Prime minister Tony Abbott's post-election declaration that Australia was 'open for business' needed fleshing out. Possibly it got that on Monday evening in a strident landmark address given by the chairman of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council Dr Maurice Newman. Newman said the economy was 'running on empty' and needed radical reform and fiscal discipline to avoid 'the prospect of growth with a zero in front of it'.
He criticised Labor for 'five long years of reckless spending, economic waste, class warfare particularly aimed at business, the mindless destruction of Australia's international competitiveness and the reintroduction of workplace rigidities'. He was referring to 'common good' policies such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski school funding reforms, which he believes are a waste of money (implicitly he discounts the role of education in boosting economic productivity).
Newman regretted that the Coalition had 'limited its options' by making 'hasty' election promises to avoid necessary cuts to such reforms. He also urged measures to shift the balance of power from ordinary Australians towards big business. These include the easing of competition laws to give big companies the 'necessary critical mass in a small domestic market' to become 'national champions'. Is he talking about going soft on any collusion between Coles and Woolworths, or perhaps even allowing a merger?
At his media conference on Tuesday, Abbott denied that Newman holds sway over government policy. But Newman has been meeting with Abbott at least weekly since the election, and it's said that Newman's speech was prepared after close consultation with Abbott.
It's Newman's job to lobby for big business against, as it happens, the common good. But even among some of his peers in the business world, he is regarded as arrogant and aloof, particularly on his unwillingness to accept the need for a reduction in carbon emissions. The Financial Review's Chanticleerobserved that 'his strident position on climate change was contrasted with the balanced views taken by Santos chief executive David Knox and Nestlé Australia director Elizabeth Proust on Q&A on ABC later the same night'.
It's to be hoped that Knox and Proust are among the 'range of voices that the Government takes very seriously', which Abbott alluded to in his media conference while trying to hose down suggestions that Newman is writing his government's business policy.
Another voice that merits a hearing is that of ANU economics Professor Ross Garnaut, who talks about 'policy making in the public interest' in his new book Dog Days: Australia After the Boom. Garnaut is one with Newman in advocating the need for fiscal restraint, but is critical of Newman's wish to 'put all the adjustment burden on vulnerable Australians when that's neither economically rational nor politically feasible'. Instead Garnaut wants what he calls 'shared sacrifice'.
Newman argues for tax reform that will shift the burden away from business towards workers, and does not mention a key concern of Garnaut's, which is the cost to our productivity of Australia's high rates of executive remuneration when compared with similar economies.
We can only hope that Abbott is in fact true to his word when he tried to assure journalists that he listens to a range of voices on how to sustain the wellbeing of all Australians, and not just big business people.