Labor's war on business

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Cartoon: Bill Leak, The Australian

MRC Executive Director Nick Cater writes in The Australian:

It is tempting to describe Sam Dastyari as a metaphor for our times, except that a metaphor has to stand for something, which the senator unfortunately doesn’t. 

So let’s just say Dastyari is the essence of a modern Labor politician; no context, no principles and no apparent purpose beyond winning the dogfight of the day.

“Talking to him feels like reading a hurtling and slightly disjointed Twitter feed,” Nick Bryant once wrote in a magazine profile, and one can see his point. It is as if Dastyari took Graham Richardson’s maxim — whatever it takes — but got distracted before finishing the sentence. Whatever it takes to do what exactly?

Labor’s descent from principle to populism has accelerated unnervingly in the three years since Dastyari arrived in the Senate. Bit by bit Labor has exchanged values for voodoo, portraying business as a force of evil intent.

If Dastyari’s tirades against bankers and corporations have a familiar ring about them it’s because he’s peddling the same conspiracy as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Diabolical forces of corporatism are neutering governments and controlling its people like zombies.

“The powers that be,” claims Sanders, “Wall Street with their endless supply of money, corporate America, the large campaign donors are so powerful that no president can do what has to be done alone.”

When Corbyn secures a meeting with Barack Obama it’s not the precarious international economy he wants to discuss, Islamic terrorism or geopolitical instability. It’s “the increasing use of technology around the world and the effect that has”.

Dastyari, too, is alert to the subterranean global forces that manipulate our world for the convenience of merchant bankers. “There is something fundamentally rotten with the entire system,” he told a gathering of young supporters at a think tank gathering recently. An “unprecedented concentration of corporate influence” is corrupting civic life.

“There are 10 companies that really wield the most incredible amount of power in Australia,” he told the gathering in rising agitated tones. “Four banks, and we all know who they are — the Commonwealth Bank, NAB, Westpac and ANZ — three big mining companies in Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals, you’ve got your two big grocery chains, and you’ve got your big telco, which is Telstra.”

Suddenly we’re in nonsense territory, listening to the kind of rhetoric unheard from a mainstream Australian politician since the 1930s, when Red Ted Theodore raged against the conspiracy to demean the working man led by timber combines, shipowners and coal barons.

The difference, one suspects, is that Theodore actually believed in socialism and, in the days before communism’s worst excesses were apparent, arguably had an excuse. For Dastyari and the hipster generation, it’s merely another postmodern jape. He named his cats Lenin, Trotsky and Mao, Bryant tells us. He uses the Senate’s Economics References Committee to conduct vanity show trials, summoning corporate chief executives to Canberra to give them a theatrical grilling.

“I think Australian politics can use, from time to time, a little bit of showmanship,” he said earlier this year. “We wouldn’t be on Seven, Nine and Ten if the CEOs of Google and Apple weren’t there.”

It is a long way from the 1980s when Bob Hawke treated business leaders not as extras in a publicity stunt but as indispensable partners in economic reform.

Paul Keating as treasurer was prepared to adopt deregulation and competition policy — deeply unpalatable as they were to some Labor members — because they served the national interest.

Indeed, it is hard to identify a moment when such antagonism towards business would have been acceptable discourse within the Australian Centre-Left. The ideology of fairness that reduces every perceived problem to a consequence of inequality casts wealth-producers as the enemy, particularly those who have the audacity to make a profit.

In truth, the influence of big business on the civic debate has seldom been softer. What’s more, when the corporate voice is raised if is frequently in favour of progressive causes. When corporate revenue is diverted to support same-sex marriage, constitutional change recognising indigenous Australians and “inclusiveness” in all its protean guises, no one bats an eyelid.

The notion the Centre-Right is in the pocket of big business would raise a hollow laugh at the Liberal Party federal executive. Seldom have corporations been so cautious about making political donations to either major party.

Indeed, the clearest manifestation of influence-buying is not from business but the unions, which donate millions to the Labor Party and smaller amounts to the Greens and independents with spectacular results.

That the success of the bill to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission should even be in doubt is testimony to the clout of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union and other industrial unions. Could there be a clearer example of good policy held hostage to sectional interests?

The most dispiriting aspect of Labor’s corporate conspiracies is not their hollowness and hypocrisy but the diversion they provide from the pressing fiscal challenges of the day.

Any reasonable assessment of the national interest would demand the opposition offer a credible plan to reduce the debt burden. A serious alternative government would be looking to cut spending, not raise it. It would be figuring out how to undo the fiscal damage it locked in last time it was in government with its plans for a National Disability Insurance Scheme and school education funding. It would be looking to welfare reform, investigating policies to streamline health services and calling time on the rent-seekers who hang around asking for more.

Yet these are not burning issues on Twitter, never mind the ABC, where Dastyari’s halo has barely been tarnished. In that strange, self-reverential world in which the intelligentsia exists, the buying of influence by a Chinese company would be a major scandal if the Right were involved; for Dastyari it is merely “a distraction”.




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2019 by Menzies Research Centre