Is shorten at war with businesses?

Ross Greenwood speaks to Former President of the Business Council of Australia, Tony Shepherd, about reports that Bill Shorten told corporate Australia that they  “should expect nothing from a Shorten Labor government”

Introduction: Is shorten at war with businesses?

Ross Greenwood:  Now, the prospect of a Bill Shorten government is very real, given the polls right now, but only a short-term and they have these other bits and pieces. Say, for example, you’ve had Sky News today saying that the opposition leader Bill Shorten reportedly visited the Sydney home of the Chinese donor Huang Xiangmo who, remember, is at the centre of that whole Sam Dastyari situation.

Okay, but then Bill Shorten himself. Now there was a recent lunch at the Business Council of Australia and you had a situation where Bill Shorten really caused mouths to drop open. It was actually November the 23rd, the board of the Business Council of Australia, that represents the top 100 companies here in Australia, hosted the opposition leader for lunch. This is according to a report by Miranda Devine in News Corporation papers today. What they basically said, shocked them to the core. This is Miranda Devine reporting here.

Amongst those around the table, the Business Council of Australia president, Brian King, the chief executive Jennifer Westacott, the Woodside CEO Peter Coleman, the Rio Tinto managing director Joanne Farrell. Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce. Because basically what he said was this. He said he thinks a class war will be good normally is what he actually said was he said that basically, you should keep criticizing me. The reason for that, he said, was because the more you criticize me, the better that I will go.

He said a class war is actually a good thing and that really the unions should not expect anything from his government if he does become the Prime Minister. Let’s go now to the former president of the Business Council of Australia and who has also been instrumental in writing other reports for government. Tony Shepherd is on the line right now. Tony, you’ve read these reports, are you surprised by the attitude of Bill Shorten?

Interview with: Tony Shepherd, Former President, Business Council of Australia

Tony Shepherd: Although, I’m quite surprised and I’m very disappointed as well, Ross. If those reports are accurate, and I must say that I was not at that lunch. That is extremely disappointing because I’m sure that Bill understands the importance of business to our economy. In fact, business is our economy. Governments don’t generate wealth. All they do is redistribute wealth and sometimes waste it, but its business that generates wealth and the very prosperity of our country depends on the success of business and the government has a big role to play in that arrangement.

Ross Greenwood:  Now, of Miranda’s report of this particular meeting, the thing that I would have imagined many Australians would be concerned about is Bill Shorten saying that business did not stand up for unions during the Royal Commission and he basically says that business should have defended unions and union membership during that time. That, I would have thought, is not the role of business and certainly not business leaders.

Tony Shepherd: Yes. Well, look, business on the whole in Australia has a good working relationship with unions, but we do have some extreme examples in the building industry. Where the behaviour has been awful and has had a terrible impact on business and on the reputation of the building industry. I don’t see this whole close cap attitude if it’s the unions versus business.

That’s not really happening too much in the modern vernacular. That is just a throw-back attitude and really the goals should be to get a good working relationship between the employees and employers and minimize the need for friction. I don’t think that’s particularly helpful either.

Ross Greenwood:  Well, you as a former president of the Business Council of Australia, and in your business life, you had to deal with unions, you had to deal with labor leaders when you were the president.

Tony Shepherd: I did, I did.

Ross Greenwood:  Therefore, did you find out– Was that relationship a conducive one? Was it a cooperative one?

Tony Shepherd: It generally it was really conducive. At one stage I had to deal closely with John Halfpenny as head of the metal workers in Melbourne. I mean, jeepers creepers, you couldn’t get a more less genuine leader than that, but we sorted that and we got on with building the Anzac warships and it was delivered on time and on budget.

I’m a great believer in working together with the unions to make sure that you get the productivity and to make sure, also, you get the safety standards that you want, but if you introduce antagonism to that relationship, then everybody suffers.

Ross Greenwood:  Well, that would appear to be the situation. I mean, it would appear as though that Bill Shorten wants to position himself with business and also with unions, you’d have to say, ahead of the next federal election. He certainly laid it pretty squarely at the business leaders’ feet as to how he expects them to behave and how he’s going to behave towards them.

Tony Shepherd: Yes, again I say it’s disappointing. We’ve got– We’ve got real wages I have lived in Australia for a few years and the people out there are really suffering. Ross, as a result of that, because their cost of living is going up, but that’s just the reflection that their productivity has come to an end, and we can only get productivity improvement by industrial cooperation, not by industrial antagonism. Those great reforms of the ’80s and ’90s by Horton Kelling, that’s what they were based on and they certainly have given us the high level of prosperity we’ve got today.

Ross Greenwood:  There’s another aspect of this. I spoke with the treasurer, Scott Morrison, he was adamant that he would try and seek tax cuts for individuals, tax cuts for business as well, in order for Australia to remain competitive with other parts of the world that are cutting taxes. Where Australia can afford it, tax cuts clearly are important to maintain our competitive edge. Now, Bill Shorten at this meeting is reported to have said they’re off the agenda, it’s not going to happen, so don’t even look for a tax cut.

Tony Shepherd: Yes, but look, we are uncompetitive on company tax, and I’m not just making a plea for the big end of town, by the way. This I’m saying for all companies. Our Asian competitors have all got lower tax rates. If the US goes to 20%, watch out. When the world’s biggest and strongest economy goes to a company tax rate of 20%, all those trillions of dollars that US companies have got parked offshore will start to be repatriated.

There will be a huge expansion in the US economy, but that could be very much at the expense of other economies offshore. We are in a competition for capital and ideas, and for work and what have you in. If we don’t remain competitive on a tax basis, then investment will not follow.

Ross Greenwood:  All right, you’re a man who knows about investment, knows about good use of government funds. You’ve talked about that a lot. Do you believe the New South Wales government, in seeking to knock down two stadiums and to build new stadiums and spend two and a half billion dollars in the process? You’re on the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust, you’re the chairman of the trustees there. You’re also the chairman of the GWS, the AFL team, so as a result they often play games out at the Old Olympic stadium, the ANZ stadium. Is this a good use of taxpayers’ money?

Tony Shepherd: It is, Ross. In fact, I’m out at the Giants now, at the Tom Wills Oval, just strolling around talking to you. I’m just watching our women’s team training. Remarkable bunch of young women, but look, what the fans expect in 2017 is not what they expected in 1980. The expectations have gone up dramatically. They’re not going to sit in the rain, or in the blazing sun. They’re not going to be crowded like cattle in crowded concourses and aisles, which are definitely unsafe.

If they win, they’re not going to queue for the whole of half-time to go to the toilet. Allianz has reached the end of its useful life as a modern stadium hence I’m surprised that we can still get seven select games this season given the state of the place. As chairman of the Trust, all I get after every major event is complaints from fans and members about the poor quality of the service, the inadequate toilets, the crowding and what have you.

It’s time it was replaced. Sport is our national religion and it what binds Australia together and we’ve got to have world-class facilities too. The premier city of Australia to be trumped by Adelaide, Brisbane, Perth, and Melbourne, is a bit of a disgrace.

Ross Greenwood:  When it comes to sport, Tony, you know you’re going to get a fight out of anybody in Melbourne, tonight, listening to that recognizes itself as the sports capital of this nation anyway.

Tony Shepherd: They are, have a look at the facilities they’ve got and they’re pulling the events and they get the crowds because they’ve given the partners the right facilities.

Ross Greenwood:  They have to.

Tony Shepherd: They can’t give them crummy facilities, you’ve got to wait half an hour to get a beer or a pie, and expect people to come back next week. They’ll say, “I’ll stay at home and watch it on my flat screen TV.”

Ross Greenwood:  We’ve got Tony Shepherd, the former president of the Business Council of Australia, but also the chairman of the Sydney Cricket and Sports Ground Trust, and also the chairman of Greater Western Sydney Giants AFL team, and Tony, as always, we appreciate your time in the program.

Tony Shepherd: My pleasure, Ross.




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