Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Opening night at the economic forum

JULIA Gillard has renewed her push to cut company tax rates and taken aim at the states' stamp duties on home purchases, at the launch of the government's economic forum in Brisbane last night.

Opening the forum, the Prime Minister asked delegates to focus on how the nation could improve its competitiveness and increase labour mobility to ensure that Australian workers filled more of the jobs created by the resources boom.

She made it clear that despite scrapping her promise to lower company taxes, Labor would revive it if it had support from other parties. The tax cut was abandoned after the Liberals refused to support it and the Greens insisted it be restricted to small business.

"I've got no doubt the company tax rate should be lower and no doubt the revenue base has to be maintained as well," Ms Gillard said.

She linked the issue of labour shortages in the mining sector to stamp duties on real estate transactions, saying: "We've got to talk about labour mobility . . . We've got to crack this nut.

"We've worked on national licensing of professions and trades and on incentives for welfare to work, and now we're turning attention to more improvements to jobs services, and to issues like state transaction taxes on property as well."

Abolishing stamp duties on conveyancing would be popular with home buyers, who fork out $23,500 in tax to buy an average $500,000 Melbourne home. But in most of Australia, it is the third biggest source of state revenue. Victoria relies on it to fund $3.5 billion a year of spending.

The ACT government last week began a 20-year phasing out of stamp duties, which it will replace with higher property rates. The states' choices would be to increase the GST which the Gillard government has ruled out or raise land taxes, as the Henry tax review urged.

Critics point out, however, that the mining boom has had to be manned by fly-in, fly-out workers because Australians prefer to stay with their friends and families.

At the opening dinner, Treasurer Wayne Swan called on the 150 delegates from business, unions, governments and community groups to focus on improving productivity in service industries, so that they become the suppliers of choice for Asia's rapidly-growing middle class.

He urged Australians to put down partisan views and start "a mature debate about productivity" with the aim of lifting Australia into the world's top 10.

The opening session of the forum focused on the importance of Asia to Australia's economic future but also on the reforms needed if Australia is to maximise its gains from Asia's phenomenal growth.

Five sessions today, mostly behind closed doors, will debate the problems of the patchwork economy and the high dollar; innovation and collaboration in industry; investing in infrastructure; building skills and education; and deregulation and reform of competition policy.

Mr Swan announced that he would lead a business delegation to China and Hong Kong next month, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Australia, and give Australia's business leaders "an opportunity to develop business links with major Chinese companies and authorities".

Mr Swan said he welcomed debate on productivity, but some claims being made "were not grounded in facts". He struck a John Howard stance, telling business leaders: "The challenges and opportunities of the Asian century are bigger than the day- to-day cut and thrust of our political debate. They're bigger than any partisan divide."

But his appeal for bipartisanship fell on deaf ears. Ted Baillieu is the only Liberal premier to attend the event, and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott dismissed it as "a carefully-scripted, choreographed event".

"She [Ms Gillard] is not interested in changing policies. She's just interested in stifling criticism," Mr Abbott said.