Big Business In Full Flight Is The Clarion Cry Of Democracy

Is big business running rings around the government? That’s the view of an increasing number of commentators convinced the era of economic reform is over because business won’t play ball.
Their argument rests on the campaign by mining interests against the Rudd government’s resources tax last year, a campaign described by one journalist as ”thuggery, pure and simple”. In the Julia Gillard era, many say similar business thuggery will destroy any future reform. Put aside the implicit assumption businesses should meekly accept tax rises and new regulations.
In his Quarterly Essay, George Megalogenis wrote: ”The miners were seeking a veto no lobby is entitled to – to deny a government the right to set taxation rates.”
But that’s the nature of democracy. Individuals (and individuals in business) can aggressively criticise the actions of the government, to try to influence opinion, to make their case in public. Nobody was trying to strip the tax power from the Commonwealth, just saying that a particular new tax should be open for debate.
The anti-mining tax campaign will be the template for corporate activism for decades to come – like the attempt by Clubs Australia to drum up opposition to proposed pokies regulation with that turgid word ”un-Australian”.
But was the miners’ campaign really that strong? The ads weren’t that good. They were light on detail. Certainly they lacked the detail to be convincing. Voters are not so naive to take what a lobby group says on face value. Every single business facing new regulation or tax says they’ll be ruined. Australians aren’t stupid.
The success of the anti-mining tax campaign reflects nothing more than the weakness of the Rudd government. After watching Kevin Rudd launch policy after policy with little to show for it, voters were not convinced increasing the taxes on one of Australia’s most successful industries was really a pressing issue.
Still, it’s true that business seems to have given up quietly lobbying behind the scenes, and now makes its arguments in carefully scripted television spots.
That’s not a bad thing. Better that special business interests lobby against legislative change in public than in secret boardroom lunches with ministers.
Anyway, whatever influence business has in Australia, it’s dwarfed by Canberra’s influence. While the mining sector contributes about 6 per cent of our GDP, the federal government spends 23 per cent. While the miners spent $22 million on a one-off ad campaign, the Australian government spends about $100 million in advertising every year.
But most of all: business can’t impose new taxes or laws on everybody else. There’s definitely a power imbalance between business and government, but it isn’t business that has the upper hand.
The most intense campaign against a government policy in Australian history was the opposition to the Chifley government’s proposed nationalisation of banks between 1947 and 1949.
The private banks produced millions of pamphlets stating their case for private enterprise. They took out thousands of column inches of advertising. They sponsored anti-nationalisation ”interviews” on commercial radio. Town hall meetings against nationalisation were attended in the thousands. The nationalisation failed. Ben Chifley lost the 1949 election to Robert Menzies.
That campaign makes the anti-mining tax ads seem like an inaudible squeak. If such a campaign happened today, it would be dismissed as a ”billionaires’ revolt”. But the banks did us a favour by opposing Chifley’s plan.
Australian politics does not remember the bank campaign. Certainly not as romantically as it remembers the environmental campaigns in Tasmania, or anti-Vietnam War rallies, or Gough’s It’s Time slogan.
The fact that this story has been largely forgotten reveals a misplaced and deeply undemocratic hostility to business participating in public debate.
Business is no less justified in protesting policy than, say, the medical research community in protesting the rumoured reduction in funding this federal budget. An ad campaign isn’t thuggery. It’s argument.
Now business is speaking up again as the government prepares the carbon price. So be it.
To imagine business leaders should take every government impost on the chin is absurd. They have as much right to participate in democracy as everyone else.