Monday, November 12, 2012
Business leaders have lost confidence in the Gillard government and, having concluded its days are numbered, are uncharacteristically willing to attack it in public. In private, though, most would doubt an Abbott government would be any more willing to grasp the nettle.
Consider the GST. Despite all the good sense Nick Greiner was talking last week about the need to fix it, both sides refuse even to discuss the topic. It was specifically excluded in the terms of reference for Ken Henry's "root and branch" review of the tax system (which didn't stop him proposing a similar tax with a different name).
It's not hard to see what the problem is. Each side is afraid that, if it showed the slightest interest in considering the topic, the other side will use this as a pretext to launch a scare campaign.
Or, consider the mining tax. Although it's not true the tax raised no revenue in its first quarter, it is true it raised less than expected, mainly because of the fall in commodity prices.
But prices have recovered from their lows in the first two months of the quarter. As well, the nature of the quarterly instalment process means collections are likely to pick up in later quarters.
Even so, it is true that the compromise tax Julia Gillard negotiated with the big three mining companies was both badly designed and too generous to the miners.
Why did she give in to them? Because the opposition had sided with the miners in opposing the original tax and, in their efforts to destroy the Rudd government, the big miners would have given the opposition huge funding in the 2010 election campaign.
One reason the miners were so opposed to the original tax was that the government caught them off guard with a strange tax they didn't understand. This would not have happened had Labor released the Henry report for discussion well before it made up its mind about which recommendations to accept, reject or modify.
So, why didn't it? Because it was so afraid the opposition would run a scare campaign claiming that Labor intended to implement all of Henry's most controversial proposals.
Next, consider company tax. For reasons I can't fathom, big business has its heart set on a cut in the company tax rate. Labor promised a cut of 2 percentage points, but the deal with the miners obliged it to reduce the cut to 1 point.
Then the combined opposition to this from the opposition and the Greens allowed Labor to renege completely. Although all previous cuts to the rate have been funded by the removal of concessions, big business can't agree on which concessions it's prepared to give up.
This has allowed Labor to shelve the idea. And I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for an Abbott government to find the revenue needed to fund a cut.
Finally, consider all the reform the Hawke-Keating government undertook during the 1980s and early '90s: deregulating the financial system, floating the dollar, phasing out import protection, deregulating more industries than you can remember and decentralising wage-fixing.
What do these reforms have in common? They went virtually unchallenged by the Liberal opposition of the day, under the dominant influence of John Howard and John Hewson.
Are you starting to see a pattern? All the reforms that aren't getting up (or, in the case of the mining tax, got badly botched) have become party-political footballs. And almost all the reforms we did get were bipartisan policy - with the GST and the carbon tax as the notable exceptions (although in both these cases the lack of bipartisanship led to inferior policy).
The point is, it's not so much unhappy voters governments fear, it's their political opponents seeking to take advantage of the voters' unhappiness.
What many business people don't understand about politics is the power of oppositions to influence what governments do and don't do. It's rare for governments to make controversial reforms when they know their opponents are waiting to pounce.
The bipartisan support for micro-economic reform lasted throughout the Hawke-Keating government's 13 years, but broke down after Paul Keating's defeat in 1996. Since then, both sides have gone for short-term political advantage at the expense of the nation's longer-term interests.
So, the first lesson big business needs to learn is that it's not enough to pressure the government of the day to show "political will". You must also pressure the opposition to resist the temptation to score cheap political points.
That's particularly the case when it's the opportunism of a Liberal opposition that is discouraging a Labor government from doing what it knows it should.
The second lesson is that big business won't get far until it abandons its code of honour among thieves. That is, when one industry goes into battle with the government to resist a new impost or get itself a special concession, all the other industries keep mum, even though they know the first industry is merely on the make.
Big business looked the other way as the three big miners connived with the opposition to destroy the Rudd government. Its reward was to have its precious cut in company tax snatched away.