Bran Black Has The Hardest Job In Australia

Written by:
5 October 2023
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In this article, John Roskam contextualises and disseminates the findings of the IPA’s research into the growth of red tape in Australia, and how that affects Australian businesses.

The new boss of the lobby group for big business is described as “Mr Nice Guy”, but that will do nothing to push back against the government’s enthusiasm for drowning business in new regulations.

The hardest job in politics these days isn’t being the opposition leader or even the prime minister. It’s being the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, the lobby group for big business chief executives. At the moment, it feels as if big business is only slightly less unpopular with the Australian public than Qantas.

This week, Qantas management denied the company’s gift of free airfares to the Yes side in the Voice referendum was a quid pro quo for the Albanese government denying Qatar Airways approval for additional flights into the country.

Since the end of the Second World War and the beginning of Australia’s “long boom”, the leverage big business has had over politicians and the status CEOs have enjoyed with the public has been based on the notion that the interests of big business are synonymous with the national interest. The sentiment wasn’t quite the famous “What’s good for General Motors is good for America” – but it was close to it.

Pronouncements from the CEOs of Australia’s largest companies used to carry some heft, as they communicated that they understood the burden of responsibility for the nation’s economic wellbeing. Much of what CEOs talk about today is, in the scheme of things, trivial. Which perhaps reflects the changing nature of the Australian economy and the corporate landscape.

If you’re growing or making something or mining a mineral you probably think differently about the country and its people than if you’re selling professional services.

Many big businesses in this country are global businesses and for an increasing number of CEOs, Australia is just one market out of many. Which could explain why over the past few years, big business in Australia has been wrong about so many things so often.

It’s difficult to know where to begin on what big business has got wrong about the energy transition.

CEOs have been wrong on the Voice, the Albanese government, and energy policy to take just a few examples. The Voice referendum was meant to unify the country – it hasn’t. If big business hadn’t been such unquestioning supporters of the Voice, the government might have handled the referendum differently.

Then there’s the naivety of big business about the Labor Party. We’ll never know – because the PM and his ministers probably would have done whatever they wanted anyway – but maybe a less exuberant welcoming of the new government a year ago from corporate leaders would have tempered Labor’s ambitions to re-regulate industrial relations.

The Business Council’s praise of Albanese for his understanding of business fundamentals has earned for business 800 pages of new regulations and red tape. Last month, University of Adelaide law professor Andrew Stewart said those 800 pages were “a challenge to anyone to read and understand it. The drafting is very, very complex.”

Andrew McKellar, CEO of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, described the legislation as looking like “a fantasy product of industrial relations lawyers who have no understanding of the business world or the broader economy”. The changes, he said, “appear to have no policy basis other than the impatience of the trade union movement to bring about a more government-regulated employment and wages system”.

On energy, it’s difficult to know where to begin on what big business has got wrong about the energy transition. If there’s one thing (other than the Voice) CEOs like to talk about, it’s climate change. In the face of soaring power costs and potential blackouts it’s safe to say the transition isn’t turning out as expected.

The approach of big business to each of these three issues has been identical. CEOs have been only too eager to please the government and to say what they think will be popular. It’s not often you hear a company leader talk about the need for policy caution and prudence.

In a profile in this newspaper in August, after his appointment as the new CEO of the Business Council, Bran Black was described as “Mr Nice Guy” and a “congenial politico”. David Gonski said, “He has that ability to make everybody like him and to like what he’s putting to them.” Usually being nice gets your further than being nasty.

But as yet, playing nice with the Albanese government has got CEOs some nice photo opportunities with the prime minister – but not much else.

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IPA Red Tape Research

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