A roadmap for dealing with the Australians

Top of the John Howard’s agenda for his meeting with his state premiers on Friday was climate change. Worms turn when the weather turns bad.

And the weather has turned bad.

First, a drought so dire that parched Australians are attributing it at least partly to climate change. Howard has a grand water plan.

Second, votes. Kevin Rudd’s honeymoon is long ecstasy for Labor. To stave off regime (and generation) change, Howard has to sterilise issues on which Labor has the inside running. Climate change is such an issue (for now).

We abolished our provinces 130 years ago, so are detached observers of that federal v states game. Also, we have rain.

But the federal v states game is also our game.

Gradually since federation in 1900 powers and functions have been transferred, in the interests of efficient administration and national consistency, from the state capitals to Canberra. Varying state laws have been progressively harmonised. In the Howard era that has included national GST instead of sales taxes, labour law and, now, water policy.

This matters here because we are very nearly an economic state of Australasia. New Zealand business needs the same rules in Australia as Australian business has. The borders between New Zealand and Australia and its states need to be as thin as the borders between states.

Tariffs have gone. The borders that matter now are the differences in regulatory and tax regimes between the states and between the countries.

A great many of the interstate differences have been ironed out. But enough remain to have filled half a thick report by a federal parliamentary committee late last year. The other half dealt with trans-Tasman differences.

Among its recommendations was an endorsement of demands by Telstra to the committee for trans-Tasman harmonisation of telecommunications regulation so it could compete better here.

With David Cunliffe now off down his own telecoms track — which might well end up with taxpayers unwilling owners of the local loop — Wellington ears are likely to be deaf to Telstra’s bid. But, since it came up at the first meeting of the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum in 2004 and Telstra is pushing hard (just as two Australian banks unsuccessfully pushed for harmonised regulation at the second in 2005), it may well surface at the fourth meeting in Sydney next week.

Telecommunications are not the only regulatory matter on that table. Consumer law reform is on both countries’ agenda and it makes sense to align the two countries’ regimes at the same time as Australia tries to rationalise and maybe harmonise the myriad, often conflicting state consumer laws. But so far the two countries have gone their separate ways.

Separate, disjoined lawmaking is not the way to the vaunted single economic market (SEM) encompassing the two countries — and in fact generally more effort is now made by each country to take each other into account. But, as the mishandled attempt to set up a joint therapeutic products regulatory agency (TPA) shows, the SEM path is not yet adequately signposted.

So officials have been developing a “framework” containing a “roadmap” to inject consistency and rigour into the SEM process.

The “framework” is intended to be a checklist for officials and politicians starting out to reform business-related law or regulatory systems in one country (check if it is relevant to talk to the other country) or to align the two systems (ask which model, ranging from joint agencies through mutual recognition to unilateral alignment to joint industry advisory bodies, will best achieve the objective).

The officials� �roadmap� sets out criteria for selecting the most appropriate mechanism for harmonisation, coordination or cooperation. It draws lessons from past wrong turnings or difficulties and spells out the need for awareness of political realities in each country and the high importance of international competitiveness with third countries.

It emphasises the need for clearly defined objectives and having the right people at the table at every point. That requires a “whole-of government” effort, not just specialist ministries (as with the TPA).

This is more likely to work well if people outside the governments demand it. That is where the leadership forum comes in.

The forum doesn’t make decisions and, being still new, can’t point yet to many pegs in the ground.

But there have been some small pegs, mainly from its working parties on business-related matters. Ministers pay it increasing attention as an SEM sounding board and as a unified constituency for doing things jointly.

Of course we are separate and different. We are wet and they are dry. But we also share much and that includes an economy, legal systems and much of the high and popular arts.

Shared interests is the forum’s focus. Leaving management of our deep entanglement hostage to politicians who blow hot and cold is a recipe for suboptimality. The states know that. We need to, too.