”I could have written the script for this before coming in,” said Ken Henry, adviser to the prime minister and former Treasury secretary, on day one of the tax summit.

So maybe it was with this in mind that Henry sought to change the script with his speech to kick off day two of the tax summit:

Good policy outcomes are more likely when there has been high-quality debate.

They are much more difficult to secure when visionary ideas, big challenges and creative approaches are raised for the first time in the announcement of a policy decision. The better outcome will usually be achieved when the visionary idea is so well accepted that everybody is worried sick by them and when approaches to dealing with those challenges appear merely natural.

Still, it can’t be very hard, even for a seasoned policy adviser, to know just what is a new idea and what is well understood, what is truly unexceptional …

… There should be no expectation, either, that public debate will focus on the more important things. Since the release of our tax report, I can’t recall there being any serious public discussion of the need to reform some of the worst of the taxes levied in the federation — royalties, insurance taxes, motor vehicle taxes and conveyancing stamp duty.

There was a high-quality discussion. It was very encouraging. But in the absence of an informed public debate — a wider public debate — it is very unlikely that the preconditions for successful reforms in these areas will exist..

… Tax reform, like any other genuine reform, is hard, especially when an articulate vested interest argues that it may be worse off. It is an unfortunate fact of life and public commentary — I am thinking particularly of our media here — finds it impossible to distinguish the national interest from vested interest. That is a fact of life but it has always been thus. So what should we do?

We should debate these matters so the public at large has a better understanding of where we are coming from, so serious commentators are better placed to record the substance of discussions instead of being captivated by their form, so our politicians have a realistic understanding of where that national interest lies.

It’s much easier for shock jocks to dismiss the tax summit as a “talk fest” than actually study up on what the wonks have been on about for two days. It’s easier to dismiss the details of what was discussed, rather than pick over some of the genuine ideas and policy intentions that came out of this summit. But Henry’s right: good policy starts with good talk, and getting a bunch of brains around the table, divorced from petty politics.

As Possum Comitatus writes in Crikey today: “… a more healthier thing for public policy you will never see.”

Peter Fray

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