Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Game of Mates we never quite notice

Not long after he arrived at Sydney Cove as a convict on the First Fleet, James Ruse was granted Australia's first parcel of private land – 30 acres in the heart of Parramatta – by governor Arthur Phillip.

Establishing private property rights in land is one of the core powers of government to this day. Britain had imposed limits on how much land Phillip could give away, but he had discretion over who he gave it to.

He seems to have taken a shine to Ruse, or maybe Ruse knew how to keep in his good books.

Three years later, Ruse sold his original grant for £40. A year later he was given 140 acres. Then another 16 acres, three years later.

The following year he sold these lands for £300. Twenty-one years later, aged 60, he obtained another grant of 100 acres at Riverstone. Altogether, he was given land value equivalent to about 20 years' wages for an English worker. In today's terms, about $1.5 million.

All this is recounted in the book, Game of Mates: New Masters of Australia, by Paul Frijters and Cameron Murray, to be launched on Friday.

Frijters, one of the most promising academic economists in the country, was a professor at the University of Queensland, but some of his research mightily offended the Brisbane establishment, so now he's off to a better job at the London School of Economics.

The book is his parting gift to Australia. He argues that a small class of well-connected operators hanging around the levers of government power are lining their own pockets at the expense of the rest of us.

Since Ruse was the first of them, he names each of these villains James. Frijters wants us to meet his archetypal modern James.

"He is a charming Queenslander who went to the right school, was president of the student union and has both politicians and top civil servants in his contact list. He is a professional in the Game of Mates.

"James is a clever man. When the 1980s housing boom began driving up the prices of houses throughout Queensland, he pinpointed a way to leverage the price gains for himself."

James' genius was to recognise that politicians and bureaucrats were truly in control of the gains from the influx of money for housing.

"It took political decisions to decide where new houses could be built. It took bureaucratic decisions to decide who would get permission to build bigger houses and larger apartment buildings.

"James set to work, using some of the money from his family's wealth to get started. He bought large plots of land just where one would not think the cities would expand and he set to work on the politicians and bureaucrats he knew.

"He spent time with them, shared parties and business dealings with them. He made some of them partners in his firm and, in turn, James' friends were appointed on boards deciding on planning decisions.

"Befriended politicians ran with slogans pronouncing that James' wishes were opportunities for their region, rather than costs to it.

"The politicians were later rewarded with consulting jobs to James and his friends' companies."

Get it? A Game of Mates doing what mates do, look after each other. I do you a favour and maybe one day you'll do me one.

Frijters argues this game is played in many more areas than land zoning. It can be played wherever government departments are supposedly regulating the activities of powerful industries in the interests of the public.

How many times have we seen politicians and top bureaucrats retire, but then pop up a few months later on the board or as a consultant to one of the companies they used to regulate?

How many times have we seen lobbyists brought in to head departments that regulate particular industries?

Frijters says the game has four main elements. First, flaws in our laws and regulations that create an economic honeypot to be snatched.

Second, the need for James and his mates to work as a group to capitalise on these flaws by establishing their networks of favour-exchanges.

Third, they need a way to signal loyalty to the group, a way for new members to join, and a way to rid themselves of traitors.

Fourth, they need to shield their true actions from public scrutiny with plausible myths suggesting James' dodgy dealings are good for Australia.

Frijters stresses that people playing this game aren't necessarily acting illegally, and in that sense may not be corrupt.

"The rules surrounding conflicts of interest, cooling-off periods for politicians [before they begin] working in industry, and exercising political discretion, are weak in Australia," he says.

What can we do to stop the game? "Our basic advice is to charge James for the privileges he trades in his Game of Mates or to establish a public competitor to supply the product he sells ourselves.

"We should charge him for the value increase on his houses. Charge his bank for the profits made by collusion, or introduce real competition by a true state bank. Charge his mines for the value pumped out of our ground. Charge him proper taxes. Set up a state superannuation fund . . . to compete with private ones."

Just as well you're leaving the country, Paul.