NSW scores a Productivity Commission and Chief Economist

By Julian Bajkowski

February 19, 2018

How many economists does it take to change a light bulb? It depends how you value the change.

The New South Wales government might be engorged with cash thanks to asset recycling and record stamp duty receipts — but that doesn’t mean the state can’t use a few more economic visionaries to help with haymaking.

Treasurer Dominic Perrottet on Monday revealed the state government will for the first time hire both a Chief Economist and Productivity Commissioner within the Treasury portfolio, with a new state Productivity Commission also being established.

The big picture appointments signal Perrottet’s determination to not just keep the economic reform ball rolling, but also to assert significantly greater influence over economic dialogue and ideas in the wider national debate.

While the state’s asset recycling program — which has encompassed everything from electricity to land titles and government property — is far from uncontroversial, few dispute it has fuelled the biggest infrastructure and jobs boom in Australia.

Despite a modest easing in previously surging property prices, a sharp focus on sustaining broad-based growth — along with tempering any signs of overheating or unwanted distortions — are now a highly conspicuous priorities for Treasury’s two new key advisers.

Talking it up

Both jobs are certainly expected to have prominent public profiles.

Announcing the positions, Perrottet described the role of the new Chief Economist as a thought leader and spokesperson on economic issues, analysis and trends.

“The Chief Economist will be a new driver of innovative and visionary economic analysis and advice in NSW, strengthening our state’s capacity to respond to global and local economic trends,” Mr Perrottet said, citing a particular focus on external engagement and communications.

Regulators on notice

Meanwhile, the state’s first Productivity Commissioner, backed by a secretariat, will be tasked with spurring on microeconomic reform and reducing unnecessary regulatory and administrative burdens.

While it’s yet to be seen whether the new role will occasionally broadside dud policy in the same way as the federal Productivity Commission, there’s a clear determination to inject new thinking and rigour, with a hat tip back to Canberra.

Perrotet said the establishment of the NSW Productivity Commission was being aided and advised by Professor Gary Banks, former head of the Commonwealth Productivity Commission.

Although not a statutory role, the creation of a NSW Productivity Commissioner drew support from its Canberran counterpart which has never been shy about suggesting where cross-border or national efficiencies can be found.

“The development of a Productivity Commission-style body in NSW should be very helpful in addressing the kinds of reform opportunities in the Commonwealth-State environment that we have identified in our 2017 Shifting the Dial report” head of the Commonwealth Productivity Commission, Peter Harris, said.

Four point plan

The NSW Productivity Commissioner’s immediate priorities have also been made clear by the state’s Treasurer, with a reform agenda which includes notable hot button issues.

The four key themes for the new think tank to “spearhead a reform agenda” are listed as being:

  • Making it easier to do business
  • Lowering the cost of living
  • Making housing more affordable
  • Making NSW the easiest state to move to

The new Productivity Commission also appears likely to pursue a more direct and speedy approach to ferreting out evidence and views on the issues it deals with than the established procedure of people lodging formal submissions.

Perrottet, who is renown for his digital evangelism, insisted the public must “have its say on how government processes can be improved” and is called on “citizens and businesses to identify the most important regulatory roadblocks, and provide fresh ideas to reduce the burden.”

Squeaky wheels

In reality that means the masses will get pointed to an online portal to vent their frustrations and suggest improvements.

The state’s business lobby certainly isn’t complaining about the appointment of a new regulatory reviewer.

NSW Business Chamber chief executive Stephen Cartwright said the cost of regulatory overhead to businesses in the state was around $10 billion a year.

He said that the creation of a body “performing the functions of a Productivity Commission” had been a key recommendation into review in regulatory quality conducted by former NSW Premier Nick Greiner, along with the online facility for businesses to “register concerns”.

Payroll tax under the pump

“It is pleasing a review of payroll tax is one of the first priorities of the [NSW] Productivity Commission,” Cartwright said.

“Other items on the to do list for the [NSW] Productivity Commission are examining the ‘build to rent sector’, exploring common expiry dates for multiple vehicles, reviewing government procurement practices and investigating mutual recognition of licenses and certificates.

The role of NSW Chief Economist now open to applications with further announcements about the NSW Productivity Commission expected shortly.

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