Opinion article

Election shows voters want bolder action to address challenges

In the aftermath of the federal election, the commentary has largely focused on how the Liberal Party needs to rebuild. Our focus is squarely on the incoming Albanese government and the challenges it has ahead of it, writes CEDA CEO Melinda Cilento in The Australian.

In the aftermath of the federal election, the commentary has largely focused on how the Liberal Party needs to rebuild. Our focus is squarely on the incoming Albanese government and the challenges it has ahead of it.

The new government faces a crossbench with a clear mandate to pursue more ambitious climate change targets. This is not just about the time taken to reach net zero but taking concrete steps to alter the trajectory of near-term emissions reduction now and making the most of the opportunities presented by decarbonisation.

While climate has dominated the post-election analysis so far, there are many critical long-term challenges requiring attention and action. These include the challenges of our ageing population, skills shortages and the need to reinvigorate productivity and a more dynamic economy.

The crisis in our aged care sector, which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, reflects a combination of underinvestment in our education and skills pipeline, low wages and the lack of career development in the sector. Too often the sector is treated as ‘low skilled’ when it is anything but that. There is a need for a fundamental reset if we are going to attract and retain the people needed to provide the care needed and expected.

As more and more Australians worry about eroding real wages and the escalating costs of living, this new government has a clear opportunity to set Australia up for future prosperity and economic resilience.

To do so, bold policy choices are required in many key areas. This includes first and foremost supporting a strong and dynamic economy including the take-up of new technologies so that workers and companies are continually innovating, using and adapting new technologies and practices.

Recent research shows that Australian companies are struggling to keep up with the best performers around the world with the gap between the global tech frontier and Australian companies growing over time. We are among leading countries when it comes to the volume and quality of research published in the fields of artificial intelligence and computer science research, but this is not translating to business performance.

Investment intentions are strong – 95 per cent of chief financial officers of CEDA member organisations expect investment in digital technology to be higher in the next three years than it was in the lead-up to the pandemic. Now is the time to leverage those intentions to ensure our companies are able to move up the technology maturity curve in areas such as data and artificial intelligence to lift productivity growth.

One area that received too little attention in the election is the critical skills needed to make the most of the tech and climate opportunities in front of us and the role that migration can and must play in doing so. Australia needs a targeted migration policy that works with domestic education and training systems to sustainably meet our skills needs. Our members have been raising this for some time – providing further impetus to the case that without the skills we need, we cannot be as productive and innovative as we need to be.

While our economy has bounced back from the pandemic, our migration levels have not.

If the new government returns our permanent migrant intake to 190,000 people per year, new approaches could also better ensure migrants are working in jobs that match their skills.

Our research shows that 23 per cent of migrants to Australia end up in jobs below their skill level. The introduction of a skills matching platform accessed by employers and incoming migrants would improve these outcomes.

Though our unemployment levels are at near five-decade lows, more can also be done to increase workforce participation among women, long term unemployed and Indigenous Australians. Increasing the maximum childcare subsidy, removing annual caps, providing better employment services and promulgating best practice in Indigenous employment are steps in the right direction.

The task for the incoming government is not for the faint hearted especially as this country needs to reset its fiscal foundations.

Addressing these and other challenges requires sharp focus on renewed fiscal discipline as the government inherits $900bn in gross debt and a budget in the red, and has already committed to significant areas of spending.

Critical to getting the balance right will be taking a longer-term view to the investments needed to drive future opportunities and prosperity, ensuring that we get value for tax payer dollars spent, and transparency and clarity around sustainable fiscal goals.

This election demonstrated that the Australians are seemingly up for bolder action across a number of fronts. It is now up to the incoming Labor government to take up that challenge and progress the policies that will set Australia on the path to long term prosperity for all.

This article originally appeared in The Australian on 23 May, 2022.

About the authors

Melinda Cilento

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Melinda Cilento is Chief Executive of CEDA, a company director, economist and experienced senior executive. She is a non-executive director of Australian Unity and Co-Chair of Reconciliation Australia. Melinda is also a member of the Parliamentary Budget Office panel of expert advisors.

Melinda was previously a Non-Executive Director with Woodside Petroleum, Commissioner with the Productivity Commission and Deputy CEO and Chief Economist with the Business Council of Australia. Melinda has also previously held senior roles with the Federal Department of Treasury, Invesco and the International Monetary Fund.