I spoke in parliament last week about Labor's reforms on executive remuneration.
Corporations Amendment (Improving Accountability on Director and Executive Remuneration) Bill 2011
Second Reading (24 Mar 2011)

Corporate reform encourages innovation and entrepreneurship, and Australian corporations such as Qantas and Billabong, Westfield and CSR have had a long history contributing to the nation’s prosperity and continue to underpin our economic growth. Great managers are critical to business success. At their best, successful managers create jobs and ensure that employees have rewarding careers. The job of politicians is to ensure that we continue to attract great managers, including some from overseas, yet to make sure that pay does not become detached from performance.

When I speak with my electors, their concerns are not primarily about pay packets but what that great social commentator Mark Knopfler called ‘money for nothing’. It is fine to be well paid if you are delivering, but golden handshakes, salaries that encourage excessive risk-taking and pay packets that go up merely because the entire stock market is rising are what worry Australians. As my electors say to me, ‘If the firm is underperforming, why should the boss get a pay rise?’

From the late 1980s onwards a number of high-profile collapses dominated the headlines. Overseas we had Enron, WorldCom, Lincoln Savings, EIEI and BCCI. In Australia we had the HIH Insurance Group. In too many of these cases lavish remuneration was a feature of the way the company was managed. Just before Enron’s collapse, Kenneth Lay, as chief executive, was one of the highest-paid executives in the US, earning $5 million a year. Although the Labor Party is a party that has fought for higher wages, it is a failure of corporate governance if such compensation is detached from performance.

In Australia we have seen a steady growth in CEO salaries which has outpaced salaries in the broader community. According to the Productivity Commission and its report, Executive remuneration in Australia, over the period 1993 to 2009 the average earnings of CEOs in the top 100 Australian firms rose by an average of 7½ per cent per year. Over the same period, average salaries across the economy rose by an average of 3.7 per cent a year. In 1993 the average earnings of a CEO in a top 100 Australian firm was about $1 million. By 2009 this had risen to around $3 million.

We can go further back still and look at how these top earnings have changed over the long run of history. While I was at the Australian National University I did work with Tony Atkinson where we looked at how the income share of top income groups in Australia had changed going back to the 1920s. One way of looking at this is to look at the income share of the richest one per cent of Australians. That is a group who in 2007 had earnings of $197,000 a year or more. That top one per cent of Australians in 1921 had 12 per cent of household income. Then we saw a compression: we saw the top earners income share steadily drop until 1980, when that group had about five per cent of all national income. Then we saw a rise again until by 2007 the top one per cent had 10 per cent of household income, double they share in 1980.

We see an even starker pattern if we look at the top 0.1 per cent—the richest 1/1,000th of Australian adults. In 2007, this was a group earning $693,000 a year or more, and their income share of the Australian pie followed a similar trajectory. In 1921, they had four per cent of all household income. That fell till 1980 when they had just one per cent of household income. And then that income share rose again so that, by 2007, the richest 1/1,000th of all Australians again had four per cent of household income.

Too much inequality can cleave us one from another, and leave us a more fragmented society. It is an issue about which many Australians are, I think, rightly concerned. As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer pointed out in his second reading speech, it is important that our Australian remuneration system be internationally competitive, but it is also important that it is tied to performance—that executives are rewarded for the work they do and the value that they bring to their firms.

We should remember that executives need to be accountable to shareholders. Shareholders, of course, are the owners of the company. They are the ones who have placed their capital on the line. And it is appropriate that they have freedom to choose the executives they want and freedom, within broad limits, to set the appropriate remuneration.

A critical part of this reform is giving shareholders more say over how the pay of company executives is set. The government has been aiming to encourage shareholder engagement through transparent disclosure of how remuneration is delivered. Shareholders need to have the information to convey their views through the non-binding shareholder vote, and to hold directors accountable for their remuneration decisions.

Crises can test us. Sometimes in a crisis institutions are found wanting. And so it was with executive remuneration through the global financial crisis. Australia’s exposure to the global financial crisis was much smaller than that of the United States, due partly to our industrial structure and partly also to the rapid response by the Reserve Bank and by this government through its fiscal stimulus package. But the global financial crisis did highlight to us some of the issues around remuneration structures that focused too much on short-term results, that rewarded excessive risk-taking and risked promoting corporate greed. As I said, most Australians do not mind well-paid CEOs. What they worry about is CEO pay that is detached from performance.

With the legislation put to the House today, we will be empowering individual shareholders so that they have the muscle to take the fight to the institutional and directors’ associates. We are putting forward the ‘two strikes’ rule, where shareholders will be empowered to vote out a company’s directors if the remuneration report receives a consecutive no vote from a quarter or more shareholders at two annual general meetings.

As the parliamentary secretary has pointed out, once this second strike is triggered, shareholders will then be given an opportunity to vote on a resolution to spill the board and subject the directors to re-election. The spill resolution of course requires 50 per cent of eligible votes cast, as would be the norm with most resolutions in a board meeting. If that spill resolution is passed, then a spill meeting will be held within 90 days at which the shareholders will be given the chance to vote on the re-election of the directors, one by one. There have been concerns raised over this measure. But I would point interested members of the community to the extensive consultations that the Productivity Commission and this government have done, and particularly to the consultations around the threshold level of a 25 per cent no vote. The Productivity Commission chose that level on the basis that it was appropriate because it was in line with the 75 per cent majority required for the passage of special resolutions.

This bill also focuses on an issue around the independence of remuneration consultants. People have reasonably argued that, in the past, remuneration consultants have sometimes looked a little like the fox guarding the henhouse. We need to guard against a risk that remuneration committees will simply ratchet up pay one after the other. We need to create opportunities for remuneration consultants to bring the best objective advice as to appropriate remuneration to the company. It should be the case that remuneration consultants are able to confidently go to a company and suggest that the remuneration is too high. This ought to happen in more than a trivial number of cases, and I doubt that it presently happens in many cases.

The bill also contains measures to require boards or remuneration committees to approve the engagement of a remuneration consultant. Those consultants will be required to declare that their recommendations are free from undue influence, and they will have to provide their advice to non-executive directors or the remuneration committee rather than directly to company executives, who are themselves, of course, affected by the report.

In addition, boards will be required to provide an independence declaration stating whether, in their view, the remuneration consultant’s recommendations are free from undue influence. The board will then have to mention their reasons for reaching this view. The company will need to disclose in its remuneration report key details regarding the consultants, such as who the consultants were, the amount they were paid, and the other services that the consultant provides to the company.

Another important set of measures in this bill prohibits closely related parties from voting on remuneration. The bill will address conflicts of interest by prohibiting the company’s directors and key executives, or key management personnel and their closely related parties, from voting their shares in the non-binding vote on the remuneration report. Currently the Corporations Act does not prohibit key management personnel who hold shares in the company from participating in the non-binding shareholder vote on remuneration. This is in order to prevent both real and perceived conflicts of interest which can arise when key management personnel vote on their own remuneration packages.

The bill also prohibits the hedging of incentive remuneration, and that is, naturally, because the hedging of incentive remuneration is at odds with the rationale for incentive remuneration and can undermine the whole purpose for which companies put in place incentive remuneration. The bill also prevents the cherry-picking of proxies. Directed proxies must be voted—a reform which I certainly believe is long overdue.

Naturally, the bill has received considerable support from experts. Les Goldmann, the policy manager of the Australian Shareholders’ Association, said:

I don’t think that shareholders are going to use the power irresponsibly, I think shareholders will use the power very responsibly and only in cases where there is clearly something that the board and the shareholders think the board ought to be accountable for.

We do think the Government, in particular Minister Bradbury, have been very brave in pushing forward with this legislation and we applaud their efforts in that regard and I think that small shareholders and corporate governance area in Australia will be grateful for their efforts for many generations to come.

Stuart Wilson, former CEO of the Australian Shareholders Association, said:

At the outset there doesn’t seem to be an appetite from institutional investors for turfing entire boards. I don’t think it will come to pass. … However, I think the simple threat or embarrassment, or potential for that to happen, will see to it that there will be significant improvements on remuneration in the next couple of years.

He also said:

This has been a topic that’s been discussed ad nauseam for the last few years. The Productivity Commission had a lengthy consultation period—everyone got their say.

Alan Fels, former head of the ACCC, said of the two-strikes test:

This change will make a chairman more careful in making their original decisions about executive remuneration.

Ann Byrne, CEO of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors, said:

We are pleased that the government has maintained a key recommendation of the Productivity Commission—a ‘two strikes’ test on remuneration reports. We believe that this test will only apply to a small minority of companies who have displayed intransigence and a lack of response to shareholders. Only those companies that continue to put up egregious pay propositions and blatantly ignore the views of a substantial group of shareholders should be concerned with these provisions.

The member for North Sydney wants less regulation generally, but he is unable to point to specific examples of where he would reduce regulation. Like the coalition’s position in the election that they would like to cut spending when their spending package had an $11 billion black hole, the coalition are all talk and no walk.

This bill, on the other hand, is in a great Labor tradition of promoting economic growth with an eye to equity. This bill recognises that capitalism requires checks and balances if innovation is to flourish. We on this side of the House, the party of true small-’l’ liberalism in Australia, believe in markets. Labor is the party that floated the dollar, cut tariffs, brought about major competition reforms and is now using market based mechanisms to price carbon and deal with dangerous climate change. But we also believe in an appropriate role for government. That is why we brought about fiscal stimulus when the global financial crisis hit. And that is why, with this legislation, we are empowering shareholders by providing appropriate checks and balances as a reasonable and sensible means of dealing with executive remuneration.
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Ken Henry and Ian Chubb

I spoke in Parliament last week about the extraordinary contributions to public life of two great Canberrans - Ken Henry and Ian Chubb.

Statements by Members - Dr Ken Henry
21 Mar 2011

I rise to acknowledge the contribution of Dr Ken Henry to economic policy making in Australia as a major player in Australian economic policy making for 2½ decades and as Secretary to the Treasury for the past decade. Great policy making involves both ideas and advocacy. Like John Maynard Keynes and H.C. ‘Nugget’ Coombs, Ken Henry has been unafraid to engage in pointy-headed discussions with the best economists but also unrepentant about the need to dive into the political process.

As Laura Tingle noted in an article in the Australian Financial Review on 4 March, Dr Henry has been involved in so many important debates in Australian policy making—the GST debate, environmental debates and the debate over fair taxation of the minerals that are the birthright of every Australian. Dr Henry has redefined the mission statement of the Treasury to focus on wellbeing. He has broadened the scope of economic policy making to include issues such as Indigenous affairs and education. Under him the Treasury now brings down regular Intergenerational reports. He produced a major tax review, a seminal document that will influence Australian taxation debates for decades.

Having previously been seconded to Treasury, I can attest how much members of the department will miss him. Perhaps the same is not so true for some of the senators before whom he has appeared. For now, Australian policy making will be poorer for missing Dr Henry’s speeches and I wish him well in the next stage of his career.

Statements by Members - Professor Ian Chubb
24 Mar 2011

I rise to acknowledge the contribution of Professor Ian Chubb AC to the Australian higher education community over a three-decade career. Originally trained as a neuroscientist, Professor Chubb was a fierce advocate for the Australian higher education sector both in his role as Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University and as President of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee. Known affectionately as ‘Chubby’ to ministers and even prime ministers, he was particularly vocal about the need for increased funding for universities. Professor Chubb was similarly unafraid of addressing big and controversial issues, calling for bold reform, not mere tinkering. He was direct, too. In 2009, when I was appointed an economics professor at ANU, it was a characteristically straightforward Ian Chubb who gave me the news in a phone call that went something like: ‘Mate, you’re a professor. Well done’—followed by hanging up.

Professor Chubb was rare among vice-chancellors in that he gained the respect and admiration of students, both undergraduate and postgraduate. His commitment to student income support and student organisations gained him many friends among students at the ANU and at other universities throughout Australia. My office manager, Louise Crossman, was a former ANU Students Association executive officer. She says, ‘He must have been pretty good because we never had any reason to occupy Chubb’s office, which was unusual and disappointing because I really wanted to occupy something.’

Professor Chubb was the well-deserved recipient of the ACT Australian of the Year Award in 2011. I wish him well in retirement and hope that he will continue to make a valued contribution to Australian public life.
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Poddies for Labor

I appeared on Late Night Live with Phillip Adams in Sydney last night, discussing the future of the ALP with Rodney Cavalier, John Falkner and Deirdre Grusovin. If the topic piques your interest, you can podcast the main program and a subsequent half-hour of Q&A. A transcript of the main program is also available.

The segment will also be televised on ABC24 at some point. I'll post the link when I have it.
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Labor Pains

My opinion piece today is on NSW Labor. Full text below.

There have also been some interesting reflections recently by former NSW Premier Bob Carr and Luke Foley MLC.

ALP Must Look to Members, Australian Financial Review, 29 March 2011

In the 2002 Winter Olympics, Australian speed-skater Steven Bradbury won gold after the four leading skaters crashed into one another and fell to the ice. The way Barry O’Farrell won the NSW election bears some similarities to the way Australia got our first Winter Olympics gold medal.

On the fundamentals, NSW Labor was expected to lose. The last state government to be re-elected after 16 years at the helm was the Queensland government in 1986 – the year John Farnham topped the charts and Crocodile Dundee was released. In the 21st century, governments that have been around for 1½ decades have all the popular appeal of a mullet haircut and a denim jacket.

Yet while longevity predicted a Labor loss, what occurred was the political equivalent of hanging, drawing and quartering. The party of McKell, Wran and Carr suffered the worst defeat of our 120-year history.

In my view, this does not reflect any crisis of ideology. Ask any Labor representative what our party stands for, and you’ll hear the same themes: opportunity for every child, open engagement with the world, dignity in work, a voice for invisible Australians.

What the NSW election loss pointed to are the major challenges with our party structures. Labor’s 2010 National Review (also known as the ‘three wise men report’ after its authors Steve Bracks, Bob Carr and John Faulkner) noted that in the past decade, more than 100 ALP branches have closed in NSW. It concluded: ‘The Labor Party now faces a crisis in membership.’

While it is true that our membership share is smaller than ever before, recent trends are merely a continuation of what has occurred for the past sixty years. In the early-1950s, 1.2 percent of Australian adults were members of our party. Today, the share is around 0.3 percent.

People are failing to attend Labor Party meetings for the same reasons that activity is declining in most other political parties, in Rotary and the RSL, in unions and churches. Compared with two decades ago, we are less likely to know our neighbours and have fewer trusted friends.

The decline in social capital is driven by several factors, including long working hours, car commuting and television. Australia needs a renaissance in community life – including in our political parties.

Another way to see the link between Labor Party activism and broader social capital is to look across the country. As I found in my book Disconnected, Canberra outperforms the rest of the nation on many social capital measures. ACT residents are more likely to play sport, to volunteer, and to donate to charity. It is probably not a coincidence that Canberra also has an active Labor Party membership.

Although plenty of the factors that affect ALP membership are outside our control, there is still much that Labor can do to make joining more attractive. The National Review recommended more party democracy, new policy forums, a campaign training academy, and better online engagement.

We should acknowledge that there are two models an organisation can follow: low cost–low power, or high cost–high power. When you look across other groups, those that are cheap to join (AFL clubs, GetUp) tend not to provide their members with much say in how the organisation is run. By contrast, groups that empower and provide generous services (unions, scouts) generally require a substantial commitment of time or money.

For Labor, this means that we could expand the number of positions that are directly elected by the membership and train every member in the latest community organising techniques. Or alternatively we could follow the UK Labour model of allowing under-27s to join for a penny, and stop asking members to attend branch meetings. But we should not do both. It would be a mistake to give more power to our members and ask less of them in return. This tension will lie at the heart of party reform debates leading up to our National Conference in December.

For NSW Labor, the challenge will be to recover the passion and energy that Kristina Keneally embodied, but which her government was seen to lack. As for Mr O’Farrell, let’s wish him luck and hope that he is able to govern in the spirit of the moderate wing of the Liberal Party. If the last four years have taught Macquarie Street politicians anything, it should be that ‘crash or crash through’ often ends with a bang.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and author of Disconnected (UNSW Press, 2010). By coincidence, he was Barry O’Farrell’s Labor opponent in the 1995 election.
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SkyNews AM Agenda

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Canberra's Biggest Baby Shower

Federal Member for Fraser, Andrew Leigh, has declared Canberra’s inaugural Welcoming the Babies to our Community Ceremony a success with 50 babies welcomed on Sunday at Stage 88 in Commonwealth Park.

Andrew Leigh said the day was all about recognising the important job parents do for our local community as well as connecting them up to other parents and the range of government and community organisations.

“It’s been a fun morning with balloon animals galore, kids running around having fun and parents being able to chat about the ups and downs of parenting,” said Andrew Leigh.

“As the father of two young boys it’s good to know that kids waking up at 3am in the morning or throwing food at dinner time is something that happens with most other families.”

Over 150 people helped celebrate Canberra’s biggest baby shower.

First time dad, Tito Hasan, enjoyed the event and is looking forward to coming back next year. “It’s been great to see kids having fun. My wife and I have been able to see the range of things out there for first time parents,” said Tito.

Mother of two boys Aarthi Ayar-Viddle who also enjoyed the celebrations said it was good hearing from Andrew Leigh and Laurie McDonald, Canberra Women’s Chamber of Commerce President, about their experiences as parents.

“Andrew and Laurie are both successful people and it was nice hearing their stories about the joys of parenting. They’ve both had to deal with some of the same issues that I’m finding with my little one and it’s good to know that I’m not alone,” said Aarthi.

More than 10 different stalls, ranging from government to community organisations, were encircled around Stage 88 on Sunday morning.
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American Grace

Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam (for whom I worked when at Harvard, eventually inspiring me to write its Australian version Disconnected) has a new book out on religion. It's called American Grace. He'll be speaking in Canberra on 5 April and Sydney on 14 April. Click the links for more details.
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Chatting about Big Ideas at Harrison School

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Big Ideas

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Revenge of the Nerds: Improving Australia’s Education System

Here's the speech that I gave last night to kick off my community meeting in Gungahlin.

Revenge of the Nerds: Improving Australia’s Education System
Gungahlin Lakes Club, 16 March 2011

In a book titled Outliers: The Story of Success, writer Malcolm Gladwell discusses the way that extraordinarily successful people came to get where they are. Gladwell’s aim is to dig deeper than the legend of brilliance, and discover what lies underneath. His most interesting story concerns Bill Gates. Now, you probably think you know the story of Gates: smart geek drops out of Harvard, starts his own computer company, and becomes a squillionaire. But how many of you know about Gates’ high school experience?

Bill Gates attended high school in Lakeside, a school in Seattle. Each year, the mothers’ club ran a rummage sale, and in 1968, they decided to spend $3000 on a computer terminal. Now $3000 was a lot of money in those days, and the mothers’ club didn’t buy any old computer. They bought one that allowed real-time programming, directly linked to a mainframe.

To get an idea of how extraordinary this was, my father was at the time doing his PhD at Cornell University. The computer he got access to used punch cards, and he had to wait overnight to get his results. Yet as a schoolkid, Bill Gates was using a far better computer than a student at an Ivy League university.

The result was that Gates and his friends got the chance to do more computer programming than almost anyone else in the world. Thanks to a few more lucky breaks, he got access to the computer lab at the University of Washington. And before he left school, he had gotten a part-time job writing code. By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard in his second year, he had been programming virtually non-stop for seven years. He estimates that there were probably no more than 50 young people in the world with that sort of experience.

Yes, Bill Gates is a smart guy. But the moral of the story is that what made him what he is today were the opportunities he was given. If we want more Bill Gateses in Australia, the answer isn’t to dig inside our DNA and sequence the genius gene. It’s to expand opportunities for every child, so every young Australian has the chance to fulfil their potential.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.