Plenty of business figures are yet to fully work out the significance of the dramatic shift going on across the West in relation to economic policy — that the neoliberal agenda of pandering to corporations, shackling government and suppressing wages is so badly on the nose that policymakers have been forced to abandon much of the economic dogma of the last 30 years.

As significant economic reform ground to a halt in Australia, or was reversed by cynical governments, the standard narrative — and Crikey promoted it as much as anyone — was that if only we had better political leaders, ones capable of explaining nuanced policy and of providing genuine leadership, then everything would be fine. In short, we just needed the second coming of Paul Keating.

Over the last 18 months, it’s become clear that the problems run much much deeper than that, as politicians promising business as usual have been turfed out or pushed to the brink by populists. The business community, particularly large companies, might save themselves a lot of bother if they worked this out instead of continuing to reflexively demand neoliberal dogma — company tax cuts, deregulation, wage cuts.

Outgoing BHP chairman Jac Nasser knows something is up, but he’s still stuck in the old mindset. He understands some serious shift has occurred, but he can’t work out the implications of it, partly because those implications are deeply problematic for businesses used to dominating policy.

In a speech yesterday to what is one of the few ways in which newspapers make money any more, a branded event, Nasser made the usual noises about community disaffection:

“In many Western countries people have lost confidence in institutions and the establishment. They believe government and business aren’t listening, don’t understand how difficult life has become or how concerned they are about the future for their families. We see that here, where Australians are also losing their brand loyalty, whether to the major political parties or to businesses. Businesses and industry groups must listen and respond.”

It’s fascinating that Nasser can’t understand this except as an act of consumerism by the community, the kind of problem better marketing and product placement in the great supermarket of policy can address. Naturally, his solution is along marketing lines. What we need is … leadership. “Who will take that leadership role?” Nasser implores. “Without that we will let opportunity slip and eventually will fall behind.” What kind of leadership? Step forward, Hawke and Keating. “Bob Hawke and Paul Keating won the intellectual case for new economic and social ideas as part of a national vision. They had a view of the future and Australia’s role, and a sense of purpose that guided consistency in sometimes tough decision-making.”

Most of us over 40 have a nostalgia for the Hawke-Keating years, when public policy debate was complex and nuanced, when political courage was in ample supply, when effective communication was the order of the day. But it was a different world. For a start, there was a single media space through which everyone got their news and current affairs; now it is hopelessly fragmented, making it impossible for even the most effective political communicator to reach voters. And we’d had repeated exposures to the problems of the old economic model through recessions and high inflation, so the community understood the need for reform. And we had a degree of bipartisan consensus on reform that meant when Labor, for example, took the risk of cutting manufacturing protectionism during a recession, their opponents didn’t cynically exploit it.

The fetishism of the Hawke-Keating years has to end. It was a glorious period of policymaking that delivered a big increase in Australians’ real wealth, but it offers little in the way of help now. Yes, we could do with policy champions like them, and like John Hewson, but they wouldn’t make much difference if a time machine delivered them, fresh-faced and energetic, into 2017. It’s not lack of leadership, or lack of good communication, that’s the problem — it’s that the massive inequality delivered by neoliberalism, the debauching of policymaking in the interests of corporations delivered by neoliberalism, the permanent war against workers’ incomes delivered by neoliberalism, that needs to be addressed. It’s the belief that the economy is no longer working for citizens, but instead for corporations and the wealthy, that’s the problem. Nasser and his mates in Chairman’s Lounges across the country won’t get anywhere until they work that out.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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