Jennifer Westacott

Big business descended on Parliament House on Wednesday. Middle aged white people, mostly men, besuited, assembling in the Senate courtyard — they’re not just ordinary members of the public, of course — for a photo under grey Canberra skies. The Business Council of Australia’s board, plus a couple more.

There was CEO Jennifer Westacott, so brilliant at her job a Liberal powerbroker called for her sacking. Grant King, the new chair, straight from two years of half billion-plus losses and a 50% loss of capitalisation at Origin. Richard Goyder of Wesfarmers, which basically controls the BCA, to the annoyance of other businesses, large and small. Ian Narev of the Commonwealth Bank — which underpaid its staff super, ripped off its wealth management customers and waited for its insurance policy holders to die. Alan Joyce of Qantas, which handily paid no tax in 2014-15, there to bolster the case for a tax cut. Brent Eastwood of Brazilian livestock slaughtering company JBS, which paid tax of 22%,  4% of its actual income. Catherine Tanna of Hong Kong-owned Energy Australia — the mob that warned the lights would go out if Labor introduced a carbon price back in the day. Andrew Mackenzie of noted tax dodger BHP; it’s unknown if he asked for a Singapore Sling at the Chairman’s Lounge bar on the way up. 

What brought this mighty alliance of business powers together? Greed, of course — greed, specifically for a tax cut for big business. They were in town to lobby Labor and the Senate crossbench to support the government’s ten-year, $50 billion tax cut for business.

Things didn’t get off to a good start when Goyder decided to exploit the cyclone at that point smashing into the Queensland coast to demand “fair” treatment from the community on tax. But even without a crack team of surgeons battling to surgically extract Goyder’s foot from his mouth, the suits were on a hiding to nothing anyway — Labor wasn’t going to change its position, and there’s been no indication either NXT or One Nation is going to either. That will be resolved at some point today if the government settles on a deal to get a tax cut for companies up to either $10 million or $50 million turnover — which some in the media are portraying as a win for the government. It’s certainly not a win for the BCA crowd, who are desperately trying to gee up the government to not abandon plans for a tax cut for big companies down the track once the legislative dust has settled this week.

On that, the Prime Minister has been resolute in insisting the full suite of tax cuts would remain on the books and awaiting a more auspicious time for passage. Treasurer Scott Morrison, on the other hand, has been strangely reticent on that subject. After all, dumping the big end of the tax cuts would deliver a long-term windfall in the forthcoming budget. It wouldn’t do much over forward estimates, but the budget picture beyond that would brighten to the tune of several billion dollars, doubtless to the delight of ratings agencies. For that motley crew, Morrison is drinking at the Last Chance Saloon when it comes to our triple triple-A credit rating.

It may also be, however, that Morrison’s once-respected political antennae are now functioning better than his leader’s. Big business is politically toxic. Dow Chemical’s Australian chairman Andrew Liveris, the glib, Gulfstream-flying opportunist who switched from being a Clinton supporter to a Trump enthusiast in a trice last November, graced his country’s shores this week to spruik Trump’s agenda, on the pretext that it is about “inclusive capitalism” (you could sure smell the inclusion in Trumpcare, which cut tens of millions of from health coverage, but perhaps Liveris was too far above it in his private jet). Some local business figures are giving lip service to the idea of acknowledging inequality and voter estrangement from economic reform, but as the BCA’s actions in Canberra this week demonstrate, the main response is to double down on the greed. 

And while the BCA was wandering the corridors of Parliament House, Labor was moving both motions and bills in the Senate on cuts to penalty rates, a cause dear to the heart of the Council. And a funny thing happened. Both Hanson’s crowd and Nick Xenophon’s party suddenly changed course on penalty rates. Previous supportive of cuts or neutral, both parties joined Labor to back a motion condemning Turnbull on the issue, and then yesterday backed Labor’s bill to overturn the Fair Work Commission penalty rates decision.

While Hanson is still picking up the pieces from her WA debacle — especially the fury that her deal with the Liberals provoked within One Nation’s ranks of elderly bigots — Xenophon is more interesting. There is no more acute reader of the public mood than the South Australian senator, and he’s decided penalty rate cuts are not a winner. And particularly not while some of the world’s, and Australia’s, biggest companies are demanding a massive tax cut.

Peter Fray

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