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Economy

Apr 24, 2012

Dear Jennifer Westacott, this is why we're
disappointed

Business has complained about the quality of policy debate. There's an irony in that, says Bernard Keane in his letter to Business Council chief Jennifer Westacott.

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Dear Ms Westacott,

I hope this froth-mouthed rant finds you well. I happened to see some comments of yours reported in the Fairfax press today and thought I’d drop you a line or 30 about your complaint that the current political debate is leaving business “frustrated and disappointed”.

That’s an interesting choice of words because it accurately sums up how many of us feel about the contribution of the business community to policy debate.

Frustrated and disappointed, for example, that the concept of “economic reform” advanced by groups like the Business Council consist entirely of proposals designed to improve the bottom lines of companies, rather than deliver improved economic performance: IR deregulation, lower company taxes, infrastructure investment that companies should be undertaking themselves, more business welfare, etc.

Frustrated and disappointed that the business contribution to the productivity debate contains not a scintilla of evidence, but consists entirely of reflexive insistence that the only issue is IR deregulation. That business simply makes shit up about how the Fair Work Act has reduced productivity, when the greatest labour productivity disaster in recent years was WorkChoices. Speaking of which, you might not have caught this recent paper from a visiting researcher at the PC who shows that Australia’s productivity slump is less to do with “reform fatigue” than factors like the mining boom.

And frustrated, but not disappointed, because it’s no surprise, that business always talks about “flexibility” in IR but never acknowledges that the only flexibility it is interested in is the downward variety, that reduces pay and conditions for employees.

And it’s frustrating and disappointing that business has so little to say about the biggest driver of productivity of all — competition. Possibly because so many of Australia’s biggest companies routinely engage in anti-competitive behaviour, sometimes even of the illegal variety. Or they whinge about competition now that the internet has enabled Australians to bypass the companies that for so long exploited our distance from major markets.

Or they stay silent about the damage inflicted by the cartel that passes for our major banks, who are now engaged in gouging all of us, consumers and businesses alike, because the GFC, an indulgent government and implicit taxpayer guarantees have enabled them to virtually eliminate competition in lending.

Is that because competition is one of those things that’s great for everyone else but somehow not quite right for you, because, well, you’re different?

Indeed, business can often be curiously silent despite it not being in their interests. Let’s recall the Rudd government’s mining tax, which would have provided the basis for a substantial cut in corporate taxes. Virtually no business groups spoke up in favour of the proposal, except the superannuation industry. But, oddly enough, there was plenty of bitching and moaning from business groups after our friends from Switzerland and the UK, Rio, BHP and Xstrata, pulled off their coup d’état and the Gillard government cut back on the size of the corporate tax cut.

Frustrated and disappointed is also how I’d describe the reaction of many of us to the sense of victimhood you peddle. I notice you’ve also complained overnight that somehow the Greens — those nefarious Greens, eh? — are somehow trying to silence you. Now, I know this constant demand for victimhood is a real thing these days. Everyone wants to be a victim, to portray themselves as censored, suppressed, bullied. But it’s particularly amusing coming from senior business groups, which have the luxury of two national newspapers that will report their every half-baked thought bubble as though it were of historic significance, and unparalleled access to government ministers and senior bureaucrats. You count some of the most influential and powerful people in the country in your ranks, so stop pretending you’re labouring under Soviet-style repression.

Instead of whingeing about the quality of public debate, perhaps you could do something to improve it. For one thing, get your members to end the practice of commissioning dodgy “independent” modelling to support their arguments. It’s rapidly losing credibility anyway, but it undermines sensible debate. Maybe encourage them to stop claiming that every policy change they don’t like will herald the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Maybe even call some businesses out when they offer a particularly facile contribution to debate.

Stop pretending that you are concerned about the national interest when your focus is your members’ bottom lines. It’s not like policy debate in Australia isn’t already full of rent-seekers and the self-interested — it would just make a change from some of them to be up-front about it. Stop allowing partisanship to dictate how you participate in debate. Yes, we know business generally supports the Liberals, and understand it. But that shouldn’t influence how you respond on individual policy issues.

And once in a blue moon, say something that couldn’t be predicted from a business lobby group talking points generator. I’m recommending that purely in your own interests, because eventually you might find yourself replaced with a BCA robot that simply issues pre-programmed responses on “cutting taxes” and “greater workplace flexibility” and “smaller government but more infrastructure spending” on any issue when contacted by a journalist.

Yes, the media and our politicians seem engaged in a race to the bottom to see who can degrade public debate faster. That doesn’t mean you have to play along with it.

Best,

Bernard

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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