Reform has a new top dog
The new chairman of the Productivity Commission, Peter Harris, has an interesting road ahead of him with a number of early challenges. Luckily, he’s no stranger to difficult reform. His career has spanned many sectors of the economy including:
- close involvement in the Hawke Government’s road transport and telecommunications reforms;
- the establishment of the Hilmer Inquiry into National Competition Policy;
- the development of rail reforms creating the Australian Rail Track Corporation;
- the access and pricing policies for Commonwealth airport privatisation; and
- responsibility for the structural separation of Telstra and the creation of the universal service obligation entity TUSMA as part of the NBN negotiations with Telstra.
ACCC Chairman Rod Sims has commended Mr Harris’ appointment, stating “Peter is a natural reformer who is always looking for the reform angle on any set of issues. He brings a very positive reform-oriented approach to the Productivity Commission”.
Nevertheless, Harris’s job isn’t going to be a walk in the park. The Commission’s outgoing chairman, Gary Banks, earlier this month set out a to-do list for productivity policies which included (in the competition sphere):
- abolishing remaining tariffs;
- limiting provisions for anti-“dumping” action;
- terminating selective industry subsidies that cannot deliver demonstrable net social benefits;
- phasing out public sector procurement preferences; and
- conducting a second, more focussed round of NCP reviews (looking particularly at taxi licence quotas, the ban on parallel book imports and unduly restrictive licensing and self-regulation of professions).
In addition to this lengthy list, if the Coalition wins government at next year’s Federal election, then Harris may find himself heading the review of the NBN promised by Opposition Communications spokesman, Malcolm Turnbull. The rub is that Harris was highly involved in the implementation of the same NBN he might be asked to review. The success of Harris’s term, and the reputation of the Commission, may be shaped by how he handles this potential challenge and his ability to give independent advice in the face of political opposition.