Here’s a story about departing Property Council of Australia head Peter Verwer. Giving a talk to hundreds of property industry heavyweights at a major property conference several years ago, he made some controversial comments about government policy. He then turned to the row of journalists present, and told them through the microphone that they weren’t to report them. He wasn’t joking.
By contrast, industry figures expect incoming PCA chief Ken Morrison will take a more head-on approach to public debate.
“Peter is an introvert, Ken is not,” says an industry figure who has had dealings with both men. “Peter came into the organisation as someone whose specialisation was research. Ken is more of a political animal, he is more focused on political advocacy. I think Peter dabbled, but Ken will be more at the front.”
Morrison will return to the PCA as its new chief executive in July after leaving the organisation last year to head the Tourism and Transport Forum. He was at the PCA for 16 years, holding roles including executive director of NSW and national chief operating officer.
In his sights are debates over long-term infrastructure investment, the dampening effect of red tape on the industry and Australia’s complex tax system.
“When governments are cash-strapped, they tend to see the property sector as a milch cow,” he told The Australian newspaper. Instead, he wants Australians to see the property industry in a more positive light.
Property generates 1.3 million jobs and 11.5 per cent of the country’s GDP, the PCA said in announcing his selection for the top job. The nation’s biggest commercial assets are owned by 11.6 million people through their pension funds.
Morrison isn’t one to back away from a fight. He led the campaign against the NSW government’s vendor tax, which incoming premier Morris Iemma scrapped in 2005. As national chief operating officer of the PCA he ran the “Make my city work” campaign, attempting to get ordinary Australians more vocal about planning issues.
At the TTF he saw the potential of the Cricket World Cup 2015 to draw attention to tourism policy issues, pushing for a joint Australia-New Zealand visa to reduce paperwork and boost fan numbers at events. “We need one process, one decision, one payment, but two visas,” he told News Limited.
He also took on the highly controversial case for a second Sydney airport at Badgery’s Creek, advocating for it in an opinion piece in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. “The population of Western Sydney is already 2 million – it’s bigger than Perth – and it will grow to 3 million over the next 25 years,” he wrote.
“A secondary airport will give those people access to air travel, as well as allowing more visitors to come to Sydney. In the meantime, let’s get the most we can out of Sydney Airport.”
He declined to comment for this article, saying he was refusing any more media interviews until he stepped into the role in July.
Heading the PCA, one of his biggest challenges will be to come up with a common line on tax reform that works for his enormous membership of players in residential, commercial and industrial property. There will be winners and losers in every move. If varying state-based land tax systems are unified around the country, for example, property figures in the northern territory – which doesn’t have a land tax – will not be happy.
The PCA has an annual budget of around $26 million, and its members include the nation’s biggest landlords and developers. This will give Morrison a substantial war chest to work with. But it is also one of the PCA’s weaknesses, as it needs to please a membership base of entrenched landlords who are doing well under the status quo.
One well-connected industry figure finds it hard to imagine the PCA taking a strong line on planning reform, likening it more to a networking organisation for its members. Members who are big supermarket landlords might not be enthusiastic about creating more flexible zoning laws, he says.
“I think there will be a fair tension occurring about more competitive approaches with smaller retail outlets challenging the big ones,” he says.
“So I think that there’s some areas where, as a very big organisation trying to keep everyone feeling happy, this is not going to be an easy task. Governments love to say [retail outlets] should all be in major centres, and the big shopping centres love that, they don’t want competition that’s outside.”
Another well-known industry figure puts it more bluntly. “The property council are sitting on their fat dots, they are useless,” the source said.
“There are enormous cultural problems in the planning system and the Property Council did nothing about it. They should be doing surveys and getting anecdotes about the poor guy in Pyrmont who, to get an awning outside his restaurant, had to wait three months and pay $15,000.”
“Ken’s a decent sort of fellow but he will not be able to take on these issues,” he says, dismissing him as a “career advisor”. “They need someone who has sufficient clout with the Property Council board to say guys, we need to focus on the regulatory system.”
The industry will be watching.