For people interested in how public policy is shaped, and how power is used in Australia, the Financial Review‘s “business summit” has proved illuminating, albeit not exactly in the way either Nine’s management or business leaders might have intended.
Nine’s newspaper arm relies on business events to drum up revenue (attending the “summit” to hear the wisdom of our corporate elite costs between $1200 and $2000), attract sponsorship (BHP sponsored the event, and has sponsored other AFR events, which raises an interesting question about how the AFR covers that company), as well as generate copy and burnish its credentials in a fragmenting market place. But, this year, it has also served to illustrate how profoundly out of touch senior business figures remain in Australia.
Mike Kane of Boral, for example, thinks business shouldn’t be apologising but instead should be “standing up for itself”. Kane is the anti-union ideologue celebrated for his stoushes with the CFMMEU — but not celebrated by fund managers. The head of MYOB attacked Labor for proposing to restore Sunday penalty rates — despite compelling evidence that cutting weekend penalty rates hasn’t delivered the additional employment business claimed it would.
Sally Loane of the Financial Services Council complained about politicians competing to beat up her big bank masters — the same Loane whose evidence to the royal commission was a train wreck that had to be corrected. Jennifer Westacott, head of the business community’s least effective lobby group the Business Council of Australia (BCA), had a crack at industry superannuation funds for political activism. Unmentioned was the support the BCA gave to the Liberal Party’s campaign against industry super. And all expressed horror, if not righteous fury, at the idea that the industrial relations system was tilted too far in favour of employers, and workers might need to be given more bargaining power to address wage stagnation.
But individuals aside, the gathering was characterised by the shared conviction that the current disaffection toward business on the part of the community could be fixed merely by better communication and a better “narrative”.
“Business needs to learn to differentiate itself and tell its story. The narrative about business in this country is pitiful. The narrative suggests that business is exploitative, that business is insensitive, that business doesn’t create wealth,” said Kane.
“There is a tall poppy syndrome in Australia. I do think we underplay ourselves a bit,” said another anti-union campaigner, Alan Joyce.
“We should be creating a narrative,” said Tania Constable of the Minerals Council.
Business needed a more positive narrative, Business Council chair Grant King claimed.
At least arch Tory Tony Shepherd was prepared to rock the boat and point out Australian business was rubbish at customer service. Otherwise, it was all about the narrative.
This was where the debate about economic reform was half a decade ago in politics. Politicians told each other, and were told by the media, that they all needed a better “narrative” to convince voters of the need for more economic reform. If only we had better communicators offering a more compelling narrative to make voters understand. The problem was, voters understood all too well that the economy was being run in the interests of business — not in their interests. No amount of attractive garnishing was going to get them to consume the shit sandwich of more “reform”.
Politicians — even some in the Liberal Party — eventually got the message: voters were getting jack of neoliberalism and wanted an economy that worked for them, not for the Mike Kanes and Grant Kings and Alan Joyces of the world. But business figures remain in deep denial. Even after the banking royal commission, even after their own political party has turned on them, even after electorates around the world have turned on the free trade, deregulatory and pro-corporate economic agenda, even as neoliberalism is rolled back.
Why are they so out of touch? Because the only contact they have with ordinary Australians, or even their own workforces, is via focus groups, their only evidence delivered in a balance sheet, their only perspective is from their multi-million dollar home to their comfortable office via a luxury car. The Canberra bubble has nothing on the bubble of delusion Australia’s business elite and their media enablers dwell in.