Date: June 16 2012
My first job as a journalist required wrestling with an old, manual typewriter and six sheets of carbon paper. I then walked my copy round to the sub-editors - all of them. Chief National Sub, his Deputy (it was a memorable day when we first had a woman in the job), State Sub and Deputy, the CoS (Chief-of-Staff,) a Library copy and, finally, my own duplicate. That was post-industrial society.
Today it's the information age. I dictate my column (I've got delicate fingers) to the little MacBook Air that I treated myself to when I last travelled to Afghanistan (it's more robust, smaller, sleeker). The words are then whisked off into the ether before appearing on this page with barely the lightest touch of intervention. In fact, if the subs desk were moved to New Zealand, why, there'd be no humans involved at all!
Or, better still, Fairfax could process the column using the old ''Double Irish Dutch Sandwich with Bermudan twist''. This is a marvellous tax strategy - completely legal, of course - used by companies fortunate enough to be operating in the bit economy. It helps to explain why, for example, when you buy a book through Amazon (one of mine, perhaps?) it will be packed and sent to you from a warehouse near Dublin. It assists in understanding how the computer company Apple manages to only pay 9.8 per cent tax and finally, why Julia Gillard's having such problems if she thinks she'll get anything out of a one-day Economic Forum.
It's proof the talkfest failed if the one big recommendation coming from the it was to cut taxes. We've been down that route before.
The world has changed. Tax can never be reduced enough to match the ingenuity of international conglomerates to shift profits and expenses around through the nets of government regulators. And anyway, who's going to pay for the much-hyped National Disability Insurance Scheme while you're slashing taxes; or perhaps that's already off the agenda, before it even got started?
All the politicians - Gillard, the helpless Wayne Swan, or even the angry Tony Abbott - have already peeked in the back of the book for the correct answers. But unfortunately, the questions have changed. What might have worked three decades ago is already way behind the pace. If all Labor can manage is to chat about the ''issues'' (when it's already ignored a perfectly good, patented ''Ken Henry Tax Reform Package'') then it's clear the politicians haven't understood the nature of the economic transformation that we've been undergoing for the past decade.
We've come a long way from the days when running a profitable industry meant possessing a huge assembly line. Some of these still exist, of course, but most companies today prefer to keep human involvement, even in manufacturing, to a minimum. If the task is so intricate that a person is still required, well then, the response will be to use cheaper overseas labour.
Civilisation is entering its third evolution since the triumph of Henry Ford's assembly line. Mass production was the initial breakthrough. Next came advanced industrial society, where workers tackled complex tasks creating further value from their input. But today we've moved on to the information age. There's much more operational flexibility to shift money around. Governments are being left behind.
Platitudes like this are obvious. There has, however, been a sting in the tail as industrial society has transited beyond the merely ''advanced'' stage. It's not just the old familiar cry of ''lost jobs''. It's a more insidious change, an unforseen occurrence. And, as became obvious at this week's business forum, it's left our government powerlessly groping as it attempts to wrench the steering wheel of the economy back under control.
A cynic might think these broader issues had been canvassed ad nauseam by Kevin Rudd's 2020 Summit - and even participants were unclear exactly why Gillard required another meeting to tell us what we already knew. There's no point criticising this attempt to gain knowledge and exchange views. The problem is, rather, that nobody appeared to have an answer.
The normal assumption has been that as society develops the workforce will gradually move into higher-end jobs. And many have. These jobs demand creativity and pay well. That works for everyone. Let's take the IT industry as an example. Australia has done well and what you've heard is right: our workers are highly sought-after. The low-end call-centres have moved to Bombay or Auckland. But Silicon Valley's tops. Over there, for example, the ''average'' salary of an IBM employee is $US245,000, but even that's nothing. The same mythical, ''average'' worker at Apple would earn more than nine times this figure. Apple's a smart company. It pays a lot, but each employee manages to bring in an extra $521,043 in profit. An IBM worker contributes a measly $36,609 extra to the bottom line, after expenses. Another way of expressing this is to say that IBM needs 14 people to match the profitability of a single Apple worker. The assembly line has been bypassed, well and truly.
And so have the sort of old-fashioned notions being discussed at the PM's forum. Back there everyone's still trying to cut up the old pie in a different way. Unfortunately the economy's already moved on.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting the Coalition's got any answers to the sort of situation we're now facing, but the point is we should expect something better from the government. Yet all we've seen, ever since that 2020 Summit so long ago, is more ''talk''. But even the participants at the meeting felt they were being spoken at, rather than listened too. There's plenty of discussion about the future but no action. This goes to explaining exactly why Labor is facing electoral oblivion far better than Abbott's relentless assault on the carbon tax or his desperate attempt to be photographed standing in front of any of the remaining assembly lines in the country. It's why Gillard's much-heralded forum didn't manage to hold the headlines for more than a day.
We know, roughly, the dimensions of the problem. But what's being done about it?
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
This material is subject to copyright and any unauthorised use, copying or mirroring is prohibited.
[ Canberra Times | Text-only index]