Tom Burton: reform frustration calls for focus — and courage

A worrying competitiveness gap in key Australian business sectors requires a keen policy focus from government — and a good heap of courage.

The Business Council of Australia’s report from consulting house McKinsey & Company — revealing a startling lack of competitiveness across virtually every sector of the economy — is a challenging read. It’s deep in data and McKinsey DNA — and is a genuinely substantive attempt by the BCA reform group to shift big business into a far more sophisticated relationship with the public sphere.

But Google the release and the only public debate has been whether this is a return to the 1980s national champions strategy. That policy was popularised by Harvard guru Michael Porter; it won favour among industry policy advocates in Canberra, seeking a post-tariff-wall reason for intervention and regulatory respite.

Thirty years on there are some who still want to fight that war. Meanwhile, what seems to have been lost was the key point of the BCA report: that all key indicators of Australia’s economic competitiveness have gone southward. The measures were benchmarked against United States numbers — and the gap may well have been larger if compared to the Asian tigers.

While economic income growth has remained truly impressive, the data shows this has come largely from our lucky position as the local quarry for Asia.

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