The last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the tyranny of distance between the east and west coasts of Australia. Never before has WA seemed to go it so alone from the rest of the nation. It was brought into stark relief when, in contrast to the spirit of a national cabinet and approach, the previous federal government momentarily sided with Clive Palmer’s legal challenge over the closure of the WA border.
Yet this Federal election demonstrated many of the issues concerning West Australians right now are the same as those on the other side of the Nullarbor. These are housing affordability, cost of living, climate change and the need for long-term economic resilience and fiscal responsibility in a world of economic and geopolitical uncertainty.
The election results delivered a seismic shift in Australia’s political landscape and sent a clear message about the issues and policies that matter to all Australians.
In the year to March, Perth recorded the highest consumer price rises in the country at 7.6 per cent. This level of inflation has not been seen since the 1990s. Underpinning this result is the rising costs of petrol and housing — both the price of new builds and increasing rental prices where the rental vacancy rate sits at around one per cent. Though not to the same extent, price rises and supply chain challenges are reflected across the country. And yet wages are predominantly failing to keep pace.
At the same time, businesses across the country are struggling to find workers to fill their skills needs.
This is important because the jobs left unfilled are creating capacity constraints and acting as a handbrake on new investments, productivity and future growth.
Once again, WA is feeling this more acutely with an unemployment rate of 2.9 per cent, more than half a percentage point lower than any other State or Territory.
While our economy has bounced back from the COVID-19 pandemic, our migration levels have not. This was a topic keenly avoided during the election, but one that now must be addressed resolutely. CEDA would like to see migration levels lifted and processes and policies that ensure the skills and experiences of migrants are fully utilised to meet the needs of our businesses and economy more broadly.
This is vital to growth all across the country, especially in WA which has always relied on and welcomed migrants.
When it comes to education, Australia is outperforming other advanced economies across several areas of the education and skills system, including the proportion of those who are tertiary educated. But we underperform in developing and applying the right skills effectively in modern workplaces, and the skills of our youth are not improving anywhere near fast enough, and we underperform when it comes to female participation.
In the recent WA Budget, Premier Mark McGowan announced an additional $38 million to continue the lower fees initiative for TAFE.
While welcome, the initiative is similar to many of the education policies our governments make — it is still not geared to adapt and respond as necessary to emerging long-term skills needs. In setting up the State for long-term prosperity, stamp duty is another area ripe for reform.
Replacing it with a broad-based land tax would remove one of our most inefficient taxes, assist with housing affordability and smooth the State Government revenue base. This is a long-term transition, and the federal government could assist and encourage states in making the move.
At the Federal level, the Government has a clear mandate on climate change.
There is a need to address more ambitious reduction targets and implement more detailed policies to facilitate the transition to net zero.
This should be viewed as an opportunity for WA as new industries such as hydrogen and renewables have a contribution to make and will also assist in the diversification of the WA economy.
The incoming Treasurer Jim Chalmers has committed to delivering a Budget in October. He must look to convey immediate policy decisions and priorities as well as the framework that will anchor fiscal policy in the years ahead.
The Treasurer has a challenging task — to stabilise a Budget deep in the red while ensuring Australia can continue to fund the critical services needed and investments to capitalise on long-term opportunities and enable a resilient and dynamic economy.
In the early days of the pandemic, Australia was well served by a genuinely National Cabinet and strong collaboration.
As the new Prime Minister has emphasised unity and collaboration, he will do well to maintain goodwill and keep WA firmly in the tent at National Cabinet.
Both levels of government can learn a lot more from each other than Australia’s often parochial federalist commentary assumes.
What Australians are now seemingly looking for is for all governments to play their part in addressing the issues and policies needed to set Australia on a path of sustained and strong future prosperity.
This article originally appeared in The West Australian on Wednesday, 25 May, 2022.