Su McCluskey: Shaping policy with good sense

27 Mar, 2014 01:00 AM
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Outstanding contributor to policy development Su McCluskey.
Failure doesn’t exist. Keep going until you make it work.
Outstanding contributor to policy development Su McCluskey.

WIAA 100: Outstanding contributor to policy development

SU McCluskey spent much of her 20s behind the wheel, delivering packages.

For nine years, she worked as a sub-contract driver – one of few female “subbies” in Canberra at the time.

It’s how she got interested in tax and studying accountancy – a move that set her on the path to her current role as chief executive officer of the Regional Australia Institute where she’s seeking to deliver better outcomes for the bush and the regions.

“As a subbie, I was basically running a small business and what I realised was that you had to know the questions to ask your accountant – they wouldn’t just tell you the answers,” Su says.

“So I thought I need to learn what questions to ask.”

Pushing 30, she decided to fix that and went to uni to study accountancy.

It’s the same ‘boots and all’ tendency that saw plans to agist a “few stock” on the farm she and husband Bob bought at Yass, NSW, turn into a Murray Grey stud of 200 registered breeders that fills her weekends with vaccinating and weaning calves.

And it’s the same tendency that quickly saw her shift from doing tax returns to wanting to shape tax policy.

Su loves tax for the very reason most people find it frustrating – its complexity.

“It’s not black and white, there’s not a definite answer. You’ve got to do the research – it depends on the circumstances, it depends on the facts.”

She joined the Australian Tax Office and ended up as the ATO’s face of the GST, educating small business and agriculture about the impacts of the coming reform.

Safe to say not everybody was thrilled with the message she was delivering.

She recalls being challenged by a frustrated industry identity at a beef profit day in Tasmania about which point in the supply chain the GST stopped applying to beef.

And she remembers there being a few stunned looks (and approving nods) when she responded in terms of hot standard carcase weight.

“That made a big difference. I wasn’t just a bureaucrat. People could relate to what I was saying.”

Su left the ATO at about the same time the GST rolled out, spying a chance to bring together two of her loves – tax and farming – in a role as tax director with the National Farmers Federation (NFF).

“I’m not a ‘business as usual’ person. I love change.

“The real challenge with the GST had been around introducing the reforms.

Going to the NFF at that time meant I was going to continue working on reform measures.”

Reflecting back on her time at the NFF, Su says she’s most proud of the flexibilities achieved around the

Business Activity Statement and stopping proposed changes to entities taxation that would have seen farming trusts taxed as companies.

She sees one of her key strengths as being able to translate highly technical policies into real-world impacts.

“For me, it’s always been about taking quite complex technical information and turning it into plain English.”

It’s a skill she put to use in a later role, developing a business cost calculator for the federal government to cost the compliance burden of proposed legislation.

It showed the real cost of red tape on business (previously based on rubbery estimates, if done at all) and ended up being mandated for use by all government agencies.

For Su, it reiterated the importance of being able to objectively quantify the cost of policies and ensure they were delivering the intended outcomes.

A long-time advocate of the need to ground-truth policy impacts, she’s now working to illustrate the vastly differing policy needs of country communities as head of the Regional Australia Institute.

She says the development of the institute’s Regional Competitiveness Index illustrated just how diverse regional communities were and that different regions had different strengths and different needs.

“A ‘one size fits all’ policy doesn’t work. The sort of policies you have for the regions need to be quite different and need to reflect the differences at that local level.”

Su believes there’s enormous potential for regional Australia to help grow the national economy – provided it gets the policy support it needs.

“If we want to grow our productivity, if we want to grow our GDP, we’ve got to focus on the regions.”

Su is passionate about the ability of individuals to instigate real and lasting change.

“You can make a difference – even if it seems small it can fundamentally change things.”

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Sally White

is a former editor of The Land.

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