Who's Afraid of Big Business?


Rod Eddington. Paging Sir Rod Eddington. Have you tried his office? Nothing. What about the mobile? Dammit!

Yesterday morning just two days after Labor’s 44th National Conference nobody in the Party leadership could find the man who was supposed to grease the wheels for the ALP in the business world.

As big corporations, including BHP Billiton, were bucketing Labor for its new industrial relations policy, which abolishes individual workplace contracts, Eddington went AWOL.

In February, Kevin Rudd unveiled Eddington, a former head of British Airways and a current Director of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, as Chairman of Labor’s Business Advisory Group. His mere presence at Rudd’s side was meant to show corporate Australia that Labor was not only back in business but back with business, after an estrangement during Mark Latham’s leadership.

But it appears that Sir Rod knighted for his services to aviation isn’t around when Labor most needs him to pacify a business community that, like a petulant child, is stamping its feet at not getting its own way. ‘Give me back my Australian Workplace Agreements!’ they’re screeching.

Rather than despair, however, Labor needs to consider what benefits it gains from the approval of the corporate world.

First, let’s bell the cat that it was Latham’s negative attitude and temperament towards big business that cost Labor the 2004 election. There is not a shred of evidence to support that claim.

Latham lost because the public began to see he was an unstable character, with minimal experience in government and unready to steer the country through the shoals of international terrorism during a war in Iraq that, while obviously wrong from the outset, was not quite the fully fledged catastrophe it is now. And they feared an interest rate rise.

Is anyone seriously suggesting that in 2004 most Australians took the side of the banks the banks! when Latham said he would compel them to offer free accounts to up to five million people in a year when they had chalked up profits of $10.5 billion?

Just a few months earlier, at the 2004 Queensland State election, Commerce Queensland, a reputedly powerful business lobby, campaigned hard against Peter Beattie’s Government. Beattie won a record majority of 63 seats. His then Treasurer, Terry Mackenroth, gave the organisation short shrift, telling ABC TV’s 7.30 Report, ‘I don’t lose any sleep over Commerce Queensland.’

And nor should Rudd lose sleep over BHP Billiton, the Business Council of Australia (BCA) and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI). They speak for no one other than a few hundred chief executives and their lieutenants. They do not swing votes where Labor needs them. Yes, they donate, but almost always less than they give to the Liberals. After all, John Howard’s Liberals are the parliamentary wing of ‘executive Australia.’

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

There have been relatively few socially responsible let alone social democratic business people in Australia. Essington Lewis, the late BHP chief, was a small-c conservative, modest in lifestyle and with a deep sense of duty that compelled him to serve the nation as head of munitions during World War II.

The late Ken Myer, aware of the privilege into which he was born, became a not only a generous philanthropist and environmentalist but an emphatic supporter of Gough Whitlam, well before Labor began styling itself as business-friendly.

Evan Thornley, a publisher and internet entrepreneur and now a State Labor Senator in Victoria, was a social democrat before he was wealthy and he has held to the creed.

Janet Holmes á Court, like the late Gordon Barton, is a business leader of decent, small-l liberal inclination. But that is a handful of names.

Before the 1987 election, the late Kerry Packer hinted he would vote for Bob Hawke, but Packer owed Labor or at least its Right wing big time, after the Wran Government gifted him flood lights at the Sydney Cricket Ground and cut him in on the action of the State’s lucrative lottery. Some Federal Labor MPs had also helped shut down the Costigan Royal Commission, which heard serious (although unproven) claims against Packer. (The Keating Government also owed Packer for taking the embarrassing, scandal-ridden fixer Graham Richardson off its hands, when he left the Ministry for a job in the big bloke’s empire.)

The only reason business dealt with, and donated to, Labor in the 1980s was because it looked unbeatable. It is the same story now with the Labor Party at the State level. They enjoy corporate patronage only because the Liberal-National Oppositions have, so far, been a feeble, unelectable alternative. As long as there is a mainstream Party to the Right of Labor, it will always enjoy business preference.

And that is hardly surprising given the personnel involved. Michael Chaney of the BCA is the brother of former Liberal Minister Fred Chaney, who might have a mushy centre on Aboriginal issues  but, according to Patrick O’Brien’s 1985 classic, The Liberals: Factions, Feuds & Fancies, was one of the earliest economic ‘dries’ in the Party. Even more telling is the role of Peter Hendy at the ACCI, a Liberal Party operative who was henchman to former Howard Government Minister Peter Reith during the Patricks waterfront dispute and the dishonest ‘children overboard’ incident. Why should Labor bother with them?

Labor leaders always overestimate the esteem in which business is held in the community. In 2005 Business Review Weekly, reporting on the findings of the ‘Eye on Australia’ survey, found that 55 per cent of Australians did not trust big companies and 64 per cent believed corporations had neither morals nor ethics. An even broader study of 1700 people by the Australian National University found that 71 per cent of Australians thought that corporations had too much power, while less than 40 per cent believed the same of unions.

Rudd and his Deputy Julia Gillard are unambiguously on a winner in promising to overturn Howard’s workplace laws. Union membership may be falling steadily, but that does not mean union popularity is falling. In 2005, a major Auspoll survey found that 90 per cent of respondents disagreed with the proposition that Australia would be a better place without unions. Fifty per cent of respondents said they would ‘rather be in a union.

The figures on declining membership only show that Howard’s laws have frightened employees away from unions; he has not changed their minds about their positive values.

If Sir Rod Eddington, Michael Chaney, Peter Hendy or any corporate CEO is unhappy with Federal Labor’s IR policy, may I suggest Kevin Rudd responds with a resounding, ‘So what?’

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.