It’s peculiar what gets the forensic treatment from The Australian — a paper that thought highly of Clive Palmer until he split with the Liberal National Party and became its political opponent, at which point it was suddenly decided his business activities should be the subject of exacting, if occasionally febrile, scrutiny. Similarly, the $48 billion company tax cut in the budget that even the budget papers acknowledge will have negligible economic benefit, particularly in the short run, has received little scrutiny in the pages of the national broadsheet, while Labor’s claims about the economic impact of increased funding for education have received a forensic examination. Given the government insists its own extra education funding is almost as good as Labor’s, you’d think this would have applied to the Coalition as well, but curiously the focus remained resolutely on Labor.

This week has caused a new front to be opened against Labor — it is engaged in a “war on business”, which may or may not be the same as Labor’s “class war”, a claim the Oz advanced after the budget. Yesterday business stenographer Annabel Hepworth breathlessly typed that a one-time Queensland Labor figure Keith De Lacy, who has for nearly two decades been on the boards of agricultural and fossil fuel companies, had criticised Labor. Today Hepworth and Crowe kept the “story” alive with Bill Shorten’s uninterested dismissal of De Lacy and the mutterings of various business luminaries clumsily stitched under a headline “ALP ramps up its war on business” and claims of a “growing storm”. A fortnight ago, Crowe also had a crack at Labor under the headline “Shorten’s war on business a risky game“.

As always, of course, it’s not the journalists who write the headlines, and the stories themselves are less fevered than what’s on top in the big font. But it’s worth parsing the views of the business figures quoted and the logic offered by The Australian. What exactly is Labor’s “war on business”? A rejection of a massive tax cut for companies that would mainly benefit foreign shareholders and offer next to no economic benefits (indeed, the experience of the UK and Canada is that company tax cuts accompanied lower economic, productivity and wages growth than in Australia). There’s also Labor’s call for a royal commission into banks, although there are plenty of small businesses who’d only be too happy to see the big banks “in the dock” to use Malcolm Turnbull’s phrase.

What does business say? Hepworth and Crowe quote former Business Council president Graham Bradley saying that Labor had failed to learn from the “debacles” of the mining tax and carbon tax. While it’s unclear why a successful, cheap carbon pricing scheme was a “debacle”, check out Bradley’s sleight of hand — Labor’s imposition of new taxes in government is now equated with its refusal to support a tax cut.

And never mind the irony that Labor’s original mining tax included a company tax cut so that the rest of the business sector could deal better with the lopsided impact of the mining boom. What else was in the “growing storm” claimed by Crowe and Hepworth? Tony Shepherd, longtime Coalition favourite and former Business Council chairman, claimed Labor was “anti-business, fundamentally” and that government spending needed to be reined in. Presumably he meant the Coalition had failed to rein in spending, which is currently 1.7 percentage points of GDP higher than when Labor was last in office. The other contributor was another Business Council figure, Michael Chaney, who recently blew over $2 billion in write-downs, complaining about Labor’s “scaremongering and divisive approach”.

Remember this is all for opposing a tax cut that by its proponents’ own figuring has minimal benefit. This must surely be peak white male entitlement — it’s “war” to object to giving the biggest companies in Australia and around the world a handout with no demonstrable economic benefit. Strangely, when a party really did declare war on business, via Tony Abbott’s deliberate attempt to destroy the renewable energy sector — that saw renewables investment fall by 70% — there were no “war on business” yarns in The Oz.

On all this, of course, the voters will have the last word. Voters are deeply divided over most political issues and tend to see issues through the prism of the party they support. But there are some issues that unite voters across the partisan divide. One of them is taxation on large companies: 80% or more of voters want to close tax loopholes and force multinationals to pay a minimum rate. And 59% say that “the feeling that some corporations don’t pay their fair share” is the thing that bothers them most about our tax system — the highest-ranked issue. Another is penalty rates: over 80% of voters support penalty rates. Another is the minimum wage — 77% of voters want it retained. Oh, and 59% of voters support a royal commission into banks.

That is, voters, including Liberal voters — including even a large chunk of the elderly readers of The Australian — are strongly opposed to the core elements of the business “reform” agenda peddled by the Business Council, other employer lobby groups and their supporters at The Australian and The Australian Financial Review. Presumably voters too are guilty of “war on business”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey