Business lobby is full of false bravado

Business leaders may like to feel all-powerful by pressuring the Government for reform, but if there isn’t public support or political capital to back it up then they’re just shouting into the wind.

The Canberra lobbying world has a dirty little secret: business just doesn’t get politics, and the industry is built on that ignorance.

More often than not, the disconnect between business and political reality isn’t much of an issue. Lobbyists wheel their naïve clients through politicians’ offices and are paid handsomely for what is little more than glorified door-opening. In return, the business figures feel influential even though they’ve done little more than whinge to a marginally relevant MP.

Meanwhile the real lobbying work goes on elsewhere in Canberra, not in the shiny marble halls of Parliament House but in far less glamorous surrounds, where myriad departmental officials actually develop and implement policy for their political masters. Lobbyists who want to deliver real policy outcomes, rather than simply act as political matchmakers, focus their efforts at this level.

But because door-opening is a relatively easy and considerably lucrative business, lobbyists often do very little to dissuade their business clients from the delusion that a few words in a politician’s ear is all that’s needed to get a favourable policy.

This can lead to the business sector – particularly the big end of town – believing it can muscle in on a government’s agenda regardless of the political issues at stake.

A good example is the recent call by senior businessman Roger Corbett for a double dissolution electionto overcome the “obstructionist” Senate. One would think that as a member of the Reserve Bank board and chairman of Fairfax Media Corbett would have a workable grasp of our political system.

However, if he did, Corbett would know that a DD election would likely increase the fractured nature of the Senate. The reduced quota for election to the upper house could result in even more independent, micro and minor party candidates being elected. Not to mention, of course, that on current opinion poll ratings, an election at this time would also see the defeat of the Abbott Government altogether.

Even if we set aside Corbett’s politically impractical call as the wishful thinking of an overly enthusiastic Liberal Party member, there are significant other examples of the business community simply not coming to grips with political imperatives.

Take the blink-and-you-might-miss-it declaration from the “group of nine” business groups earlier this month, which essentially accused current political leaders of cowardice for backing off on economic reform, saying: “Past giants of economic reform did what was right for the long-term benefit of Australia and not because it was politically expedient – it rarely ever was.”

Like Corbett, the business leaders that put their names to the statement have either deliberately ignored or simply missed the point. It was at least partly at the business community’s behest that the Abbott Government’s first budget went in so hard on economic reform. But only the Government has had to shoulder the community’s opprobrium since for doing so.

Even now, as the Government continues to struggle in the opinion polls after delivering the most unpopular budget in recent history, business continues to push it for policy changes that would amount to nothing short of electoral suicide if adopted in the current political environment.

Top of their wish list is workplace relations reform, yet only a government comprised of madmen or fools would propose this at a time when the unions’ successful WorkChoices campaign is still relatively fresh in the minds of Australian voters.

The other key reform being sought by business is tax reform, namely a cut in the corporate tax rate. This is behind the business push for an increase or broadening of the GST, which would improve the Government’s budget bottom line and consequently make a corporate tax cut more palatable to the broader community.

One of the principal business lobby groups, the Business Council of Australia, has even gone so far as to commission market research from Liberal Party pollster Crosby Textor, suggesting that the 94 per cent of respondents who agree the nation needs a “better plan” for its long-term future means voters “accept the need for change”.

Even if that were true, the same research found 62 per cent “do not trust government to manage tax reform well enough to create a better system overall”.

This is the political reality that business must face: there is no point pressuring the Government to prosecute difficult reforms when the community either fears, distrusts or holds the Government in contempt.

As Crosby Textor co-founder Mark Textor explained in an interview over the weekend, political leaders like NSW Premier Mike Baird and NZ prime minister John Key are successful because they pass three threshold tests of trust with voters: Do I trust this person at his word? Can he do what he says in this political system? And, if this thing he wants to do goes wrong, is this person of a character that would care if someone slips through the cracks?

And in the absence of that trust? Textor says it needs to be co-opted from an unexpected but credible third party, such as when the Australian Council of Social Services backed the Howard Government’s campaign for the GST.

Reform-minded business leaders need to accept that it is pointless – if not counterproductive – to pressure a government to implement change that will result in electoral defeat. Even if such a government chose unpopular policy purity over political expediency, it’s likely a new incoming government would simply overturn the change to garner public support.

Calling Government MPs cowards for backing away from reform is not telling them anything they didn’t already know, but it’s still as useless as shouting into the wind. Business must accept that reform needs a level of trust in government that is currently missing, and that new coalitions of interest, involving sections of the community outside of business, must be formed to re-establish that trust.

It may make business leaders feel important and influential to berate the Government and grandstand for the media. But like lobbyists opening politicians’ doors for a living, doing so is nothing more than a pointless and hollow charade.

The Lost Tribe

Moir, SMH 4 Apr 2012

There’s a group of Australians that I’m beginning to think of as the lost tribe.

They’re average people in most ways. They earn average incomes and have vanilla tastes. They worry about servicing their mortgages, getting their kids through school, and funding their retirement. They do their bit for the environment by getting a smaller car, installing a rainwater tank or using re-usable shopping bags.

The focus of this tribe is home and hearth; while they might be active in their own communities, they don’t have the time or inclination to focus on the big issues that loom beyond their back fence. They generally are well-meaning, hard-working and kind-hearted, but right now they feel disenfranchised, abandoned and lost. This is because they’ve been alienated, even demonised and cast adrift by contemporary politics.

The tribe are the people variously called Howard’s battlers, middle Australia and working families. They embody a grab-bag of political philosophies. They support capitalism to the extent that it guarantees food on the table and a secure future for their children. They support socialism to the extent that it provides universal health care, free education and a safety net for the disadvantaged. Their inner libertarian supports the right to have a drink, a smoke and punt. Their inner egalitarian wants their wives and daughters to be treated with equality and respect.

But these people no longer feel an allegiance to any one political party because their values have become fragmented in a way that does not match what is being offered. It is because of their lack of tribalism that I see these people as a tribe; a tribe that is lost in the wilderness, anxiously looking for a political home.

This tribe bears no allegiance to any one party, because they believe every party has let them down. While Howard made them feel secure for a decade, he pulled the rug from underneath them with WorkChoices. While Rudd assured them he’d be a better version of Howard, he lost their faith when he lacked Howard’s knack of reflecting the tribe’s views back to them. Despite their antipathy towards Rudd, the brutal nature of Gillard’s ascendancy led them to see her as untrustworthy and illegitimate.

The tribe now feel they’ve been cut adrift by the major parties and are wary of what the minors have to offer. They’re searching for security and certainty, but encounter only negativity and uncertainty. Most importantly, they hold the next federal election outcome in their hands.

Successive governments have courted the tribe and benefited from them feeling relaxed and comfortable. In doing so, both parties have actively demonised the other side as the harbingers of doom – higher living costs, soaring unemployment and increased social dislocation. Now the majors are reaping what they have sown; their negative messages have been so successful that the tribe simply doesn’t trust either of them any more.

Nor do they trust the minor parties who tell them they’ve never had it so good and now is the time to for sacrifice.

This is a difficult message for the tribe to accept. Having worked hard to get and maintain their comfortable lifestyle, they’re resentful of political efforts to make them feel guilty for it. Even if these efforts are for the greater good.

Equally difficult are the epithets that the tribe have to endure in the name of political discourse. They’re called racist when in fact they fear what is foreign to them; ignorant because they do not participate in scholarly debate; and selfish because they’re protective of the middle-class lifestyle they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Future elections will not be won convincingly, nor broad public agendas be progressed successfully, without the support and participation of the tribe. Their current alienation and non-alignment are the main reasons why the next federal election is still up for grabs. It is the tribe that is dissatisfied with both party leaders, who have tentatively parked their protest vote with the Liberals, and who are shunning the Greens.

The tribe’s loyalty may be hard to win, but it will be well worth it. The party who succeeds in winning back the lost tribe will be the one that makes them feel secure again, and the one who will next enjoy the spoils of government.

This piece first appeared in The Kings’ Tribune. It also appeared at ABC’s The Drum.