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Address to the Committee for Sydney’s inaugural Sydney Summit

8 Feb 2021

Good morning – it is a pleasure to be here to open the inaugural Sydney Summit.

I want to thank the Committee for Sydney for inviting me to speak this morning.

I really enjoy coming to your events.

Because you are Sydney’s strongest advocates.

And you understand better than anyone the importance of our city to the state and to the nation.

This week I was out with former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who has just completed a review of the Macquarie Street East precinct with Lucy Turnbull.

I’ll have more to say about that later, but it called to mind that famous stoush between Keating and the Premier, John Fahey back in 1994.

The Fahey Government had decided against removing the Cahill Expressway as part of the Harbour Tunnel project – and the Prime Minister was scathing.

He said: “By the time Sydney gets an Olympics Chief there will be no opportunity left to bring Sydney up to the potential of its beauty for the world to see in the year 2000.

“Sydney is in the hands of a government … without the slightest idea of the vision and sense of grandeur that Sydney now needs.”

These are both men I admire greatly.

John was one of the best leaders this state has ever had.

But that point about vision and grandeur still stands.

As far as cities go, Sydney is on another level.

So the question is: why do we put up with eyesores like the Cahill?

Why is it controversial to even suggest that something has to be done at the derelict White Bay power station?

The Western Harbour is such a beautiful stretch of waterfront that in any other city it would be a major visitor attraction.

So it’s ironic that until recently, all you could do there was get on a boat to leave – and for Tasmania no less.

So how did successive governments get away with leaving it dormant for decades?

The answer is: even with those blemishes, Sydney is still a world class city.

But our Harbour is so beautiful – and so iconic – that – I believe – it’s actually holding us back.

In 1788, Arthur Phillip he wrote back to England to say “We had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbor in the world.”

It was Sydney Harbour’s first google review, and we’ve been dining out on it ever since.

Other cities don’t have that luxury, so they are forced to invest in cultural offerings.

Melbourne’s grandest hotels are on the banks of a brown creek.

London’s River Thames, and the Seine in Paris have a similar ambience.

The great city of New York was built on a swamp.

Yet without a Harbour to fall back on, enormous efforts have gone into making these cities great places to live, work and visit.

From my perspective – as a dad – as a resident of Sydney – and as Treasurer – the series of crises we endured last year were a wake up call.

I have never been quite so grateful for the extraordinary way of life we enjoy here in Sydney.

And yet one of the most important lessons of the pandemic is that our tolerance for mediocrity is far too high.

It’s in our DNA.

But the pandemic has proven that when NSW is firing on all cylinders, we can achieve extraordinary things.

Our health response to COVID-19 is a case in point.

Our public health teams have never stopped pushing the limits of what is possible.

That is why we have been able to keep NSW more open than other states.

In terms of jobs – business viability – and our way of life – the cost to our people has been kept to a minimum.

When it’s a matter of survival, mediocrity is not an option.

Emerging from the pandemic, this is a mindset we must retain – so that our recovery is fast and strong, and over the long term, our state can fulfill its true potential.

That means more than just getting back to normal – we have to aim higher than ever before, using the pandemic as a springboard, not a hurdle.

This morning I want to give you three examples where I believe mediocrity has held us back in NSW.

And how a fresh approach will be vital to a strong recovery – and helping our city and our state fulfill their truly extraordinary potential.

Rethinking regulation

The first example is regulation.

We can never have an open, thriving global Sydney if it is stifled from flourishing by burdensome red tape.

The pandemic made “business as usual” impossible for many businesses.

So we had to find ways to do things differently.

That meant relaxing the rules around how we live and work.

Now we barely bat an eyelid when we see restaurants taking over footpaths with temporary dining structures –

More food trucks in vacant spaces –

Supermarkets trading around the clock –

And doctors running routine appointments by phone or video conference.

12 months ago regulatory restrictions would have prevented us from even contemplating some of these things.

Now we know they work because we were forced to give them a go.

This is a revolutionary shift in our mindset about how regulations are supposed to work.

After decades where regulation has become the reflex – the pandemic has shown us that we are not made for regulations – the regulations are made for us.

The rules we make should be helping us achieve our goals as a society and as a community – not stifling those goals and choking our sense of civic spirit and aspiration.

This is a mindset we need to hold on to because it will be critical in our recovery.

The world as we knew it has changed.

There is still a great deal of uncertainty about how our economies will operate over the next year and beyond.

Global travel will remain disrupted for quite some time.

Even interstate travel is in a state of unprecedented uncertainty.

Whatever the challenges, there will also be opportunities.

Retaining our flexible approach to regulation will be vitally important if we are to make the most of them.

Economic reform

The second example is tax.

As you would be aware – at least I hope you are – last year’s Budget included a big reform proposal: to give property buyers the choice to ditch stamp duty and pay an annual property tax instead.

Reform is never easy, but the response to our proposal so far has been overwhelmingly positive.

There are skeptics too – and that’s why we have put the idea out for consultation.

We have to get the policy design right before we even think about moving ahead.

So far the feedback has confirmed one of the universal truths of human existence: no one likes tax.

At the same time,  most people see the need for change.

Because even if tax is a necessary evil – there is no excuse for persisting with a tax system that actually harms our economy – and our people’s prosperity.

Yet according to just about every economist in the nation, that’s exactly the kind of system we have in NSW.

It’s a system that punishes aspirational Australians working to buy a home.

It forces families to scrimp and save not just for a deposit, but for a stamp duty bill in the tens of thousands of dollars too.

Just saving for stamp duty takes the average full time worker 2.5 years – a 150% increase since the 1990s.

It’s an additional cost that pushes home ownership further down the road – sometimes indefinitely.

And if you buy a home, pay the duty, then have to sell soon after, that’s tens of thousands of dollars down the drain.

Home ownership rates have plunged 14 per cent over the last 24 years for people aged 35-44.

This is the demographic busy with supporting and raising young families – and they don’t have time to lobby for a fairer go.

We want to have a global city – but there’s not much point if it’s just too expensive for young families to live here.

It doesn’t make sense to keep tolerating this damaging system, when we could have a much better alternative.

That is what our consultation is exploring.

The biggest challenge in state tax reform is not so much the what, but the how.

How can we get from the current system to a better one in a way that is fair to everyone.

Our proposal provides that pathway through choice.

The transition would happen slowly – over about 50 years – because buyers would initially get a choice to either opt-in to the new system, or pay the lump-sum stamp duty up front.

That means properties will transition into the system one by one – giving everyone plenty of time to adjust, especially if they have planned their affairs around the current system.

This slow transition also makes the reform more financially viable for the government – so the up-front stamp duty revenue doesn’t disappear over night.

At the personal level, this reform would remove a major hurdle to home ownership for aspiring first home buyers.

It would also give more people and families the freedom to buy and sell more often if they want to move for work, school, or other reasons.

Downsizers could downsize without being slugged stamp duty for the privilege.

And that would make the big homes they move out of more accessible to growing families.

At a macro level, the economic benefits to our state would be significant and long-lasting.

It would give businesses a stronger incentive to put property to its most economical use.

Over time it could generate an estimated 75,000 new jobs – and add the equivalent of $3,300 in income for every NSW household.

Importantly the economic boost would be felt almost immediately – when it’s needed – injecting around $11 billion into the economy over the first four years.

It’s a big idea – and our consultation is still ongoing, so we will take the time to get the details right.

But it is my hope that as a state, we can find a way to switch from the worst tax system to the best one.

This is more important than ever.

The pandemic has cast a shadow of uncertainty over our economic future.

But polling shows that people are still confident about the future – and that they have faith in the Australian governments that have worked together to get us through the crisis.

As Governments, we have an obligation to repay that trust by giving people reasons to be confident.

Economic reform is exactly the kind of bold step we need to take to set up our next phase of prosperity.

Making better use of our city’s spaces

The third example is about making better use of our city’s places and spaces – and in particular, our built heritage.

When you think of the great cities of the world with great heritage architecture – the ones that stand out are the ones where those heritage buildings are living, breathing spaces.

Places you can walk around – and walk through – not just walk past.

You can absorb their history – they’re not shrouded in mystery.

And you can tell the cities that do it best, because it’s not just the tourists who flock to these heritage spaces – the locals love them too.

Sydney has some of the most stunning heritage buildings of any city in Australia.

Some of them – like the QVB – or some parts of the Rocks – are thriving centres of activity.

But too many are locked away from public access.

One of the most striking examples is the Macquarie Street precinct.

Macquarie Street’s sandstone buildings are sometimes called “poetry in stone”.

There’s the Registrar General’s Building.  Hyde Park Barracks.

The Mint.  Sydney Hospital. The Parliament. The State Library.

And the Chief Secretary’s building.

All of these buildings are functional.

But not in a way that invites the public to come and bask in their beauty and history.

If you walk down the East side of Macquarie St on the weekend, or after dark – it’s deserted.

Even when there’s a big concert in the Domain – the string of Macquarie Street sandstone buildings act more like a roadblock than part of the attraction.

From the back – along Hospital Road – it looks like a loading dock.

And the big boxy annexures tacked on to the back of those sandstone masterpieces along Macquarie Street are completely out of place.

Not only are they ugly – they block access from the city to the Domain.

In late 2019 our Government commissioned Paul Keating, and Lucy Turnbull to conduct a review of the area.

What they’ve found is a precinct that has no cohesive vision.

The signage is poor.

The thoroughfares are awkward and hard to find.

And there’s hardly anywhere to get something to eat or drink – especially outside business hours.

You would almost think we don’t want people to appreciate these historical treasures right in our midst.

Of course, that’s not true at all.

It’s just that over time, we have allowed the buildings to fade into the background.

The Keating-Turnbull Review provides a pathway forward – to reclaim that heritage and open it up for the people of our state to enjoy.

The Review sees the potential for our very own Exhibition Road, or Museum Mile.

It recommends developing a unified vision for the whole precinct – not just piecemeal changes to individual buildings.

It calls for new opportunities to showcase not just our colonial history – but 60,000 years of indigenous history in the area as well.

It proposes putting some of the buildings to better use – getting government agencies out, and putting in more cafes, bars and even a new museum.

The idea is to turn a sandstone ghost-town into a 24 hour precinct – where the beauty and history of those buildings can provide the backdrop for great cultural experiences for locals and visitors alike.

I look forward to working with my good friend the Planning Minister Rob Stokes and other colleagues to bring this precinct to life.

It’s just one example of the many places and spaces around Sydney that are crying out for revitalisation –

From the White Bay Powerstation – to Cockatoo Island – and the Western Harbour.

On that front, I want to commend the Committee for Sydney for your untiring efforts to shape the vision for our global city.

And I look forward to working with you over this year and the years to come to bring our shared vision to life.

Conclusion

Every day I travel into the Sydney CBD from the north west – I am grateful to call it home.

But I am also mindful of the fact that the city I love was built by the imagination and effort of those who came before us.

I’m sure they would be happy to know we are enjoying the fruits of their labour.

But it’s not enough to enjoy what they left us.

We have an obligation to them – and to future generations – to work just as hard to build on what we have – and leave it better than we found it.

That obligation is now even more pressing.

The pandemic has confronted us the greatest economic challenge in a generation.

We cannot tolerate mediocrity in the way we think about our city or the economy that sustains our people.

And as ever, the antidote to mediocrity is hard work, and imagination.

This isn’t just a job for government.

This room is filled with leaders – and you all have an opportunity to make a difference.

So my challenge to you is this: to be more ambitious for this city we call home.

Let’s make 2021 the year we did more than just get back to square one.

Let’s make 2021 the year when Sydney’s next meteoric rise began.

This summit is a fantastic start.

And I hope it becomes an institution – because it’s just what Sydney needs: an injection of imagination, at the start of the year, to help our city reach its full potential.

And it has never been more important than right now.

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