Given Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump and our own surge in populism at the recent federal election, the big swing to Clover Moore in the Sydney local council election on Saturday appears unsurprising. Not because Moore can be equated with Trump or Pauline Hanson or even Nick Xenophon, but because in the current political climate, so toxic is big business that everything it touches turns to shit.

The most recent iteration of the “Get Clover” laws in NSW was a truly extraordinary piece of work. The previous Labor government has tried, unsuccessfully, to dislodge her by changing the electoral boundaries of the city. But then the right in the NSW Parliament, backed by The Daily Telegraph — which has smeared Moore for over a decade — concocted an idea for a blatant gerrymander: double the number of votes that business had and punish them if they didn’t vote.

That, surely, would drive Moore out of office.

Oddly, business has always had a vote in Sydney (suggest to Americans that business be allowed to vote in the land of free enterprise and you’ll get some very strange looks). But few businesses bothered to vote, or even keep their registration up to date. So under a bill proposed in 2014 by the far-Right Shooters and Fishers Party and backed by the Baird government, business would be given a second vote and the Council would be forced to keep the business electoral register up to date. Introducing the bill, Shooters and Fishers Party MLC Robert Borsak made a point of thanking reactionary radio entertainer Alan Jones and the Telegraph and its journalist Andrew Clennell for their support.

No coherent rationale for giving business a second vote was at any stage advanced by proponents of the bill. The best Borsak could manage was “a household pays only one set of rates, which is substantially less than a business pays. Yet most households have two or more eligible voters living there; they get to have a say for the payment of only one set of rates” — on which logic high-income earners would have half a dozen votes for every vote a low-income earner has.

[Poll Bludger: how Moore, the merrier, thumped rivals in mayoralty race]

Big business loved the idea of the chance to force Moore out in favour of a more pro-business mayor, and lauded the changes. The Sydney Business Chamber, made up of companies like Microsoft, AMP, Transfield, NAB, Visa and Qantas, said the laws were “a win for business advocacy” and thanked the Shooters and Fishers Party.

“There’s no doubt the next City of Sydney council elections will take on a different look with a much more engaged business voice playing an active role in the result,” director Patricia Forsythe warned when the laws were passed — although the Chamber focused on the Sydney electoral roll rather than the second vote for business.

Along with the NSW Business Chamber, the SBC had the previous year complained about “red tape” making it too hard for business to keep their enrolment up to date. The fall in business participation in council elections (in 2012 just 1700 business had voted) was due to “the inefficient and ad-hoc enrolment process” by which businesses had to keep their enrolment up-to-date. Having complained about red tape, bizarrely, the chambers now backed additional red tape that required the Council to take charge of its electoral roll and employ staff to keep it constantly updated by pursuing businesses within the city about their details. And businesses would also be subject to a $70 fine if they failed to vote.

As it turned out, this effort to get rid of Moore was as successful as Labor’s original effort — and, if anything, even worse. Moore collected a 9% swing and a fourth term. What next from Mike Baird’s government and the Sydney business community – three votes for business? Four? An increase until the electorate gets it right and votes in a Liberal mayor?

No wonder Moore collected a swing in response to a conservative-business ploy to gerrymander an election result. It perfectly plays to community perceptions that big business is contemptuous of democracy and encourages its preferred politicians to change the rules to deliver what it wants. This perception of high-handedness and an unwillingness to play by the same rules as the rest of the community is part of what is driving such widespread resistance to liberal economics. And the business community and their political allies are now fighting among themselves about whether to double down with the aggressive pro-market ideology or withdraw from political debate.

Without a change in approach from the business community, populism isn’t going to go away. There’ll be more Clover Moores and more Nick Xenophons — even more Pauline Hansons — while business encourages the perception that, rather than participate in debate on the same basis as everyone else, it’s one rule for them and a different rule for the rest of Australia.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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