12 November 2015
Speech - #2015005, 2015

Launch of Water Services Association of Australia and Infrastructure Partnerships Australia Report, Mural Hall, Parliament House, Canberra

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Introductory remarks

Thank you very much Brendan, it is tremendous to be here with you. We have known each other a long time and it has been a very good friendship - sadly he doesn’t live in the Shire anymore but he’ll come to his senses at some point, I’m sure. To you also, Adam, it’s great to be here with you and it’s wonderful to be part of this launch. I am, of course, here in my own capacity but I am also here to be representing Barnaby Joyce as my Cabinet colleague who has responsibility of these areas and he is currently overseas, as I understand it.

It’s great to be here supporting this very important initiative. I have got to say before I get into my broader comments there is another great reason to be standing here before you today. As I said in the House yesterday, yesterday we learnt that there were more Australians who are optimistic about our economy than were pessimistic with the release of the Westpac Melbourne Institute survey.

This is what the Government, the Prime Minister and the full team are focussed on. We want to inspire that confidence but that confidence will be inspired by real policy work.

We welcome the fact that Australians are responding well to the leadership we're seeking to show on our economy but there is another very good reason why I think people are feeling more confident about the Australian economy and in fact there are 58,600 Australians who have a much better reason to feel confident about our economy in the month of October because that was the increase in the number of people who were employed in that month. And as we saw employment increasing by 58,600, some 315,000 extra jobs in the course of the last year, that has taken the unemployment rate to 5.9 per cent.

No job is ever completed. No job is completed when it comes to supporting growth and jobs in our economy and we, of course, welcome the fact that more Australians are in jobs today because that is our purpose, that is what our plans are about. That is why we are establishing a national platform for jobs and growth in our economy and we are very pleased to see that not only did the unemployment rate fall to 5.9 but that happened at the same time as the participation rate increased in the same month.

At the same time the average hours worked increased also and you've been hearing me saying for some time now we want to back Australians who are working, who are saving and investing and more Australians are working, more Australians will be saving, more Australians will be investing in their capabilities and this is what inspires us as a Government, the Australian people who are out there and doing it.

So, we congratulate them on their success. We congratulate those 58,600 Australians who went there and got a job and I congratulate the businesses and employers who gave them that job and we want to see more of that and how we will see more of that is by addressing the micro reform issues that exist within our economy that we're discussing here today.

Water policy

Now, I don't pretend to be an expert on water policy. I leave that to people like Barnaby Joyce and Bill Heffernan and Greg Hunt and of course Malcolm Turnbull who indeed is quite an expert on the topic but what I do understand about water policy is that it's an important asset and resource in our economy. It's important that we have the right frameworks and the right structures around how water assets are managed in this country, the protections that are placed around them, the regulations that support them to ensure their most productive and efficient use for our economy.

So, that is why it is important that we continue to engage in the processes of reform that exist around water in this country. As I have learned from the paper that we're releasing today, each year the Australian urban water industry provides enough drinking water to fill Sydney Harbour four times over - quite an achievement.

The industry has assets of around $160 billion and capital expenditures each year of up to $4.5 billion - this is a significant part of our economy.

These figures are astonishing and what more they command our attention. Urban water is a massive industry that we all depend on in one way or another and so it deserves a coordinated and far-sighted policy approach.

Responsibility for water and water infrastructure rests predominantly with state and local governments but the Commonwealth has played a role in progressing water reform in recent times. And water policy has been closely entwined with competition policy over many years.

Back in 1994, the first national water reform agreement was struck and then reflected in the national competition policy framework developed the same year. Fast forward 10 years and the Howard Government secured, when Malcolm Turnbull in fact was the Minister, the 2004 National Water Initiative which remains the blueprint for water reform in this country.

It paved the way for water efficiency and the water-related investment that benefits us all and by extending standard economic and sustainability principles to water pricing, planning and allocation, it supported giving water a price that reflected its true value. That sent the right signals to consumers about the value of the water supplied to their houses and their businesses.

The Government also recognises that water rights are an important national issue. We understand water is a critical national asset. Obviously, its proper management is of special importance for our rural communities and that's why the Government is currently examining the development of a register of foreign ownership of water licences which is also being discussed through the Senate.

While development of this proposal continues any such process would involve full public consultation and any register would be developed in consideration of the expectations of stakeholders.

Any register would also need to be closely monitored to ensure that national interest considerations associated with water rights are being appropriately captured under the Government's strengthened foreign investment framework.

Competition policy

I said before water and micro reform is part of a broader policy agenda.

The national competition review, which Brendan referred too, led by Professor Harper, has shown us what the new frontier is for competition policy in this country. Competition is a big-ticket change. It is the big-ticket change that will be the key to lifting innovation and productivity to help us realise our potential.

The decade of competition reform following the 1993 Hilmer Review set us up for great economic gain. The Productivity Commission reported in 2005 that improvements in key infrastructure sectors in the 1990s, to which competition reforms directly contributed of which water was part, increased Australia's GDP by 2.5 per cent or $20 billion.

The Harper Review highlights the significant gains for consumers that the promise of competition can deliver through greater choice and opportunity. As in water policy, many of the recommendations in the Harper Review are in areas of joint responsibility, of the states and territories. That is why state and territory involvement is so critical and it is why at the recent Treasurer's meeting, the first I attended, I put the Harper reforms back on the agenda to reboot competition policy reform in this country.

Competition is measured by how many choices it gives to consumers - that is the test for competition. How many more choices do Australians have? We want to ensure Australians have those choices. Competition is not measured by how many competitors there are, but how many choices consumers have. The sorts of initiatives which we are launching today are about providing consumers with more choices. Where they have more choices, we can be very confident about the economic dividends that will flow from that.

There is a clear and pragmatic appetite for governments to work together to see how we can make the most of the opportunities that are in front of us in this critical area.

On water specifically, the Harper Review recommends that all governments should continue to implement the national water initiative principles that is linked to national consistency. This would be achieved through the states and territories collectively developing best practice pricing guidelines and clear timelines for implementing the national water initiative.

It also recommends the Government focus on strengthening economic regulation in urban water and on creating incentives for more private sector participation. The Harper Review recommends that this work should be overseen by a new body, the Australian Council for Competition Policy, and that another new body, the National Access and Pricing Regulator should oversee industries regulated by the Commonwealth like gas, electricity, telecommunications and water.

Economic platform

Now, the Government will soon be providing a formal response to the Harper Review, as we have responded to many of the Reviews that Brendan has referred to.

We understand that competition policy will be key to lifting innovation and productivity which is the urgent economic task of the Government as it achieved following the Hilmer Review. The Productivity Commission reported in 2005, as I said, it lifted growth by 2.5 per cent in GDP.

Closing remarks

Finally, in closing, I want to touch again on our national platform for stronger growth and jobs in our economy. $50 billion national infrastructure plan, an innovation statement that will be coming out very soon which will be an exciting document that will energise the opportunities that are there to convert innovative ideas into products and services that will make Australians more prosperous.

The trade agreements, connecting Australia to the fastest growing markets in the world, with the quality products and services - these are the things that are driving growth and driving jobs.

Greater workforce participation; ensuring that more Australians are out there working and, as today's figures show, that is what is happening.

A coordinated competition agenda, working with the states and territories.

A strong Budget, return to surplus not by ensuring revenue is higher than expenditure but by ensuring expenditure is less than revenue.

Controlling our expenditure and then growing our economy that would boost revenues to support the Budget.

A resilient financial system and, of course, a better tax system. A better tax system that gives Australians the support that backs them in the decisions that they are taking.

The Coalition has a proud record, not of increasing taxes but of introducing better tax systems - better tax systems. When we introduce better tax systems; we cut taxes, we reduce the tax burden on Australians over time, we ensure the tax system does not act as a ship anchor on Australians and Australian businesses - that's what happens when the Coalition changes the tax system.

Our opponents simply put up taxes to chase ever and ever higher levels of expenditure. But in this report today, in this area of water and urban water in particular, it is so encouraging to see the WSAA and the IPA, of course, joining forces, bringing their purpose and insight not only to the specifics of water policy but to the broader idea of solving the long-term structural challenges that we now face.

Australians know that the global environment is volatile and they know that our economy is transitioning. But they are also optimistic - they are also very optimistic.

There are more than 58,000 Australians today who got jobs in October who have a very good reason to be optimistic.

Thank you for your time