A funny thing has happened on the way to the next federal election. The Labor left is exhibiting less hostility towards business than the Labor right.
In his Whitlam Oration at the Shellharbour Workers Club on June 22, Labor frontbencher and left faction heavyweight Anthony Albanese argued that “the best” Labor governments “seek to enlist competing interest groups as partners in progress by encouraging collaboration and compromise”. In this context he referred to the prime ministerships of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, both of whom came from Labor’s right-wing factions.
Albanese said: “Labor doesn’t have to agree with business on issues such as company tax rates but we do have to engage constructively with businesses large and small.” Here he sounded a bit like his leader, Bill Shorten, a few years ago.
In his book For the Common Good, published in the lead-up to the 2016 election, the Opposition Leader wrote: “You can’t expect to be prime minister without understanding business.” He added: “I understand how things operate at the enterprise level. I know what costs drive business, how input-cost changes affect profit margins, how to deal with operating and capital expenditure, why leverage is so important to business and just how hardworking many bosses are.”
That was Shorten two years ago. He does not talk much like that at the moment, coming across as indifferent to medium-sized businesses and even hostile to what the labour movement likes to call “the top end of town”. However, Shorten’s decision, announced yesterday, to back down on his intention to increase tax for companies with a turnover of between $10 million and $50m may indicate a change of heart.
Quite a few supporters of the Liberal Party and the Nationals fail to understand that it takes ability to be elected a trade union leader and then to run the organisation successfully. Certainly unions have considerable legal privileges that were written into legislation with the passage of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act in 1904.
Even so, most union leaders are clever and hardworking. Shorten exhibited skill and application as he worked his way to the top of the Australian Workers Union. As the AWU’s national secretary, he had a professional, and at times friendly, relationship with business leaders.
He continued the approach when he entered politics at the time of the election of Kevin Rudd’s government. He held several senior positions in the Rudd-Gillard governments, during which his relationship with business was friendly and professional. This continued when he became Opposition Leader in 2013. Despite predictions to the contrary, Shorten’s first term as Labor leader was successful. He did well in 2016 and came very close to defeating a first-term government led by Malcolm Turnbull. But since then Labor has become more negative, and at times hostile, towards business.
Miranda Devine reported in The Daily Telegraph last December that the previous month Shorten had participated in what was at times an acrimonious lunch in the Sydney CBD with leading members of the Business Council of Australia.
Shorten supported fellow right-wing faction leader Wayne Swan in his successful campaign to become ALP national president by defeating left-wing faction heavyweight Mark Butler.
In February, Swan told The New Dailythat some business leaders campaigning for company tax cuts “are suffering from a blindness of affluence”. This month he accused business leaders of being “brutally selfish”. He recently tweeted: “The government and sections of the business community are in a sick race to the bottom to minimise tax, suppress wages, casualise the workforce, while backing cuts to penalty rates, health and education. That’s class war.”
Unlike Shorten, Swan’s attacks on business go back to his time as treasurer in the Rudd-Gillard governments. He tells Fairfax Media’s Mark Kenny that his antipathy developed after he had to abandon his mining super profits tax proposal following a devastating campaign against it by the mining industry.
So Swan reckons the Coalition and big business are waging a class war against the less well off. This is explosive language that overlooks the fact all Australians have a vested interest in the success of all levels of business.
Butler is much more supportive of business than his successor, despite being a member of the left faction. And so it has come to pass that the Labor right (Shorten, Swan) is much more critical of business than the left (Albanese, Butler). It’s foolish to make political predictions. Moreover, despite a relatively low approval rating, Shorten has been an able leader who has had his party ahead in the Newspoll for about two years. Yet we know that traditionally Labor has enjoyed political success when it was not in conflict with business.
Ben Chifley comprehensively defeated the Coalition led by Robert Menzies in 1946. “You’ll never win with Menzies,” it used to be said. Then, in 1947 Chifley started a class war by deciding to nationalise private trading banks.
This disastrous attempt at socialism revived Menzies’ political fortunes and led many workers in banking and insurance into the arms of the Coalition. Bank nationalisation was knocked out by the High Court. Menzies won in 1949 and retired undefeated from politics in January 1966.
Albanese is correct. It is in Labor’s interest to have as good a relationship as possible with all kinds of business.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.