2 February 2001

Address to the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) Luncheon, Melbourne

Ladies and gentlemen, it is worth recounting the significant changes Australia has undertaken from an economic perspective over the last two or three years. And of course, the most obvious and I believe most successful undertaken has naturally enough be in relations to the taxation system. It is worth reminding ourselves what the dividend has been from taxation reform. Taxation that has not always been politically easy, that has claimed a large number of bodies over a number of years. When I have small business in my electorate approach me and, understandably, express some concerns about the Business Activity Statement, and they usually make the claim, "What am I getting out of taxation reform?" I respond by saying that you are getting a reduction in company tax from 36% to 30%, that as individuals you have capital gains tax effectively halved, that for all your transport needs petrol and diesel prices have come down from what they would have been had the Labor party remained in power. From 1st July this year we are abolishing Financial Institutions Duty which has been forgotten, and which one real estate agent in my electorate said cost them $70,000 a year. And of course, one of the more obvious and successful initiatives which has been implemented from 1 July this year is the abolition of stamp duty on the transfer of shares, which has helped a distortive on effect on the value of Australian shares when compared with some other markets.

Of course the transition to the New Tax System has not been all beer and skittles. It has not been as easy as everyone could have hoped. But it has been overall extremely successful. And it has been successful because it has delivered real benefits to Australian businesses. Tax reform has delivered real benefits for Australian consumers. We now have in place a much simpler and much fairer taxation system in Australia. And it is one which us globally competitive. Apart from the impact of a lower Australian dollar, we have no doubt that exporters are now starting to reap the full benefits of the abolition of wholesale sales tax. And that is starting to flow through with the overall economy.

But of course, hand in hand, with taxation reform is the ongoing need for further industrial relations reform. We have come some way since the old reform of the 1980s and early 1990s. We have come way where we are now empowering employees to be able to have a hand in what they.. in their own workplace. Its empowering individuals and that is a fundamental tenet of liberalism that is being put into real effect by Government. And of course, there is still a perception offshore that Australia is still bogged down by industrial relations problems. I continue to argue to funds manager, insurers and bankers offshore that Australia has undertaken significant industrial relations reform, that in the late 1990s we have had fewer industrial relations disputes since any time since the 1930s. I am concerned from an international perspective that ongoing industrial relations problems in Victoria are having a negative effect on perceptions of Australia. And that is something that all Victorian businesses need to address with the Bracks Government. But of course there is a further step which needs to be taken in relation to industrial relations reform and I expect you will be hearing more about that over the next few months.

The third tier of reform is regulatory reform and that involves of course the implementation in full of the recommendations of the Wallis Report in 1996. Now the Wallis Report has been a benchmark for countries around the world. We underestimate the impact of that report on the global banking system. The financial services reforms in the City of London have been partly based on the Wallis reforms. Howard Davies, the head of the Financial Services Authority - the chief regulator, and Howard Davies is probably the most powerful regulator in the world, apart from Alan Greenspan - openly applauds the recommendations of Wallis and says that has been the guiding light for the reforms of the financial services industry in the City of London. And the reforms in the United States, with the repeal of Glass-Stiegel which are in turn based on what happened in London together with the reform in Australia. And other jurisdiction such as Canada and Singapore are following. And of course, those reforms were not easy. They were difficult for the financial services industry. But they provided financial institutions a solid base on which to build expansion and which to develop a new competitive, globally competitive consumer focussed industry.

And it is now time for the financial services industry, and banks in particular, to deliver a social bonus that has come about as a result of the reforms from 1996 onwards. It is time they started to listen to consumers. It is time the banks started to listen to their customers' concerns and the concerns of the broader community. We are very lucky in Australia to have a solid and stable banking system. When a banking system is weak, when it is under duress, particularly at a time of volatile interest rate movements, then it came have a substantive effect on an economy. I don't need to say that here in Melbourne. But when you have a strong banking system, a robust banking system, a globally competitive banking system that can met head on the information technology challenges that are being imposed with reform around the world, then that banking system needs to treat as a very precious player their customer loyalty.

So I do call on banks to start to respond to consumer concerns. And in particular, I expect them to start providing to their customers and customers with all the appropriate information they can provide in order to give consumers the right to make an informed decision. And recently we saw the RBA/ACCC report into transaction fees and charges. I now expect the banks to respond in a substantive way to that report. I expect the banks to start to start to display foreign bank transaction fees and charges. I expect banks to develop software that is going to start to respond to consumers' rather than shareholders' needs. And banking reform has delivered benefits for those banks. The reforms we put in place as a Government have delivered a dividend to the banks. It is now time for the banks to start to deliver a dividend to consumers.

And so with regulatory reform process continues we still need to bed down Corporations Law changes. I am very concerned about the fact that the Corporations Law regime in Australia still has some uncertainty about its future as result of the decision in Hughes. I am concerned that it has been extremely difficult for the State Attorneys to understand that there is a real cost to business associated with uncertainty in the Corporations Law. That a decision of the High Court could put in danger the incorporation of more than 600,000 companies formed since 1991. And the failure of lawyers, who are the Attorneys around the States, to understand the real business impact of that uncertainty is disappointing for me and it should be disappointing for business. And why? Because you are starting to pay for the uncertainty of the Corporations Law. Prospectuses are starting to include commentary regarding the uncertainty about the Corporations Law. And uncertainty means risk and risk means businesses start to pay a higher price for either raising capital or raising debt. And so the first job I have this year is bed down uncertainty in relation to the Corporations Law. I am grateful that just before Christmas, two premiers - the Premier of Victoria and the Premier of NSW - joined with the Prime Minister and myself in negotiating a path through what is a very difficult issue but obviously the most significant referral of power from the States to Commonwealth in the history of Federation. At the moment we still do not have the support of other States. And we are looking to implement a new Corporations Law regime for the Commonwealth of Australia from 1 July this year. And if necessary, we will go forward without the support of one or two states.

Hand in hand with the Corporations Laws is the Financial Services Referral Bill. This represents the most reform of financial services industry at any time in Australia. It is a final step forward in the Wallis reforms and it is something, which is ahead of any other jurisdiction anywhere in the world. The Financial Services Referral Bill delivers one licensing regime for financial service providers. What is delivered to the financial services industry is the capacity to deliver insurance, to deliver stock broking services, to deliver investment advice, to deliver retail banking, to deliver wholesale banking - all under one financial institution. At the moment, there is a different regulatory regime for each product. The Bill that I will be introducing in February or March, delivers one regulatory regime for all financial products whether they are delivered to consumers via the phone, face to face, through the Internet or any other means. It is the first of its type in the world. And it puts into effect the fact that Australia has to, has to look to develop its markets, in our time zone, in the Asia Pacific region if it wants to survive some of the global challenges.

And, of course, if we are talking challenges, then globalisation is the most significant challenge Australia currently faces. In my view, economic trends, continue to be manageable for a single economy even though the impact of, naturally enough, the United States, is severe. The United States now represents more than 50% of the world economy. If the United States starts to stutter then it has a real impact around the world. Australia can manage some volatility in other markets, it can manage some volatility in other economies, and we did that extremely successfully during the Asian financial crises. And yet we are, from an economic perspective, facing our most significant challenge with the obvious economic downturn in the United States. But given that we have put in place robust reforms, given that we have undertaken significant structural reforms of the Australians economy, I am quite positive about our economic outlook within the context of the uncertainty surrounding the United States economy. Don't forget that Australia is enjoying its 15th consecutive quarter of strong growth. Don't forget that for 14 quarters we have had annualised growth of more than 4% with very low inflation. I mean, everyone has forgotten about the 8 and 9% inflation in the 1980s when people like Terry [McCrann] talk about the impact of excise and the inflationary effects of excise, what about the 8 and 9% inflation in the 90s and 90s and the impact that had. Even with the one-off of the GST, we still have a very low inflation rate in Australia and high growth. And that is the cocktail that delivers better quality of life for Australians.

But, of course, we continue to deal with our position in the world. The Australian economy now represents about the same size as the combined economies of Iowa and Georgia. We are about the same size. We are about 1% of the world economy. That means we are severely impacted by what happens around the world. So what does globalisation mean at a real level for Australia. The focus of what the Government is doing is on consumers. What is in the best interest of consumers? We have seen that in the role of the ACCC, particularly in relation to the transition to the New Tax System. And the Government and consumers and business - particularly small business - have a common interest and it is that consumers continue to be positive about the economy. We have a common interest not to scare consumers about spending. We have a common interest, and that is to encourage confidence in the Australian economy. And the best way to do that is to deliver real reform and real results. And one of the most significant challenges any government is going to face over the next two to three or four years is that the fact that globalisation is pushing aggregation of businesses. And we have a Trade Practices Act that is there for consumers and its says that if there are five or six players in a particular market then mergers are fine, or may be fine. But what happens if you have one, or two or three players in a market and you have foreign bids for those companies? Well, we have a very positive position in relation to foreign investment in Australia. Again, remembering the size of our economy, we cannot afford to be a closed economy? So governments into the future need to consider the competing pressures of protecting competition in Australia but at the same time protecting Australian ownership. It is a direct confrontation that is coming through the tunnel. And it is a balancing act. Australia has very few icon companies. News Ltd is one, and some icon brands, like Fosters and various others. But we do not have something in the league of Nokia or Eriksson. We don't have some of the German obvious brand names or Japanese obvious brand names. We are a small economy with one of two significant players who have the potential to be global players, like Telstra