The change of tone from Australian business since the election has been remarkable. Like a prisoner awaiting execution who gets a last-minute reprieve, they’re exuberant.
But what’s also changed is a swapping of the reluctant tone of accepting that the community loathes them for its more traditional tone of hectoring and demanding that the government give them what they want. That is, business wants neoliberal business-as-usual.
From one perspective it is understandable: the Coalition simply didn’t expect to win, so has no agenda for another term. Scott Morrison spent the election campaign not detailing his agenda for a third term but mugging for the cameras and attacking Labor’s long list of detailed policies (a mistake Labor will never make again; for all those earnest economic reform advocates, sorry but you’ve seen your last opposition commit to difficult policies this century). So there is a policy vacuum to fill.
But the speed with which business has reversed itself is more than a little indecent. Innes Willox of the Australian Industry Group has already reverted to demanding that casual workers be stripped of rights, that the Fair Work Commission’s “better off overall” test — which protects workers from losing pay and conditions in the enterprise bargaining process — be dumped and what’s left of the union right of workplace access be even further restricted.
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry head James Pearson wants industrial relations reforms as well. The Business Council demanded an end to “the anti-business rhetoric” and said the priority must be “to restore business confidence”. Steve Knott of the right-wing resources industry peak body AMMA called for the further addition of business representatives to the Fair Work Commission and “broader reform of Australia’s workplace relations system” (despite perversely saying that voters had rejected the “false characterisation of our workplaces being in need of radical change”).
“We will strongly encourage the government to pursue improvements to the workplace relations system,” Knott said.
Wesfarmers’ Michael Chaney also wants company tax cuts back on the agenda. “I think the refusal of the opposition to support corporate tax cuts across the board was a huge problem,” he told the Financial Review after also insisting that Labor’s plan to restore abolished penalty rates would cause unemployment.
Flight Centre CEO Graham Turner wants the “whole award and wages system in Australia” overturned. Fortescue Metals Group also demanded a “competitive tax regime” AKA corporate tax cuts. Graham Bradley also described company tax cuts as “unfinished business”. The Financial Review itself called for a return to WorkChoices and “genuine tax reform” — possibly the BCA’s preferred model of an increased GST and lowered company tax rates.
All of this is familiar to anyone with even a vague understanding of what passes for economic debate in Australia: senior business figures, the media and communications people for business lobby groups and editors of the conservative press have the same demands for “reform” hard-wired into their keyboards: industrial relations “flexibility” to strip workers of pay and conditions and further reduce union bargaining power and company tax cuts to ensure corporations pay even less tax than now.
It’s a position as repetitive as it is unimaginative. Meantime, large swathes of voters shift not to the relatively centrist agenda of Labor but to the economically and socially extreme agendas of the far right. In gloating about its victory over Labor, the business community is missing that its neoliberal obsessions are driving something far worse than a bit of income redistribution and higher health spending.