Malcolm in the middle - The Good Oil by Rod Brown

Once upon a time, we had Prime Ministers that painted the big picture and made big decisions for the national good.

Hawke and Keating are the classic examples, where even conservative voters gave them begrudging respect. On the other side, Fraser, while not a big picture bloke, pushed for the national good e.g. opposition to apartheid, strong support for refugees, the aboriginal cause and the Republican movement. Similarly Howard stuck his neck out on gun laws, enterprise bargaining and the sale of Telstra.

Fast-forward to today and PM Turnbull is being pulled from pillar to post, even from within his own party. Despite having addressed his predecessors’ stuff-ups on energy policy, sneaking through on renewable energy and delivering on Same Sex Marriage, he has dithered on too many issues. There is a widespread perception that he is weak and vacillating leader.

At our latest Cockatoo monthly lunch at the Kingo Pub, we figured that since everyone has gratuitous advice for Malcolm, we might as well weigh in too. The consensus among us is that he’s a good human being, the victim of some unfortunate circumstances and lacking a brains trust to steer him. To prove my point, can you name the PM’s Chief of Staff?

Anyway our Cockatoo diners were in universal agreement that Malcolm is trying too hard to appease both sides of his party, and that he needs to lift if he’s to last until the next election. By lift, we mean to tackle tax reform, banking behaviour, the urban housing bubble, the lack of an industry policy, the lack of a population policy, a laissez-faire regional policy and an out-of-control immigration policy.

Our light-bulb idea is that rather than establishing parliamentary committees to investigate such issues (there are about 160 committees at present), Turnbull should be seeking expert advice from outside the political process. An example is the broadly successful Finkel review of the energy sector. There are four reasons why external experts are the better option – first, they are adept at explaining things in clear and unambiguous terms; secondly, their findings usually generate public interest; thirdly, they generally have good PR machines backing them up; fourthly, Governments have less room to wriggle out of making a decision on their findings.

Our Cockatoo diners agreed that the past masters in the external advice stakes are McKinsey & Co. They are damned good at analysing complex issues and arriving at coherent messages. (I’ve not spoken to anyone at McKinsey’s for years in case you’re wondering!)

The commissioning of five to six expert studies on the hot issues would help us all think about whether Australia can handle a population of 50 million, whether we can sustain the current immigration flow, how we can recapture competitive advantages for our manufacturing sector, and how we achieve more balanced regional growth. We reckon that if Malcolm moved on these big issues, middle Australia would warm to him.   

Austrade must stick to core function
With machinery of government changes a few years back, Austrade is now responsible for not only exports but also investment attraction and tourism. Well here’s some feedback for them – it is a farcical situation. I recently went looking for someone in Austrade to help two groups in regional SA. One has plans to export camel milk and suss out possible Arab partners. The other group wants to develop an indigenous education facility and build a lineal experiential tourism cluster en route to Alice Springs.

The Austrade website only has one phone number (if you can find it), and it took three weeks for us to get a response, which was basically that Austrade has very few staff on investment attraction and tourism functions, and that I’d be better off talking to the states. My heart bleeds.

The tourism and investment attraction functions must move back to the Industry Department.  

Amazon – example of regional development
Seattle-based knows how to run an agenda. It’s looking to invest $5 billion and create 50,000 jobs in a second headquarters somewhere in North America. It called for expressions of interest and received 238 proposals from across the US, Canada and Mexico.
Some of the bids offered tax breaks, while others agreed to help with education and training and personnel selection. The mayor of the Atlanta suburb of Stonecrest offered up 345 acres of industrial land to create a new city called Amazon.

Now this example needs to be scaled back massively to fit an Australian context, but there are hundreds of examples of small places hosting big companies e.g. Harley-Davidson motorcycles, 3M, Raytheon, Walmart. The Australian situation is light years away from this.

But imagine if our Prime Minister commissioned experts to advise on how Australia could create the conditions for certain industries to gravitate to regional centres with quality economic and social infrastructure – places like Toowoomba, Townsville, Dubbo, Tamworth, Mount Gambier and even Alice Springs – and Armidale would win without the need for pork barrelling.  

Rod Brown is a Canberra-based consultant and lobbyist specialising in industry/regional development, investment attraction and clusters, and accessing federal grants. He also runs the Cockatoo Network.
Phone: (02) 6231 7261 or 0412 922 559
Email: apdcockatoo[@]