach some would have us take in response to the news that there has been a pause in the growing gap between the rich and the rest in Australia over the past few years. When the OECD released a report earlier this year showing that some measures of inequality had been stable in Australia between 2006 and 2012 – some newspaper columnists and political commentators welcomed this as a sign people like you and me should stop worrying about how much better Australia’s billionaires are doing than our battlers.

But to extend the analogy a little further: turning off the tap is not the same as draining out water. The fact that inequality has stopped rising for the moment does not mean that we’ve suddenly a