What is the role of government in a modern economy? The case of Australia

Australia’s economic performance has been the standout among advanced economies for several decades. With economic growth at nearly twice the pace of US or Germany over the past decade, a remarkable 25 years without a recession and a large, highly competitive mining sector despite the end of the resources boom, Australia remains a strong economic participant in a region of the world where future global growth is likely to be generated.

But with drivers of growth over the past 25 years unlikely to be the engines of growth in coming decades, now is not a time for complacency. And if there’s one lesson from Britain’s decision to leave the EU, it’s that that disruptive forces are sweeping through the global economy. Australia, with its cohesive politics and economic success, has been able to avoid the worst of these problems, but the dangers are present if the economic challenges are not met.

To start with, the impacts of the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s are fading. The investment boom in mining is over, and the prices for mining and agricultural exports will probably remain subdued with slower growth in China. While Australia’s incomes were boosted by the improved terms of trade, this has partially reversed. The housing boom will inevitably eventually slow.

As evidenced by the results of the Brexit referendum, there is a distrust of the political and economic elites that have led the world’s biggest economies. Disruptive, rapid changes in technology have not led to broad-based productivity growth. Workers in many countries have been left with stagnant incomes and governments with rising public debt.

Industry policy has a bad name among American economists who see it as a manifestation of “capture” where special interests are able to obtain subsidies from taxpayers or special protections that are not in the national interest. The modern theory of industry policy, however, recognises that a well-designed policy can actually help markets work better, therefore helping an economy like Australia’s make the transition to a new growth path when faced with changing economic conditions. Productivity is the key to high growth and rising incomes – and well-designed industry policy can help.

Structure of trade competitiveness

Take, for example, Australia’s manufacturing sector. Mostly because of comparative advantage, it is the smallest among all advanced economies relative to the size of its economy. In 2010, Germany had 21.2 per cent of its workforce in manufacturing while Australia’s was 8.9 per cent. While it’s not surprising that Australia’s structure of trade competitiveness differs from Germany’s because of its enormous export strength of mining and agriculture, it will benefit by taking advantage of its highly skilled workforce and the potential to develop industries based on this human capital – including advanced manufacturing industries.

One of the traditional strengths of the American economy is the close link that exists between leading universities and businesses – an area Australian policymakers are seeking to improve upon. At MIT and Stanford, professors of engineering, biology, finance or economics finish their lectures and head off to the companies they run or advise. They often enlist graduate or undergraduate students to help them with their commercial projects and these collaborations often result in jobs as well as experience. There is a danger in this model if pure research loses out to business interests, but the interaction between academia and the practical needs of companies can largely improve both research and business profitability. It’s worth recalling that even the giants of science in the 18th century were motivated by the need to improve navigation or build new machines or design buildings. Funding for research should support greater industry-university cooperation as highlighted by the Watt Review.

Another important element in Australia’s continued economic success is the growth of its service industries. With most jobs in these industries, the performance and productivity of services will be the largest determinant of Australia’s living standards. Productivity comparisons between Australia and the United States show that Australian productivity lagged behind the US as recently as the mid-1990s, but there has since been substantial catch-up taking place. Smart regulation that promotes competition and rewards innovation are necessary to bring up the laggards. While there is a continuing debate about the possible end of productivity growth in advanced economies, Australia can still do much to catch up to global best practice.

The winners of this weekend’s election will be charged with answering an important question: what is the role of government in a modern economy? How they answer that will determine future prosperity for all Australians.

High taxes, large government, poorly regulated markets (particularly labour markets), excessive debt and poor infrastructure undermine the drivers of growth. The realities of a fragile global economy and the need to build a solid foundation to generate productivity growth in Australia must be at the core of the policies that follow this election campaign.

Martin Baily is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former chair of the US President’s Council of Economic Advisers. He has been invited by the Australian Ministry of Industry Innovation and Science to report on lessons from the US for policies to enhance economic growth, innovation and competitiveness.

Warwick McKibbin AO, is the director of the Centre for Applied Macroeconomic Analysis in the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Editor’s note: this opinion first appeared in Australian Financial Review.