If you think big corporations only run campaigns targeting Labor in elections, have a chat with Sussan Ley some time. Since last December, the Health Minister — who admitted she’d been thugged by Treasury and Finance over the Medicare rebate before the budget — faced a campaign by the pathology industry over $650 million worth of cuts to pathology bulk billing incentive payments.

The campaign wasn’t prime-time TV ads. It was delivered in pathology waiting rooms, where hundreds of thousands of people every week across the country get their bloods done or undergo other pathology tests. Pathologists argued they might have to stop bulk billing for pathology. At one stage, the claim that women would have to pay for Pap smear tests caught fire on social media until Ley explained that it was wrong. Labor, which had established the incentive payments when in government, was happy to ride along for the ride in the campaign.

The pathology sector is dominated by two companies, Sonic Healthcare and Primary Health Care. But Sonic had an additional and important asset in its campaign against the cuts: it is a significant Liberal Party donor, having given $200,000 to the Liberals before each of the last two elections (Primary Health Care’s founder Edmund Bateman was also personally a big Liberal donor, but died in 2015).

Ley gamely tried to argue that the incentive payments hadn’t worked and the campaign against the withdrawal of the incentives was simply corporate greed by “stock exchange-listed pathology companies aimed at protecting their profits.” In April, she upped the rhetoric, attacking Labor for being “in bed with multinational pathology corporations.” Ley, unusually for a Liberal minister, was not merely criticising a powerful corporation, but one that was big Liberal party supporter.

But faced with a clinic-level campaign and an imminent election, the government had to negotiate a ceasefire. In the first fortnight of the campaign, Ley hammered out a deal with Pathology Australia, the industry peak body that is dominated by Sonic: the incentive payments would remain until the government passed legislation to better protect pathology companies from high rents.

Why rents? Because pathology companies, and Sonic in particular, are desperate to establish pathology clinics next to or co-located with other medical providers, and larger companies can leverage their size to drive out smaller firms by outbidding them for prime space within medical centres. But Sonic wants the government to control rents on such prime real estate so that medical centre providers, GPs and other service providers can’t charge pathology companies whatever the market will bear. So the incentive payments will still be removed eventually — but only after some form of rent control is imposed.

The deal may yet not come off — Primary, which isn’t a member of Pathology Australia, has distanced itself from the deal. And doctors are furious that a potential source of income for them — renting out space to pathology companies — is being traded off. Then again, the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners was already at war with the government over Medicare rebates — the RACGP is running its own television ad campaign against the government. What the doctors don’t have, however, is the implicit threat that they will withdraw huge donations from the Liberals.

Corporate campaigns against governments thus aren’t always played out on TV screens, although that’s the model established by the mining industry in 2010, which mimicked the success of the union movement’s Your Rights At Work campaign against WorkChoices with a successful campaign against Labor on the Rudd government’s mining tax.

Ever since, industry groups have constantly threatened to run “mining tax style campaigns” against any party policy deemed to be threatening. But while a Liberal government is less likely to be targeted by business, it is more exposed than Labor to the threat of losing donations. Labor can rely on getting millions of dollars from the union movement; corporate donations are a nice extra, not a core source of revenue.

More commonly, industries act as cheerleaders or critics on specific policies. Currently, major industry groups are championing the Coalition’s mammoth large company tax cut: the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Business Council (BCA), the Australian Industry Group and the Minerals Council recently penned an op-ed for The Australian Financial Review attacking critics of the company tax cut.

ACCI also launched a 10-point economic reform plan that endorsed the cut, and the timetable for it. The CEO of the Business Council, Jennifer Westacott, joined in the co-ordinated Coalition-News Corp “war on business” attack on Labor, claiming Labor’s opposition to the company tax handout was evidence of an anti-business stance.

How influential the Business Council is under Westacott any more is questionable — even Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger has attacked her and suggested she resign due to her inability to influence debate. On her watch, voter hostility to multinational tax avoidance has become a major issue and the BCA’s repeated calls for company tax cuts have become so pro forma as to be a cliche; there are also complaints from other sections of the business community that the BCA is far too strongly influenced by Wesfarmers, given Westacott is a director of the latter, Wesfarmers director Richard Goyder is the CEO of Wesfarmers and chairman Michael Chaney is a former BCA president.

Meanwhile, a “mining style campaign” from the banks, mooted in April, hasn’t materialised, despite Labor continuing to emphasise the need for a royal commission. The Australian Bankers’ Association, which threatened Labor with the campaign, might have decided to save its cash, since the mood of the electorate is virulently anti-banks and a third major bank was added to ASIC’s prosecution list over interest-rate rigging right in the middle of the campaign.

Nor has the mining industry itself, hammered by falling iron ore prices and the collapse of the coal industry, had much to say about Labor’s proposed carbon price, its favourite topic of industrial relations deregulation, or anything else in the campaign. The normally voluble Steve Knott of the Australian Mines and Metals Association, probably the most vehemently anti-union employer group in the country, has confined himself to politely urging industrial relations deregulation. Indeed, some of the most aggressive critics of Labor’s mining tax have departed or are in dire straits — Marius Kloppers at BHP and Tom Albanese at Rio Tinto were both dumped years ago in the face of massive write-downs and bungled acquisitions; David Flanagan, a high-profile enemy of the Rudd and Gillard governments, still presides over Atlas Iron, but it now trades at 1 cent a share and has had its credit rating lowered to “selective default”. The mining company of another critic of Labor, Tony Sage, currently trades at a mighty 2 cents per share.

One corporate lobby group that has attacked Labor in the course of the campaign is the Property Council of Australia, which has both former Liberal and Labor staffers in its executive ranks. It has run hard against Labor’s negative gearing amendment, but has done so almost entirely through op-eds and commentary (and, peculiarly, the government has left negative gearing virtually untouched as an election issue so far).

While regarded as the exemplar of corporate campaigning, the mining tax campaign had some singular elements — an industry flush with money and convinced of its indomitability and a relatively neutral community attitude. But the most successful industry campaigns aren’t always the ones you can see on your television screens.

Peter Fray

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