NAB chairman Ken Henry banking royal commission
NAB chairman Ken Henry (Image AAP/Daniel Pockett)

There’s now a clear split in the senior ranks of the business community. It’s between those who have worked out that big business is loathed by many in the community, and those who either don’t understand that or don’t care, and continue to push a self-interested agenda around attacking workers and cutting company taxes.

The Business Council is the leading example of the latter. They believe that if they repeat that they need tax cuts often enough, and donate enough money to politicians, eventually they’ll get a tax windfall regardless of how the community views business. Indeed, on that score, the problem is with the community, not with business — it is the community that is wrong about business, and needs to understand that what’s good for business is good for Australia. To this end, the BCA announced today it had joined with News Corp to run a propaganda campaign on Sky News called Strong Australia, “a new national platform for discussing the pressing issues facing Australians… to discuss practical and actionable solutions.” Australians, the BCA’s Jennifer Westacott said, “aren’t interested in the bickering that dominates our political landscape” so the BCA-News campaign “will help identify the practical, pragmatic solutions we need.”

Must be nice, when your campaign for company tax cuts has been rejected by parliament, to simply get a major media organisation to devote one of its channels to help out.

In contrast, more politically attuned business figures like David Gonski have been expressing concern about how the community views big business for a while. Last week, Ken Henry added himself to the list, when the NAB chairman noted “if we in business are going to be taken seriously in these debates, we will have to demonstrate that we are engaging not out of self-interest, but because we share a mission to improve the well-being of the Australian people.”

Ken Henry, and other figures like Elizabeth Proust and Alison Watkins who supported his comments, believe business needs to convince voters of their bona fides in the debate over economic reform, and can only do that if business demonstrates they genuinely support the national interest as separate from the interests of business.

Unfortunately, Henry and co, while showing far more good faith than we ever see from other business leaders, are wrong. Not as egregiously wrong as the Business Council crowd, but wrong nonetheless. Henry — a stalwart of economic reform over two decades at the very top of policy making circles in Australia, and now chairman of one of the big four banks — is offering another version of what we might call the sales theory of reform: that what Australia has lacked for a decade now are effective salesmen and women for Economic Reform. Henry’s version at least has an aspect of novelty. Traditionally the theory — and I speak as one who used to advocate for it in Crikey — ran: if only we had politicians like Bob Hawke and Paul Keating to sell the case for reform to voters, all would be well. Henry argues that this problem actually lies with business as well, which has lost the trust of the electorate and which must regain that trust if it is to convince voters to support reform.

The problem, though, isn’t with the sales pitch, it’s with the product. As Keating himself succinctly put it last year, “Liberal economics has run into a dead end and has had no answer to the contemporary malaise.” It’s to Henry’s credit that he’s stopped blaming policymakers for not being Keating, and started blaming business for undermining confidence in the product. But if the product really is rubbish, then even the most heartfelt and effective marketing campaign isn’t going to help. Neoliberalism with a smiley face from business is still neoliberalism.

The real challenge, if Ken Henry and other business figures are interested in addressing it, is not the attitude of business, but the power of business. Community support for neoliberalism began vanishing around the same time as it became obvious that the benefits of neoliberalism were flowing more to corporations than to ordinary people. The profit share of national income rising at the expense of the wage share. Wages growth vanishing despite growing productivity. Governments running protection for their big donors despite the community-damaging misbehaviour of those donors (like the big banks). Industrial relations laws designed to limit the capacity of unions to secure better wages and conditions for workers so shareholders could get bigger dividends. And that skewed distribution of benefits reflecting growing corporate power at the expense of workers, consumers and even governments. The kind of corporate power on display today from the BCA and News Corp.

If we have a political-economic system that relies on corporations behaving nicely and publicly worrying about the triple bottom line, then we have a flawed system. There’s no guarantee the Henrys and Prousts and Watkins won’t vanish from business altogether and be replaced completely with trickledowners and IR warriors like Westacott and Joyce, whose response to community opposition is simply to ramp up propaganda for their agenda. We can’t rely on business offering a smiley face. The system needs to be rebalanced by curbing the power of corporations and handing more power to workers and consumers. Then economic reform will be a fairer contest of ideas.