It’s a peculiar dynamic to watch at work, an ostensibly reformist Labor government trying to cobble together a business coalition to support its carbon price, complete with dinners at Kirribilli House and who’s-in-who’s-out invitation lists.

To what end? Business support for the CPRS had no impact in December 2009, when the Liberals broke their commitment to vote for it. Indeed, repeated calls for certainty seem only to have encouraged the Coalition to create further uncertainty by pledging to repeal a carbon price if it wins in 2013.

Business support, in general, has little political impact. The best example is immigration. Business support for high immigration has for decades had no impact on how voters regard that issue. Indeed, voters are more likely to conclude that governments in general are too close to business and pay too much heed to corporate interests ahead of the national interest. Labor, however, not merely wants to consult with industry — an appropriate and important step in its deliberations that it skipped on the RSPT — but obtain some sort of endorsement.

That, in summary, was the experience of the CPRS, which began life as a workable, if overly generous, ETS and ended as a travesty of polluter handouts that buried any price signal for over a decade. The contrast with the Rudd government’s treatment of Telstra was remarkable. It should have responded to polluter complaints about the CPRS with the same disdain with which it treated the telco behemoth, an approach that yielded rich rewards in seeing off an aggressively anti-competition management and breaking the monster up.

There were no nice dinners at Kirribilli with Sol and friends. To date, the breaking-up of Telstra remains, along with the Rudd government’s response to the GFC, Labor’s most important economic initiative in government.

As Crikey has previously demonstrated, Australian business, and particularly peak bodies such as the BCA, have not been effective partners in economic reform. Either they have been too internally conflicted to take a position, or they have opposed major reforms that have been the building blocks of the 21st century Australian economy, from a GST and tariff reform in the 1980s to superannuation in the 1990s. Graham Bradley’s mysterious ability to simultaneously aver that he backs a carbon price but doesn’t back any form of carbon price anyone can actually identify is a neat encapsulation of the BCA’s long-running reform hypocrisy.

Yet somehow Labor has, with its uncanny knack of letting its opponents pick the battlefield, established a test for itself: does big business back its carbon price? At the moment, it’s flat out getting acknowledgement that it is even consulting with industry. Bluescope and One Steel, small employers at the fag-end of a dying 20th century heavy manufacturing sector, seem to threaten to “walk away” from consultations because “they’re not in good faith” every other day.

There are a great many significant companies that support a carbon price, and not just in the Clayton’s manner of the BCA. But many of the companies best placed to advocate for a carbon price don’t exist yet. They’ll only exist if an effective carbon price is established, one that starts the process of disconnecting economic growth in Australia from carbon. The people they’ll employ currently work elsewhere, or are still in school, or have yet to be born.

Business support for effective climate change action relies on entrepreneurs and corporate leaders who have sufficient vision to see the opportunities in a decarbonised economy, who see the opportunities in economic change, rather than in freezing the Australian economy in time like heavy manufacturers or the coal industry want. And as Labor should know by now, such business people are a lot thinner on the ground in Australia than the rentseekers and gougers.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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