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OPINION: ‘Let Business Succeed’

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Hon Joel Fitzgibbon MP, Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Resources and Federal Member for Hunter.

”I guarantee if you walk into any pet shop in Australia, what the resident galah will be talking about is microeconomic policy.” It is just one of Paul Keating’s many colourful sprays. Fast-forward to 2020 and Keating could well have been referring to the numerous people talking about re-shaping the Australian economy, without offering much detail.

Re-modelling an economy is like turning a cruise-liner around: it takes time. In the middle of a health and economic crisis and soon after, we need to concentrate on the things that can be done relatively quickly. In the first instance we could look to the industries which are already strong but have scope for further growth.

The sector which has been most reliable in providing support for our economy during the COVID-19 crisis has been our mining industry. Many manufacturers have been strong too, but they continue to face difficult global competition and could do with some innovative government support and lower energy prices. In the meat processing sector – our largest food manufacturer – Government could lower quarantine and inspection charges which are among the highest in the world.

When I speak with businesses their first ask is not usually a taxpayer-funded hand-out but rather, they just want governments to get out of their way. Red and green tape they say, is holding them back. Too often international investors read or hear reports of resources projects waiting more than a decade for regulatory approval and they take their money elsewhere. When they take their money elsewhere, the jobs go with it.

But it’s not just foreign investors finding the project approval process difficult. Two Australian Companies, SANTOS and New Hope, have been waiting much longer than a decade for a green light and are still waiting.

SANTOS’s Narrabri gas project is still running the gauntlet of the NSW Independent Planning Commission (IPC), a body which is notoriously slow and prone to mission creep. The Narrabri gas project will provide desperately needed gas to the Eastern market, put downward pressure on energy prices and create plenty of jobs. It has the support of the local Council and community. A gas-pipeline proposal will bring a number of benefits to the Hunter and will enhance our chances of securing more than one gas-fired electricity generator.

New Hope’s problem is quite different. Despite jumping through all the necessary environmental approval hoops, the extension of its New Acland Mine in Queensland is held up in the High Court due to on-going and persistent action by an environmental group. An unacceptable situation which has already cost jobs and will cost many more if not resolved soon. New Hope began the approval process 13 years ago. The High Court action has nothing to do with the merits of the application. Rather, it’s about legal technicalities.

Here in NSW, Deputy Premier John Barilaro has made noises about fixing the problems with the State’s Independent Planning Commission. I hope he follows through.

At the Commonwealth level, former Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) Chair Professor Graeme Samuel has just released his interim review of the Environmental Planning & Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC).

Introduced by John Howard twenty years ago, the EPBC is an additional layer of regulation beyond the State-based approval processes. It comes in to play if the project application raises significant flora, fauna or water issues. It’s outdated, cumbersome, creates duplication in the approval processes and to quote Graeme Samuel, “is ineffective and inefficient”. By ineffective, he means it’s not adequately protecting our natural environment. By inefficient he means it’s not a good experience for businesses looking to create jobs.

Let’s hope we secure some reform at both levels of government.

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