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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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75 comments

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75 thoughts on “Dear Jennifer Westacott, this is why we’re
disappointed

  1. Absolutely spot on, BK. In particular I like your line about the way the business sector tries to disguise its sectoral objectives as altruistic and in the national interest. One thing you have to admire about the unions – they are quite open about the fact that they work in the interests of their members and which political party they support. Would that the BCA and corporates could be so honest.
    I’ll start heeding the BCA’s crocodile tears when I see them commenting about the levels and methodology behind executive salaries – if one belt has to be pulled in then they all have to be pulled in.

  2. “We (Business) are 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.”

    OMFG !!! Did BK say that? He’s on Meth surely!

  3. Nicely put. Maybe they could also admit, at least to themselves, that the track record of many business people, especially some of the noisiest, is such that you wouldn’t trust them with your own money – so why should we listen to their expert advice on how to run the country?

  4. Fantastic. Add the fact that lack of workplace skills may actually require business to provide skills training rather than it coming from the public purse. Perhaps some acknowledgement of the value of changes to R&D benefits made recently. Possibly some constructive input to the water plan debate. What about a statement that demonstrates you represent business rather than being a branch of the Libs.

    The sad fact is Mr Keane, that a rant from some one even as credible as you, will change nothing and probably won’t even be seen by Westacott. But I’m glad you’ve said it.

  5. Good stuff Bernard. It appears that those from all sides of politics agree, judging from the comments.

    On training Joe; I’ve often considered that it would be fair to charge companies $10, $20 or even $50,000 for a 457 visa, at least ensuring that they contribute something to training Australians.

  6. Well said in a page. If ever you feel like writing the book I will buy a copy. You might also mention that the never ending bleaters about productivity should occasionally raise their eyes up from the workfloor to management.

  7. [You might also mention that the never ending bleaters about productivity should occasionally raise their eyes up from the workfloor to management.]

    Amen, brother! Just occasionally businesses do badly because of the dolts in the boardroom, not the lack of ‘flexibility’.

  8. Oh wow Bernard !! sock it to them man. Seriously though a beautiful polemic which clearly illustrates the laziness and insincerity of some of our business community.

    I think the hypocrisy they spout about “competition” is particularly telling.

  9. Nicely articulated Bernard. I’m sure some distant relative will send her a copy.

    Business won’t be happy until we are all working for $8 an hour and Australia has a population of 100M with suburbia from Cactus to Cape York.

  10. Whoa sunshine! What’s rub you up the wrong way this morning?! You obviously had WAY too much fiber in your diet! I’d hate to really get in your bad side. *cringe* I feel strangely refreshed from the inside, but somewhat still unwashed from the outside.

  11. While I agree with Bernard, some businesses are greedy pigs trying to exploit the workers and want too much change to IR law virtually bringing back Workchoices but some sections of the unions are corrupted greedy pigs as well giving the whole union movement a bad name. Those bad eggs are doing Australia and the workers a disservice.

    Recently, I saw on lateline the employer complaint about how the union kept striking (in the mining or mineral shipment), they demanded 36% pay rise over three years and $76,000 of allowance. That’s an incredible amount of demand, even if that does not bankrupt the employer it would put the RBA on alert about inflation and interest rate which the rest of us will have to pay.

    I remember back in my school day my teachers who had to spend 4 years of education at university earned only half that of a wharfie and they wharfies still were complaining and striking. A fair a balance discourse from both sides would help.

  12. Of course what you have written is true Bernard. Big Corporate Australia has become a very lazy beast indeed, and in spite of their own rhetoric is not filled with gargantuan brains of the most astute business people in Aus. In fact, as most of us are aware, it is a little boys club, mostly from the ‘right’ private school and university.

    BHP, Rio Tinto, the Banks, all have a record in the last two decades of destroying enormous amounts of shareholder wealth on boondoggles, some of them nearly going under, repeatedly.

    The call for IR reform is just the latest joke from an unimaginative and largely useless BIG corporate sector.

    Most of them, by their contributions, don’t actually understand what the word ‘productivity’ entails.

    Such is their quality. Needed saying.

  13. Sorry Floorer, my reference was not directed at BK but generally towards certain news media, Business lobby and certain union group.

    Yes Dogsbreakfast. What an insane culture of looking after the shareholders. The banks should have gratitude towards customers who pay their salaries and profits as well as the security the tax payers provide since the government back them with guarantee since the GFC, it’s time to show gratitude and give some back to the community, to society for god’s sake.

  14. Bloody Crikey socialists – what you think you can tell people the truth about uber capitalism and question the right to rule of the plutocracy? AND you want to shape policy on national interest rather than big business profits?? ……….no wonder the country’s going to the dogs……..let’s get the Coalition back in its rightful place, then Joe can get the kids back down pit, the oldies begging in the street & the disabled doing shoeshines (god forbid they should feel ‘entitled’ to anything that Joe & his mates get).

  15. I take back any adverse commentry of your past articles. Well done BK, time to put the facts out front, though I doubt you’ll see them reported in the Murdoch press or sadly at Fairfax.

    Terry McCran suck it up.

  16. Go Bernard, about time someone told it like it is. I am so sick and tired of the same old whining from the same old people pushing the same old lines.

  17. While I hate to swim against the tide, surely the business council is obliged to act in the best interests of it’s members; and this means agitating for policy that can increase profits. Nothing wrong with this.
    What people also forget is that ultimately, it is households that own businesses. A strong business sector feeds into a strong, wealthy household sector through the return of these profits/costs of borrowing through share prices, dividends and interest payments.

  18. Well done Bernard, thanks for calling a spade a spade and not succumbing to conservative/corporate correctness like the rest of the journalists do in this country.

  19. BK, well worth my subscription, due next month.
    I’ll happily pay for this to be sent, registered delivery, to Ms Westacott.
    Amazing that no-one disagrees in this thread, even the usual suspects!

  20. Bernard, it isn’t just that I agree with what you have written, it is the quality of your prose.

    It’s powerful prose when your heart speaks through your words.

    I fear for what this might do to you!

  21. Love the feisty passion and prose in this article ….there should be more of it, BK! About time a timely salvo was delivered against these third rate cappos who wouldn’t know the meaning of competition if it came along and bit them on the proverbial. The level of transfer payments paid to this segment of society is galling.

  22. Westacott pushes the phoney claim beloved of Rinehart etc-that policies are being brought in by a “minority” government.

    What part of a majority of MPs voting for a particular policy for it to become law under the Westminster system does Westacott not understand?

    And we are supposed to take this woman seriously when all she does is push the same vacuous claims we always get from business unions?.

    Surprised she didn’t mention something about “trickle down” economics and how higher wages will ‘cost jobs”.

  23. Considering the pre-Christmas ‘Who is 2011’s best Politician’ crap spewed forth by Beek, this is indeed a very welcome turnaround.

    The noises from Big Business will only get louder as the whole maker-seller-buyer construct changes from the current rort-ridden ‘might is right’ to the ‘power of the individual purchaser’ through online means.

    Can’t effing wait.

  24. KEANE’S article & the numerous sanctimonious comments says far more about the irrelevance of the Left in today’s world than the behavior of business. Crikey & it’s progressive pissants haven’t a clue how the real world thinks or how it views the business world of which they are a part.

  25. Thanks Bernard, well written .. but do you have a translation for Ms Westacott? Her lot only speak whatsinitforme, and it seems they lack the mental architecture for anything else.

  26. Here, here Bernard.

    Enjoyed every word.

    I thought these robots with pre programmed responses had been around for quite some time… Shame we cannot seem to come up with anything better to replace this annoying and obsolete technology. An upgrade of Straight talking and Truth may be a good start. It may take a while to eradicate the years of BS (bad sectors) built up in those systems, but i’m sure it could be done, at least till the new improved robots arrive – which we’ll need to maintain with more scrutiny and regularity than we did with the previous batch.

  27. Bingo. Do let us know Westacott’s response (if you ever get one). If Westacot is watching perhaps she could also explain how the Business Council’s constant whining about reduced tax burdens squares with its equally consistent moaning about the lack of skilled workers, when it’s largely tax dollars that pay for training. Oh, silly me, that’s what 457 visas are for.

  28. Bernard;
    A truely delightful, urbane and coherent article. The lucid and underlying emotion portrayed, made me double check the byline. I thought Peter Ormonde may have gained a gig.
    There are a number of other pressure groups that need a considered analysis of the lies and self interest they perpetrate, at the expense of the nation and population, put under the microscope.
    The Murdochracy and their clones won’t do it.

  29. Dear Bernard,
    I’m looking forward to your open letters to Australian Marriage Equality, the ACTU, the Greens, etc, berating them for arguing their corner.
    Being a Crikey writer, you probably don’t realise that this is a pluralist society. Among other things, that means that policy is made by the open exchange of views. Personally, I think that the BCA and the AICD are full of sh_t, but I also understand that it is essential that they express their views openly, rather than falling into line with the lefty corporatist ethos that you are espousing.

  30. APOLLO. I didn’t see/hear the interview to which you refer so I can only make a guesstimate. In the old days of the “IR Club” it was common practice for both employers and unions to seek an Award. But an Award could not be established unless there was an industrial dispute. So the practice for the union was to lodge an Ambit claim. The content of the claim had to be so “outrageous” that not one single employer anywhere in Australia would accept it – because if that happened there wasn’t a dispute, and thus no award.

  31. Bernard,
    Lovely rant but I think you and your fan club down here in the Crikey crypt have all been watching too many “evil corporation” movies.

    It’s a quaint and much repeated view that business demands more flexibility etc etc for the sake of profits. The reality, Bernard is that business seeks a much more profound outcome than profit and that is survival. Therefore the benefits of improved productivity and labour flexibility are more likely to be passed on as price reductions or investment in R&D than a dividend to shareholders. In 1960, an air ticket to London cost over 100 weeks’ average wage. Today it cost one week’s average wage. But hey, we all know that Qantas’ efforts to reform and improve its business is about evil profits, don’t we.

  32. Articulate, thought provoking, enjoyable to read, cheers Bernard. This is the sort of honest passion that should be at the cornerstone of our media. Thanks again.

  33. Good stuff Bernard.

    Why does the mainstream media accept as Holy Writ value every self-serving emanation from business spokespeople. Businesses want to make as much money as possible for their bottom line. Fair enough. That means pay as little as possible for inputs, including labour. It means selling their product or service for as much as possible. Competiton militates against that objective . Free markets are good for other companies and other industries, never their own. It also means paying as little tax as you can get away with, hopefully none. And they don’t want the government to butt in to their industry unless they get into serious trouble in which case they demand subsidies and protection. If there is a situation that we need to deal with as a nation/community, for example environmental degradation or climate change, they don’t want to know and certainly don’t want to pay.

    All contributions to the economic debate should be considered and if necessary discounted in view of the self-interest of the contributor, but for the most part this does not happen with those from business.

  34. Listen very carefully to what business people say. When businesses are struggling, they will blame:

    – the Government (too much regulation, taxes are too high, labour market regulation),
    – their competitors (prices are too cheap, importing from other countries),
    – their staff (wages are too high, penalties are too high, don’t work hard enough),
    – their landlords (rents are too high),
    – their suppliers (prices are too high, deliveries are slow) and
    – their customers (buy stuff on-line, import from overseas, too price-conscious, too quality-conscious).

    It’s really funny that never in the history of capitalism has a business failed because of bad management!

    I have also noticed that business people have skewed the language. When they talk about competition, they don’t mean a robust market which supplies customers with the best mix of price and quality. What they mean is the the Government must guarantee them the absolute right to operate in their chosen market. Anything else is “anti-competitive”. So, competition is for their benefit, not the consumers.

  35. Is seems to me that what is actually happening is that the REALLY big end of town (mining, banks, Woollies etc) have become so greedy, so powerful, and so monopolised (thanks mainly to the many disastrous years under Howard-great economic manager my ****!) that their constant record profits have finally used up all of the money that we, the little people have, and they have now moved on to the middle of the road companies (DJ’s, Myers, Harvey Norman etc). This a little bit like what happens when the body enters starvation, it begins to eat itself.

    When will people realize that in essence, there is only X amount of dollars to go around. And, when more and more gets taken by the top 1%, even medium size companies, let alone small business, will go under. Hell, at the rate we’re going, Woollies et-al will be selling cars and houses before long.

    Although there probably should be a host of changes made, I think that the first cab off the rank should be clear limits on market share, with a maximum of 20% (even the mighty wal-mart has only an 13.4 % in the US). Its a pity that even with a minority government, the best we have had in years, there is no one with the guts to break up the monopolies. Just imagine when Abott gets in, what an unmitigated disaster for competition that’s going to be. Depressing, just depressing.

  36. I’ ve been trying for days to get a comment through on this piece. Why the “censorship” ( moderation ).

    Crikey needs more fact-filled “inya face” articles like this one to counter the endless propaganda from the Big End of town.

    Crikey should forget about pandering to Advertisers, private or Govt. Advertising revenue should just be a bonus on the landscape of a broad and numerous subscriber base…thats the key to a safe and sound independent future and the rest will follow.

    Someone made a comment ” they won’t be happy until there are 100,000,000 people living here and they all get paid $8.00 an hour”…so true. Is immigration the “new slavery” and just really all about a cheap labour market for corporatism? Have they lied to us again?

    Great article and great comments.