Maritime Union of Australia National Secretary Paddy Crumlin made his contribution in no uncertain terms to the National Reform Summit in Sydney.
Hosted by The Australian and Australian Financial Review newspapers, Crumlin started with a joke before focusing on the problem of the intersection between government and private capital in infrastructure funding.
“I was a bit surprised to get the invitation to speak here today. As the great Marx once said – that’s Groucho Marx – who’d want to belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member anyway?
“If we’re going to talk about productivity and fiscal engineering we’ve got to tackle the political problem in the country which is we’ve got a bunch of states that have got very partisan views in politics that are elected mainly every four years and we’ve got a national government that barely goes three years .
“So, say in my sector of ports planning, how do you develop the movement of a major area of infrastructure into an area of investment, be able to do it in a functional fashion, be able to do it with capital productivity, labour productivity and be able to dance around a bunch of tribal chieftains who at any time may change their mind?”
Crumlin said if Australia was to get serious about this problem, we need to challenge ourselves.
“We’ve got to deal with infrastructure. We haven’t got a sovereign wealth fund due to the ‘great’ political leadership we’ve had in this country over many, many decades,” he said.
“We’ve never been able to achieve that but we have been able to come close to it through infrastructure spending through superannuation.
“But we’ve got to be able to tender the right way; we’ve got to make sure there’s a national overview and a national grid; we’ve got to move to bipartisan commitments across the board - otherwise we’re not going to be able to do it.”
Crumlin said that infrastructure spending could extend to housing.
“There’s an asset, there’s a return, there’s a social dividend - people will want to do it if it’s quality,” he said.
“The funding is coming out of the private sector, it’s coming out of the combined savings of working men and women in superannuation and it’s doing it in a fashion that’s saying people are prepared to invest in annuity and in community infrastructure because they’re improving the quality of their life at the same time as they’re securing their retirement income.
“If we’re going to be serious we need to make those linkages between public policy – both state and federal governments – and private sector investment.”
Crumlin also fired a broadside at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), which is often mired in complication, duplication and a lack of political agreement between governments of different stripes.
“What about COAG? If we wanted to have a royal commission, we’d have a royal commission into COAG and the lack of productivity,” he said.
“We need to be serious about operating in a national grid of infrastructure.
“Australia has only got the same population as the Greater City of Los Angeles – they’ve got another three million – and we need to get a move on.”