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Why Ken Henry has only contempt for the ‘dreadful spectacle’ of Canberra

Ken Henry, former secretary of the Treasury and once the most authoritative public servant in Canberra, returned to his former ‘patch’ last week and joined the chorus of critics mocking politicians and their leaders from all parties.

Displaying the contempt in which he holds much of Canberra’s political class, Dr Henry contrasted the antics of the present parliament with times past when tribal tensions within parties were kept under control.  By coincidence, the polemist broadcaster Andrew Bolt was almost simultaneously feeding these tensions in an extended Sky News interview with former prime minister Tony Abbott. Abbott was sniping at his successor Malcolm Turnbull, ignoring his earlier commitment not to do so. Curiously, Abbott’s appearance seems to have backfired, earning him public criticism from erstwhile friends.

Dr Henry poured scorn on the participants in “the whole dreadful spectacle of the 24-hours news cycle that extends from Parliament House to the mainstream news media, and the tribal warfare on Twitter.”

“Our politicians have dug themselves into deep trenches from which they fire insults designed merely to cause political embarrassment. Populism supplies the munitions,” he said.

“If you’ve got a bright policy idea, the worst thing you can do with it is convince a politician that it’s a good idea — it’ll be dead within 24 hours. That’s how bad things have got. “Almost every major infrastructure project announced in every Australian jurisdiction in the past 10 years has been the subject of political wrangling. In the most recent federal election campaign, no project anywhere in the nation — not one — had the shared support of the Coalition, Labor and the Greens.

“Every government proposal of the last 10 years to reform the tax system has failed.”

The former Treasury boss was famously the author of the Henry tax review, commissioned during the Howard government. It has gathered dust during the arid years of four subsequent prime ministers.

Now Chairman of NAB, Dr Henry still strongly believes in reform of the tax system, advocating an increase in the 10% rate of the general sales tax (GST) and a cut in company taxes. (The former has been considered but rejected by the Turnbull government, but cutting corporation tax is the major plank of current policy, scorned and rejected by the Opposition, which once supported it).

Dr Henry has other strategies he believes Canberra should embrace – all of them sensible, though most of them have foundered on the rocks of the low level debate in Parliament, the mainstream media and among the public at large.

With both right and left wing politicians arguing for a cut in immigration – despite it being one of the essential drivers of the Australian economy – Henry argues that Australia needs to build new city of the size of Canberra or Newcastle each and every year, and a city of two million people every five years. In fact no new cities have been built, and immigrants are concentrated in the country’s largest conurbations, Sydney and Melbourne. No new cities have been built in water-rich tropical northern Australia in a century – because there are not enough votes there.
Energy security and the “shambles masquerading as climate policy” were two other areas he identified as in need of a new strategy.