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Shepherd’s vision: kamikaze politicians delivering for business

Tony Shepherd’s economic vision for Australia ignores what we’ve already achieved and relies on politicians delivering for business regardless of what the electorate wants, write Glenn Dyer and Bernard Keane.

With the political cycle having lately taken a (pleasing) turn toward policy, Business Council chief Tony Shepherd yesterday joined in with a major speech outlining the council’s forthcoming economic vision for Australia. As a speech, it was long on rhetoric — yes, entrepreneurship and innovation are great things, Tony. It was also studiously non-partisan, with Shepherd by and large seeming to blame the whole political class for a lack of vision.

You can take issue with or choose to like individual items on Shepherd’s wish list, in accordance with your preferences. He predictably insists Australia’s labour productivity is “still poor” and we need IR deregulation to fix it, despite productivity constantly growing for over a year under the Fair Work Act, while it fell significantly under WorkChoices. He wants nuclear power to be in the energy policy mix, not “excluded on ideological grounds”, which seems to forget that for Australia nuclear power is excluded on simple maths — it’s hideously expensive, compared even with renewables. Or you can wonder what level of government intervention in business Shepherd wants in order to achieve his laudable goal of 50% of board positions filled by women.

But more important is Shepherd’s essential logic, which ignores that Australia has performed very well in the past five years, let alone in the past 20 or so years. Shepherd said:

The next six months in Australia will be critical … Perhaps the greatest risk is that we continue to wind back hard-won reforms that will be even harder to win back a second time around … These things will go a long way in determining the choices Australians will have over the next 20 years … We want to show there is another way — by presenting a vision and a plan that looks well beyond the next six months to the next decade, and the decade beyond.”

Shepherd doesn’t identify the “hard-won reforms” that are currently being wound back, but presumably he means WorkChoices (he’s so careful to avoid any sort of partisanship, it’s hard to know). The only “crucial” thing happening in the next six months is the September 14 federal election. It hardly strengthens Shepherd’s case that he refuses to offer any commentary on the specific policies and records of the parties.

Contrary to the impression created by Shepherd in his “edge of destruction”-style comments is that, even if it was frequently contrary to the demands of the Business Council, we have muddled through economically to the point where we’re one of the world’s strongest economies. Under the John Howard government, we survived the Asian financial crisis (which was going to hurt Australia — indeed, Peter Costello used the Asian crisis to improve Australia’s global economic standing) and the tech wreck, and under Labor we survived the biggest crisis of all in the past 50 years, the GFC.

Moreover, the BCA ignores the inconvenient fact that many of its members were bailed out or survived because of good policy action and management by the federal government, the Reserve Bank, Australian Prudential Regulation Authority and state governments. In particular, Labor’s stimulus spending during the financial crisis helped the country avoid the sharp and continuing increase in unemployment that we saw in the recession of the early 1990s. In turn it allowed many BCA members to grow and expand their market positions (the banks) and to keep paying huge salaries to management and boards and dividends to shareholders.

And once the financial crisis was over, decision-makers responded by withdrawing fiscal stimulus, paving the way for Australia to secure its triple-A credit rating — something Shepherd entirely ignores when he demands “we have to pull out all stops to maintain Australia’s high credit ratings, including our sovereign credit rating”. And remember the business class, led by senior members of the Business Council and their supporters in the media, have regularly warned of the “sovereign risk”  from the resource and carbon taxes and industrial relations — but that was as far from the truth as possible, as Australia’s growth and credit standing have been maintained (or lifted) since July 1 last year.

In short, even when items of Shepherd’s wishlist are fulfilled, he’s not prepared to give politicians any credit. In fact, Shepherd goes further and wants “political leaders who are prepared to lose their jobs to get things done”.

Well, what about Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan, Tony? They’ve delivered your triple-A credit rating, low inflation, low unemployment, low government debt, an increase in compulsory super to further expand the already massive pool of investment your members rely on, and a market-based mechanism for reducing carbon emissions, which the BCA supports. And they’re going to lose their jobs on September 14. Swan might even lose his seat.

Sure, they’re not Hawke-Keating redux, but they’ve managed a complex set of economic challenges with some good calls, the occasional bit of luck and support from a faster-moving, more tuned-in central bank. And the result will be six years of growth and low unemployment — something Bob Hawke and Paul Keating never delivered.

Shepherd seems to live in a fantasy world in which kamikaze politicians are prepared to do whatever it takes to implement the Business Council’s agenda, regardless of the wishes of the electorate. Shepherd even suggested we extend parliamentary terms to four years to give gun-shy politicians more space away from the voters to deliver his agenda.

This isn’t to complain about the imbalance implicit in Shepherd’s even-handedness. It’s unreasonable to expect the Coalition-aligned BCA to give Labor much credit. The problem lies in the serious point Shepherd raises: how do we encourage politicians to make the right economic calls rather than doing what is politically most advantageous?

If politicians are given no credit when they do make the tough calls, it’s rich to complain about their unwillingness to embrace reform. When Labor goes into opposition, what lessons will its leaders take from their time in government? That being a cynical, negative and populist opposition is the most effective way to return to power, that there’s no political benefit from being fiscally disciplined, because even critics who complain that you’re profligate attack savings proposals, and that there’s no reward for being brave in policy.

And it would be good if Tony Shepherd and his members applied the same test to themselves when they report weak or poor results, fail in a business strategy, overspend, or simply get paid too much for the results produced. Let’s see some business executives prepared to lose their jobs if they don’t get things done. Indeed, we’d be happy merely with business executives who don’t get handsomely rewarded even when they preside over a debacle.

But then again, as Shepherd would be quick to point out, business leaders aren’t accountable in the same way as politicians. Indeed. Business is different from politics. The latter should be about the national interest. And Shepherd forgets that the national interest is not the same as the interests of business. Like government, business is a means to an end of maximising the community’s welfare. What’s good for business isn’t always good for the rest of us.

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  • 1
    Roger Clifton
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    Nuclear electricity is excluded in Australia by a Federal Law, not because it is expensive. That Federal law was emplaced on ideologically grounds, the only country so hostile to such change. It would be straightforward for a newly-elected government to strike out the law, and leave it to commercial interests to do the sums to find out whether it really is expensive or not.

    Comparing mass produced solar panels with first-of-a-kind nuclear reactors is mixing apples and pears. Australia would certainly be better off buying turn-key factory-built nuclear reactor designs. Mass produced “SMR” reactors, are fraction of a gigawatt. For example, the MPower come in units of 180 MW, so would be installed one-by-one without busting a State budget.

    The climate needs non-ideologically-driven governments to be committing forward purchases to mass production of conservative, well-proven designs. As far as cost is concerned, the mass produced Liberty Ships of World War II were a small fraction of the cost of once-off ships of similar capacity.

  • 2
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Labour productivity is poor”?
    But managerial is …..?

  • 3
    Achmed
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    You don’t need to strike out the law to enable commercial interests to do their sums.

    They could do the sums ignoring the law and show that it is commercially viable and then argue the law needs to be repealed

  • 4
    Achmed
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    The type of thing that needs to stop: Qantas stopped paying dividends to shareholders, while at the same time spent $440 million buying its own shares to provide the Board and CEO with a share bonus.

  • 5
    Achmed
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    klewso - everyone knows that when share values drop, profits become a loss or a poor investment decision is made its the fault of the wokers not the CEO or Board of Directors. For example Rio’s $700 billion failed investment in Africa. One CEO “let go” and sackings of other employees to recoup the loss

  • 6
    CHRISTOPHER DUNNE
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Globally, coal burning is outgrowing everything, and emissions are increasing every year.

    Nuclear is hideously expensive compared to cooking the planet?

    So far the biggest wind installation in this country is less than half the size of one average coal station, and that is its maximum output rating. It would need about 3 of them due to the capacity factor (wind is usually 20-35%) to make that half, so six of them to replace just one coal fired station.

    Oh, and 50,000 hectares for every gigawatt of wind.

    Good luck replacing coal with wind.

    Don’t get me wrong, we need all non-carbon sources, but that MUST include nuclear. As James Hansen said recently, without nuclear we just are not serious about cutting emissions.

    Nuclear is the only non-carbon energy source that can actually do the heavy lifting of replacing coal, not just slowing down its rate of growth by a small amount.

  • 7
    johnhenryquinn@bigpond.com
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Unless things have changed considerably since the Switkowski Report Nuclear is not more expensive than renewables. There may be other reasons to avoid its use but cost is not one.

  • 8
    Achmed
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Then there was the clothing compnay that within 12 months of getting a bailout package from the Howard Govt to help keeps the jobs in Australia promptly moved overseas. The CEO and Board awarded themselves pay rises and bonuses. The amount they gave themselves could have provided each of the 150 sacked employees with a $30,000 redundancy

  • 9
    John Bennetts
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Rio might be pretty poor managers, Achmed, but $700 BILLION?

    That can’t possibly be correct. Think again.

    They did manage to sink $36B or thereabouts on aluminium over the past several years and they have just experienced a huge landslip into one of their mines in USA, the largest hole in the ground Mankind has ever dug.

    They have dropped just about every pass sent their way recently, but $700B is dead plain wrong. Try the odd billion - it’s still a classic stuff-up.

  • 10
    Achmed
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Sorry that should be Million - dont know what came over me…

  • 11
    michael r james
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    The atrocious quality of senior management in Australia is beyond depressing, as exampled by Shepherd and the other usual suspects like David Murray, Don Argus and the banksters (usually expensive imports from the UK, which of course is the world’s exemplar of clever banking — as witnessed by the across the board bankruptcies, huge government bailouts, and frauds of recent years). The next-gen don’t look much better, such as Jac Nasser (of course neither Ford or GMH are Australian but their utterly bland, uninspiring product is neither appealing to locals let alone export markets).

    A giveaway was the first line to Shepherd’s BCA’s full page adverts this week, which was something like: “it is commonly acknowledged that government doesn’t create jobs, private industry does”. Yet, one lost count of the number of times in his speech he pleaded to government to more or less rescue business.

    I couldn’t get beyond that first line, which is straight out of the neo-con/economic-rationalist playbook and which has had at least three decades to prove itself but has failed miserably (nowhere more than the US where it played out to its fullest but the UK is in a dishonourable second place and the reason for the current resurgence of Thatcher-hatred), other than its prime objective of creating a tiny proportion of ultra-wealthy at the top of the pyramid.

    And if there is one certainty about such a philosophy: national interest is nowhere on its agenda. Indeed to paraphrase Thatcher: there is no such thing as the national interest.

  • 12
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Ever see an economist with a good “batting average”?

  • 13
    JMNO
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    I’m with Michael R James. Peak business groups are just a pack of whingers. I have never ever heard them talk about what they are doing to innovate, improve their productivity, contribute to keeping Australians educated, trained and skilled.

    They want to pay less tax, pay their employees less, remove their employees’ bargaining rights, get rid of ‘red tape’, get rid of pesky environmental regulations.

    At the same time they want a community with sufficient income to be able to afford to buy their goods, they want the lower-taxing government to increase education and training, provide infrastructure, bail them out when things get sticky, give them generous tax deductions and provide law and order, including against the sort of petty and small scale (but disastrous) fraud which happened with the pink bats(which may have been prevented with more ‘red tape’).

    They sound like children really, not captains of industry.

  • 14
    Sam
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Productivity certainly does look like a problem in Australian businesses. It seems like quite a few of their employees are spending more time whining to the AFR and the Australian than they are doing their jobs.

  • 15
    mikehilliard
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m with others here, it’s pathetic whinging from a group with no interest in anything but themselves. JMNO’s right - it’s childlike. I think it’s way past the time that these so called business leaders should have started having long hard look at what the economy might be like under an Abbott led Coalition, there are some fairly depressing predictions.

    Oh, Bernard & Glenn would you both stop calling the election, it adds nothing to the discussion. Save opinion for The Drum.

  • 16
    Achmed
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Aust has a skills shortage - why? Because business has not invested in apprenticeships - why? Its better to put the profit in the bank and cheaper to rely on 457 visas. And then sit back and blame government

  • 17
    Margaret Ludowyk
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I was hoping that by “hard-won reforms” Shepherd meant the carbon price! But all business owners only care about short term profits and share prices. They don’t have a vision for the nation and they don’t give a damn about anyone else. Why should governments listen to them?

  • 18
    Paul
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    Can’t agree more. Furthermore I would opine that it is because of Rudd and Gillard’s social and economic agenda that Labor will spend the next few years in opposition.
    What else but a socially progressive agenda would unite business, church, Fairfax, ABC and News, goodness the idea that the rabble should be allowed economic, health and education equality is treasonous.
    However I do love the BCA. Like the IPA they live in a wonderland that normal people can only experience by consuming enormous quantities of booze, speed, acid or the dreaded Es or H.
    Sadly, though, they achieve that nirvanic state without destroying their brains, livers and kidneys and, unlike junkies, they get their “lifestyle” funded by Australian families and taxpayers.
    Jealous - you bet! I would like the Press Club to allow me an hour on national TV, followed by numerous infomercials, talking about my hope for a society that cares for all its members regardless of education, colour, class or ethnic origin.

  • 19
    Paul
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    I tried to leave a comment on the BCA website but, weirdly, they do not allow people to give them any idea of what Australia is actually like. No, that’s not weird, that’s normal business practice.

  • 20
    Paul
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    In agreement with Achmed, but why shouldn’t they, when their cheer squad consists of, not only Tory tories, but Ferguson, Crean, Fitzgibbon, Bowen etc.

  • 21
    QUIGLEY JOSEPH
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Where else am I going to read such a concise, clear, and level-headed rebuttal of the BCA’s head honcho’s fuzzy vision of the future of the Australian economy? Even the government can’t defend itself properly. Treasurer Swan seems to limit himself to a few slogans and keeps repeating them a la Abbott. The PM’s sentences when she speaks on economic matters are too long and sleep-inducing. I could go on but the whole of Cabinet needs to join Toastmasters/Toastmistresses and learn something of the art of public speaking.
    I don’t know what the government’s Press Releases are like but I fear they must lack the conciseness,clarity and cogency of the Dyer/Keane composition, otherwise surely some journalist, even if a lazy one, would use them as the basis for an opinion piece, that might approximate the fine example of Dyer and Keane’s article.

  • 22
    fractious
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    Sam
    “Productivity certainly does look like a problem in Australian businesses. It seems like quite a few of their employees are spending more time whining”
    Curiously, all of the whingeing seem to come from the top “management” levels, and none from those actually doing or making things while being paid both halves of SFA.

  • 23
    Achmed
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    And then there’s a hole lot of yelling when the Govt negotiates an EMA that includes 2000 training positions.

    And ranting when the Govt says it will ensure that employers applying for 457 workers are not trying to rort the system. Those opposed to any sort of audit that may expose businesses rorting the system yell “racist”. How is it racist to check that empoyers are not rorting the system?

  • 24
    Posted Thursday, 18 April 2013 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    There is a mistake in the last sentence of this article.

    It states, “What’s good for business isn’t always good for the rest of us.”

    Should read, “What’s good for business is NEVER good for the rest of us.

  • 25
    Achmed
    Posted Friday, 19 April 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    and these business “leader” want to claim it workers that are the problem
    OUTGOING BHP Billiton boss Marius Kloppers is set to pocket up to $45.4 million - the bulk to be paid after he has left the company.

    Read more: http://www.news.com.au/business/companies/bhp-chief-marius-kloppers-strikes-it-rich-with-staggering-farewell-payout/story-fnda1bsz-1226623824930#ixzz2QrCnpI6j

  • 26
    Achmed
    Posted Friday, 19 April 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Rewarded for taking the company backwards with share prices down since he took over and these people want to rant about productivity? Continuing the deciept when in fact worker productivity has been rising every year.

    Since Mr Kloppers took over the top job, BHP’s share price has lost close to a quarter of its value, slumping from more than $45 in October 2007 to close yesterday at $30.65.

    Read more: http://www.news.com.au/business/companies/bhp-chief-marius-kloppers-strikes-it-rich-with-staggering-farewell-payout/story-fnda1bsz-1226623824930#ixzz2QrHcn1BP

  • 27
    Sam
    Posted Friday, 19 April 2013 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    @fractious
    Exactly what I was referring to. In between all that whining and micromanaging what their staff are allowed to have on their desks, it’s a wonder they get any real work done at all.

  • 28
    Dogs breakfast
    Posted Monday, 29 April 2013 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    ” Shepherd by and large seeming to blame the whole political class for a lack of vision.”

    The hypocrisy is breathtaking, isn’t it!

    Mr James and others above nail much of the arguments against the tripe that the BCA are putting out. The fact that they don’t understand what ‘productivity’ means underpins their lack of credentials. Productivity in Oz is mostly a problem of the management class, not the ‘workers’ and not the government. Screwing your workers over or taking away their penalty rates does not increse productivity, and most likely does the opposite. In fact, the wages you pay have nothing to do with productivity.

    The management class, especially at the upper end, is a not-stop whingefest and lobbying rent-seeking machine that simultaneously wants government to get out of the way while also solving all their problems.

    Unimaginative, unitelligent and largely a drain on society. No, not govt, the BCA.

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