The big business bogeyman

It might come as a surprise to anyone who hasn’t done so, to learn that people who run major companies are not always the equivalent of Darth Vader or Ebenezer Scrooge.

Not all CEOs of major corporations, not even most of them, hatch plots to rob their employees of wages and entitlements, develop strategies to wreck the environment, or devise clever ways to rip off their customers.

But you’d be excused for thinking so. Big business has become the latest bete noir; a convenient scapegoat for all that is bad about capitalism, or corporatism, or fossil fuels, or the two-speed economy, or the tax system… and on it goes.

Tim Dunlop described another dimension to the evil empire today, in an otherwise excellent piece on the importance of civic engagement. According to Tim, big business has a secret agenda to create bigger government through increased regulation. I love a good rant, so here it is in full:

Look at how business people, despite their rhetoric, behave in the real world. They are no more interested in small government than they are in competition.

Do big players like Harvey Norman and David Jones welcome competition from the internet as the lifeblood of the free enterprise system they claim to love and then redouble their efforts to provide their customers with a better deal when it challenges their business model?

Don’t make me laugh.

What they actually do is demand government regulate the internet, or adjust the tax system, or change labour laws in order to neutralise the competition and maintain the status quo.

(And speaking of labour laws, that sacred text of small-government types, WorkChoices, while marketed as labour force deregulation was nothing of the sort. It was 1,000-odd pages of exactly that: regulation.)

Banks around the world didn’t just cop the market collapse associated with the global financial crisis as an example of the beauty of capitalism-as-it-actually-works. They sought to ameliorate the fallout of market forces they allegedly champion by lobbying governments to redirect public funds to their private losses, and they did it without so much as a blush.

Or look at how that champion of the free market Gina Rinehart responded to a labour shortage at her mines. She didn’t use the forces of the market to attract more workers by offering better wages and conditions. She did a deal with government to bring in guest workers from poorer nations overseas.

Rinehart’s freedom was enhanced, not by getting rid of government interference, but directing it to work in her favour.

And what of that other mining magnate and scourge of big government, Clive Palmer? Palmer so hates government that he is trying to get elected to it. He doesn’t want to abolish government or even shrink it; he wants to run it.

So here we have the thousands of big businesses in Australia tarred with the same brush as DJs, Harvey Norman, the banks, Gina Rinehart and Clive Palmer. All of them are somehow manipulating the government to increase regulation and change laws to crush their competitors and enslave their employees.

Well, yeah, nah, that’s just not how it is the real world. Sure, there are some bad eggs amongst them but for the main part the people who run big businesses are good people like you and me, just trying to do their jobs as best they can.

Whether we like it or not, that job primarily is to provide the best return possible to shareholders. And remember, those shareholders include pretty much anyone with an Australian superannuation scheme – yep, that’s people like you and me.

Short-sighted business people look no further than this requirement – and the bad eggs amongst them are no-doubt focussed on profits at any cost. But canny business people know they have to do more than look after their shareholders if they want the company to be viable over the longer term.

These are the CEOs (and Boards) who invest time and money in their workforce, knowing that loyalty pays dividends in reduced employee turnover, as well as better quality assurance, OHS performance and company reputation.

The same head honchos know their company must be a good corporate citizen if it is going to be allowed to continue operating. This means meeting the community’s expectations as well as that of the government.

And it is at this point that I partly agree with Tim Dunlop’s contention that businesses can lobby government for more regulation. Some advocate regulation, not necessarily to crush competitors but to bring them into line with the standards of behaviour that are expected by the community. This is because a business sector, or an industry, will nearly always be judged by its miscreants poorest performers.

Which ironically is just what Tim Dunlop did in his piece today.

So in closing, let me say, yes I’m a conservative, yes I’ve worked for big business, yes I used to be a lobbyist. But this post is from me as an informed citizen, saying “Why do we beat up on big businesses when they create jobs and help keep our economy strong? Why do we tar them all with the same brush? And, isn’t this the same sort of intellectual laziness that we want to stop in the mainstream media?”

Postscript: Here is an excellent rejoinder to my post from @theMickMorris The Big Union Bogeyman