A recap of the 2022 Economic and Social Outlook Conference held on Wednesday 2 November.
“The conference that stops the nation.”
That’s how Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described the 2022 Economic and Social Outlook Conference during his keynote address, held a day after the Melbourne Cup.
It was fitting for the Prime Minister to speak given the theme of the day, ‘Opening Doors of Opportunity’, was based on a quote from his election victory speech in which he said, “…in Australia the doors of opportunity are open to us all.”
The 2022 Economic and Social Outlook Conference, organised by the Melbourne Institute (University of Melbourne) and The Australian, was held on Wednesday 2 November at the Sofitel Melbourne.
Policy experts from academia, government, and industry converged for the day-long conference to discuss how policy and economic innovation can help open doors for all Australians.
It began with Wurundjeri Elder Tony Garvey welcoming guests to Wurundjeri Country, and speaking about the importance of the Aboriginal flag, changing the date of Australia Day and better recognition of Indigenous soldiers in historic conflicts such as the two World Wars.
Against the backdrop of tough economic times
The global economic environment set a sombre tone to this year’s presentations. The war in Ukraine, rising power prices, inflation, worker shortages and growing national debt were all mentioned frequently throughout the day.
Delegates discussed ways to set policies to address these challenges.
In the session ‘Productivity: the failures and the answers’, Dr Pradeep Philip from Deloitte Access Economics spoke about a need to look at gender roles and employment to address worker shortages.
“Every business right now is crying out for workers, and anything that lifts participation rates in the economy is something we should be talking about and debating,” he said.
He said increasing female participation will help in the medium term, but there was a need to change gender roles in childcare and other aspects of society.
“There is a question about gender norms. You see this for the first time stated in the budget papers, this question about what sits behind female participation in the workplace and society. This goes to the question of stereotypes, conscious and unconscious biases,” he said.
Speakers still found reasons to be optimistic. In the session ‘Jobs and Wages: Who calls the shots?’, Ms Catherine Birch, Senior Economist at ANZ, spoke about high consumer demand and the job market.
“We’re relatively positive on the outlook for the labour market,” she said.
“It means our economy, our households, our businesses are more resilient than they would otherwise be against these challenges of higher inflation, higher rates and a deteriorating global economic outlook,” she said.
In the same session Professor Mark Wooden from the Melbourne Institute used historical data to compare wage inflation in 2022 to the wage-inflation spiral of the 1970s. He compared days lost to strike action in the 1970s to 2022 and showed there are stark differences between then and now.
“In 2022 it was 20 days lost for every 1000 employees. In 1974 it was over 1200 days lost. The average in the 1970s was three million days being lost every year to industrial action. This is a totally different world. To go back to there seems inconceivable to me,” he said.
Bold, evidence-based policy
A recurring theme for the day was the challenging economic times meant the government needed to make bold policy decisions.
Editor-at-large for The Australian Paul Kelly said he believed the Albanese government would either be a tremendous success or failure because there was no subtle way to lightly navigate the current conditions.
Speakers throughout the day noted that policies could be bold, but they also needed to be evidence based.
In his keynote speech, Treasurer Dr Jim Chalmers said forward-looking policies required the rebuilding of an evidence base.
“Because to get better more forward-looking economic policies we need better more forward-looking policy foundations,” said Dr Chalmers.
Dr Chalmers said he would try to improve the evidence base of policy decisions using at least six methods, including seeking to appoint an Evaluator General, putting Treasury at the centre of climate modelling, and ensuring gender considerations are at the core of Treasury work and decisions.
Researchers from the Melbourne Institute discussed how data can be used to improve policy.
In a session titled ‘What is needed for bold policy innovation?’, Professor A. Abigail Payne, Director of the Melbourne Institute, said she is using data in her work to, among other things, address poverty and disadvantage, enable opportunities for youth, and provide financial support for families with young children.
“Bold and innovative policy begins with data-driven insights, analysis and the trialling of ideas, and that’s where we need to be moving if we really want to make inroads to open doors of opportunity,” she said.
She said data help policy makers and researchers to test, evaluate and predict.
“That’s the beauty of data. We can then start adding more and more data where we start to understand at a community, country or household level what’s happening and what’s changing. We can also look across communities. That’s the power of being able to use data to test our ideas,” said Professor Payne.
In a session titled ‘A bigger Australia?’, Professor Roger Wilkins, Deputy Director of the Melbourne Institute, shared data about immigration, population, and the workforce. He said evidence shows there are benefits to having a substantial skilled migration program.
“Treasury has shown there’s a fiscal dividend from this program. It also slows down the aging of the population, reducing the dependency ratio. Also longer run, and less appreciated, is there are just benefits of being bigger as a country,” he said.
In the session titled ‘The big challenges in housing policy’, Associate Professor Sam Tsiaplias, Researcher at the Melbourne Institute, spoke about data related to inequality in the housing market. He said the proportion of renters has been steadily rising since the 1990s to be above 30 per cent as of 2020.
“The prevalence of short-term rental agreements, combined with a largely unaffordable housing stock, renders it sensible to focus on rental reforms, particularly in terms of helping lower income earners to secure longer-term housing,” he said.
Nobody left behind
Many delegates discussed how bold policies based on evidence are needed to ensure nobody is left behind in Australia.
At the session ‘Where do we stand on Closing the Gap?’ Professor Marcia Langton spoke about challenges for Indigenous communities to gain access to education, saying there are populations who live in remote areas that will never close the gap.
“You have to work out a policy stance and a policy implementation stance, a program implementation stance, that gives them a chance to raise their standard of living to something acceptable,” said Professor Langton.
Speaking at the same session, Dr Cain Polidano from the Melbourne Institute said one reason the country has not come far in closing the gap is a reluctance from governments to evaluate policies for fear of getting it wrong.
“What that has meant is that they let evaluations slip. That’s meant we really never understood what has worked in this area. It’s meant that policies that weren’t working persisted longer than they probably should have and programs that worked – we never really found out much about them,” said Dr Polidano.
The theme of ensuring nobody is left behind was front and centre at the session dedicated to discussing the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
Ms Sam Paior, Member of the NDIS Independent Advisory Council and Director of The Growing Space, shared her story of interacting with the NDIS when seeking support for her son.
“All of us can do so much better at including disabled people in our communities. In our sporting clubs, our arts events, our dinner parties, our think tanks, our stages. At every level of these conversations, people with disability must be at the centre. Not just consulted, not just heard. But directly leading, designing, and implementing changes that affect all of our lives,” said Ms Paior.
Ms Paior was joined by the Minister for the NDIS the Hon Bill Shorten, who spoke about policy challenges and his vision for his portfolio, and Executive Chair and Director, Melbourne Disability Institute Professor Bruce Bonyhady AM, who spoke about the importance of looking at the benefits and not just costs of the scheme.
Marking 20 years of Outlook
The 2022 Economic and Social Outlook Conference marked the 20th anniversary of the Conference and the partnership between the Melbourne Institute and The Australian.
For 20 years this unique conference has welcomed policy makers from state and federal government, researchers, and business leaders to tackle the critical issues facing Australia.
This year the Melbourne Institute also celebrated 60 years of research that impacts, informs, and supports public policy development in Australia.