GREG BAILEY. The Business Council of Australia, a new political body appealing to the small business constituency?

May 4, 2018

The Business Council of Australia has hit the electronic and print media in the past few days, but for all the wrong reasons. It has been accused of setting itself up to run political campaigns along the lines of the main parties and the ACTU. Why is it doing this now and why is it trying to broaden its appeal beyond its traditional constituency of corporations, the large consultancy firms and big business in general?

The BCA has been a well-known advocacy group representing big business for the past forty years. Perhaps it is more successful than other like-minded groups in having as its member the CEOs of 132 of Australia’s largest companies. These include all the large banks, numerous large foreign owned multinationals, six large consultancy firms, several well known law firms, and sundry companies involved in finance and residential accommodation such as BUPA, the latter in the news recently for running a very “efficient” taxation policy. Arguably this is the crème-de-la-crème of Australian business and even individually many of these companies have powerful lobbying capacity.

At least four of their senior staff members have direct connections with the Liberal Party and all in some form or other have held senior positions in the Commonwealth and state public services. In addition four have worked for consultancy firms. Whilst there is nothing unusual about these career paths–in fact, they are the norm–in what is essentially a lobbying firm, it demonstrates yet again the extremely tight connection between the Liberal (and often the Labor) government, the large consultancy firms and the senior levels of the economic departments in the Commonwealth Public Service. This places the BCA in a prime position to have direct access to decision makers in the government and to influence the implementation of public policy, and to do so quietly, out of the public gaze.

Perhaps surprisingly, in announcing its request to member companies to give $200,000 each to help build up a large war chest in support of the LNP in the next federal election, it has over the last few days drawn strong condemnation, mainly in the media, sources one would expect to be supportive. This money is to be used explicitly for political campaigning against what it calls “anti-business forces” and will actually involve getting its hands dirty in a way associated with mainstream political parties. In its intention to hold town hall meetings and conduct an advertising campaign on commercial television, it is functioning exactly as a political party would.

The BCA board may well be taking up this campaign because it is suffering from the revelations of the Royal Commission into Banking and Finance–all the big four are members of the BCA. It is likely very sensitive to the potential electoral anger being directed at the widespread malpractices (if not corruption) being exposed (but long known) in corporate culture and the general public’s apparent awareness of the failed trickle down theory. This anger was well expressed in the election of Donald Trump and the success of the Brexit vote.  And if there was change of electoral sentiment, an ALP government may feel justified in reining in all sorts of corporate excesses thrown up by the royal commission. The  BCA campaign might also represent a fear of the negative effect widespread class actions against some of its members’–potentially four against AMP–capacity to function. These actions may not have been mounted without the legitimacy given them by the banking royal commission. Finally, it may also be a response to the ACTU’s television campaign associated with the slogan that ““Big Business has too much Power.”

As if to broaden its appeal the BCA is actively using the language of small business. In the past it only needed to contact a ministerial office and a staffer to influence a particular policy development, but to hold town hall meetings and pay for television advertising, as it did in the recent SA election, seems a new innovation. This is what Get UP and the various environmental movements attempt to do.  On  the BCA web site one can read about its new campaign Australia at Work, described as

“A campaign to restore Australians’ sense of hope and rekindle their aspirations for themselves and their families. It’s about recognising and applauding the contribution business makes every day.”

In the accompanying spiel it is quite explicit in its use of emotive, advertising language, to direct itself to a small business audience:

“Businesses are the backbone of a thriving country.

They create jobs and opportunities, employing 10 million of the 12 million Australians who work. They innovate, export and support vibrant local communities.

But who is business? It’s the worker on the check-out who relies on their pay packet from the biggest employer in town – the supermarket. It’s the small business owner who supplies the snacks to one of the airlines. It’s the teenager who has their first job at the local fast-food outlet, and the farmers who provide fresh produce. It’s a lot of people and businesses, big and small.”

This is accompanied by a series of pictures depicting men and women engaged in or beginning a small business and telling their own story. At the bottom of the page it contains a general invitation to “Join our Campaign.” Very similar sentiments were expressed in a radio interview Westacott did in Perth on May 1.  Is the BCA going to represent the small person in the manner formerly done by the union movement?

Notwithstanding this rhetoric, requesting $200, 000 from its members puts it firmly at the big end of town, as no small business will be able to stump up an amount like this. And what will the BCA expect in return: the $65 billion of tax cuts promised to big business, only a small amount of which will end up being productive of increased job numbers and flow to those being appealed to for Australia at Work. The hypocrisy of its position can easily be pointed out, yet it may also be a sign that the BCA is perceptive of the public distaste for neoliberal governments and the severe contraction of the consultancy-lobbying industries that could flow from this. Though this might be overestimating the perspicacity of its members.

Dr Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher, College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.


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