Modern Australian

Morrison's right hand man dispenses with niceties in lecturing big business

  • Written by Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

The Morrison government appears to be seething with anger at big business. At least, that’s the impression you get from a lecturing, hectoring speech delivered this week by Ben Morton, who’s assistant minister to the prime minister.

What is the beef? In a nutshell, that some big businesses have taken up “activist” issues, and that the coporates aren’t doing sufficient heavy lifting in selling (government) policies. Also, that big business is not relating enough to the “quiet Australians”.

Smaller businesses – seen as closer to and better communicators with these “quiet Australians - are viewed more kindly.

The speech came with the full prime ministerial imprimatur. Morton, one of Morrison’s inner circle, discussed it with the PM, who backed him in comments to The Australian.

What was particularly surprising was Morton’s tone – upbraiding, with more than a touch of arrogance.

Some extracts make the point.

ON supporting activist issues: "Business should not be seduced by the noisy elites, who try to bend business to their narrow viewpoints. Yet too often I see corporate Australia succumb or pander to similar pressures from noisy, highly orchestrated campaigns of elites typified by groups such as GetUp or activist shareholders.”

He instanced “engineering firm, Aurecon, which recently succumbed to activist pressure and cuts ties with Adani in line with its professed ‘sustainability commitments’. Whatever Aurecon’s successes on other fronts, expect to be called out by a government representing quiet Australians”.

ON the failure to be active enough in selling the policy agenda, he said: “With a few notable exceptions, in recent years corporate Australia has become increasingly silent (in their communications to their employees and the wider community) on those issues which will grow our economy, make Australia more productive and create more employment.

"Too often big businesses have been in the frontline on social issues, but missing in action when arguing for policies which would grow jobs and the economy.”

Then there was the blunt order: “Instruct your public affairs units. Instead of pretending you love paying tax or that you’re building electric cars rather than mining coal, or are in the solar panel rather than the oil or gas business, tell your employees and the quiet Australians in their communities what you can do for them.”

And this extraordinary statement: “I must admit to not speaking in parliament during the debate on reducing the company tax rate. While I obviously agree with reducing corporate tax, I felt that – with one or two notable exceptions - if corporate Australia wasn’t prepared to make the case for tax cuts, why should I?”

Business should pitch every idea or “demand” to government in terms of what was good for the “quiet Australians”, Morton said.

Of course, big business should think in terms of ordinary Australians – who are its customers. We only have to remember the banking royal commission to recall appalling lapses and the public’s disgust at them.

But Morton’s harangue against corporates for being too active on some fronts and not active enough on others says more about the government than about business.

While in some cases they are influenced by the views of executives or staff, large companies these days are inclined to take up social and environmental issues because they’re responding to what they see as community views - judged to be held much more widely than just by the so-called “elites”. (By the way, let’s not fall for any spin that the government isn’t part of the elite.)

Messages about sustainability, for example, reflect companies’ perceptions that climate change has become a huge issue that affects the way investors and consumers behave.

Companies that took a stand on same-sex marriage often saw themselves as aligning with community attitudes.

Big businesses have become more sensitive to their “social licence”. The upgrading of the importance of “social licence” reflects changing views in the society.

Activism is one of the drivers of attitudinal shifts, but not the only one. Whatever the forces at work, companies can’t afford to ignore prevailing sentiments when consumers may judge them, at least in part, on their broader stands.

As for Morton’s claim about businesses not promoting policies, this ignores some key points.

He underestimates the extent to which businesses have spruiked the need for reforms, including on tax.

Also, many big businesses these days do not want to be overtly political, especially international companies. They’ve become reluctant, for example, to give political donations.

Finally, while as Morton says “the Liberal Party is not the political wing of big business”, big business is not – and should not be - the corporate wing of the Liberal party. Maybe it saw itself like that once, but not now. Basically, it is up to the government and the Coalition parties to do their own selling.

Business is getting used to lectures from an antsy government. Recently Treasurer Josh Frydenberg gave it a gee-up, saying “My message today for business is to back yourself and use your balance sheet to invest and grow”.

There was a big difference, however, between the Morton and Frydenberg speeches. Frydenberg stuck to core issues and avoided being gratuitous.

Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Read more http://theconversation.com/view-from-the-hill-morrisons-right-hand-man-dispenses-with-niceties-in-lecturing-big-business-123530

NEWS

Michelle Grattan on the government's response to the bushfires

University of Canberra Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Geoff Crisp discusses the the week in politics the government’s response to the bush fires as well as the Emergency Leaders for Climate Action...

Conditions built into Frydenberg's okay for Chinese baby formula takeover

Bellamy’s will have to have to manufacture in Victoria and keep its Australian headquarters for ten years.Bellamy’s AustraliaThe proposed acquisition of infant formula producer Bellamy’s Australia Ltd by China Mengniu...

why Sweden's central bank dumped Australian bonds

Sweden's central bank ways it will no longer invest in assets from governments with large climate footprints, even if the yields were high.ShutterstockWhat’s happening? Suddenly, at the level of central...

celebrate with us and grab your discounted copy

The Conversation's Deputy Health Editor, Phoebe Roth, and Assistant Editor: Technology, Noor Gillani, agree this is the must-have read of 2019. Wes Mountain/The ConversationA little bit of authority goes a...

will banning illegal offshore sites really help kick our gambling habit?

While total gambling spending in Australia decreased during 2016-17, sports betting increased by 15.3%, from A$921 million to A$1.062 billion.SHUTTERSTOCKThe Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is going to...

Stop the world, I want to get off! In Exit Strategies, one woman leaves and leaves again

The script for Exit Strategies was developed by performer Mish Grigor during an artist’s residency in the UK, against the backdrop of Brexit.Bryony JacksonTo perform an exit is not as...

will the country see a return to strongman politics?

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the frontrunner in Sri Lanka's presidential election, faces a lawsuit in the US for alleged extrajudicial killing and torture.M.A. Pushpa Kumara/EPASri Lanka’s presidential election on Saturday comes at...

Is social media damaging to children and teens? We asked five experts

They need to have it to fit in, but social media is probably doing teens more harm than good. from www.shutterstock.comIf you have kids, chances are you’ve worried about their...

controlled burns often fail to slow a bushfire

Firefighters conduct property protection as a bushfire approaches homes at Woodford NSW, Friday, November 8, 2019. Calls for more controlled burning are common after a major bushfire.DAN HIMBRECHTS/AAPAs sure as...

Vital Signs. Might straight down the middle be the source of our economic success?

Australian roads are straight, as has been the trajectory of our economic policy for more than 30 years.ShutterstockWhat do a billionaire, a former vice president, and a US democratic socialist...

Research funding announcements have become a political tool, creating crippling uncertainty for academics

There’s a lot of uncertainty in a research career. Most funding – and most jobs – are doled out by the project, or in chunks of a few years at...

Friday essay: shaved, shaped and slit

In ancient China, India and the Middle East, the art of eyebrow threading was popular. It is now enjoying a resurgence.www.shutterstock.comEyebrows can turn a smile into a leer, a grumpy...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

Why You Should Hit the Gym This SpringSaving History One VHS Tape At A Time4 Vaccines Your Teens Should Be GettingStrength Training Tips To Make Your Workout EffectiveTop Fashion Secrets To Look Stylish No Matter The Occasion  How to save money on major home repairsCan I Do Something About My Sensitive Teeth?Climbing Out of a Creative Rut – Strategies for Photographers5 Digital Free Holidays: Take a trek and get back to nature8 Things You’ll Need for a Positive Breast Surgery RecoveryThe Best Sites and Events to See in Melbourne Everything You Wanted To Know About Air CompressorsWhat to Consider When Buying a Home With KidsPlaces to visit on your first trip to North AmericaHow to Choose the Best Driving Instructor