Alex Malley: Transtasman talks need bold leadership

'Asian Century' presents great opportunities for both countries.

John Key and Julia Gillard are holding their annual talks in Queenstown this weekend. Photo / NZPA
John Key and Julia Gillard are holding their annual talks in Queenstown this weekend. Photo / NZPA

This weekend Prime Ministers John Key and Julia Gillard hold their annual pow-wow in Queenstown.

The goal of achieving a closer economic relationship between Australia and New Zealand is rightly a perpetual agenda item at these talks.

This year's meeting has special significance however - 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the closer economic relations agreement.

Much has been achieved over the past 30 years, but there is also much more that can be done.

In December the Joint Productivity Commissions completed their report exploring more integration between the two economies. It is hoped the report's recommendations will give the goal even greater impetus.

In addition, the notion of the "Asian Century" - and the potentially huge economic opportunities for New Zealand and Australia in that region - is an important further consideration in any discussion about our two nations' mutual long-term prosperity.

The productivity commissions' examination of closer economic ties is broad and runs from the big picture to the specific - as indeed it must.

Business taxation and, more specifically, the issue of dividend imputation credits - essentially a matter of the distribution of company profits - has significant implications for broader business and economic activity.

The report also provides a good example of the challenges inherent in closer integration. A Mutual Recognition Regime (MRR) of transtasman imputation credits appears, on the surface at least, to be a good way of removing some of the regulatory impost from cross-border commercial activity.

We're encouraged by the report's consideration of the economic issues, including productivity gains, that relate to such an initiative.

A dividend imputation MRR should be considered in close concert with a host of domestic policy initiatives, taxation included, that would encourage the high-end, knowledge-based activity through which the two economies could best prosper from Asia's fast development and booming middle class.

We suggest the establishment of a transtasman Asian Century working group, using the collective expertise accumulated in the government, corporate and education sectors of the two nations, could be the ideal way to advance these key aims.

Not surprisingly, talk of closer economic integration is sometimes met with anxieties about the dilution of national or cultural identity.

Such fears must be addressed promptly and the best way to do this is through a clear demonstration of business and political will.

Just as similarity and complementarity do not automatically co-exist, neither do closer economic ties and loss of sovereign identity.

Any moves towards closer economic integration should be viewed as quite distinct from a dilution of sovereign independence.

The Asian Century presents opportunities of great potential for both countries, but the gap between potential and real is yet to be bridged. This will involve achieving significant productivity gains and boosts to our nations' competitiveness.

Closer economic integration is not a silver bullet but it could be a key component in both nations' economic armoury in the Asian Century.

Real progress will require bold leadership with an eye on the long-term, and a willingness to approach challenges and opportunities with a different perspective.

Alex Malley is chief executive of accounting body CPA Australia

- NZ Herald

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