Senate hearing, April 24, 2018

Senator Lee Rhiannon: You have again repeated this supposed connection between company profits, the tax cuts and wage rises. We have heard evidence that there isn’t the connection. Can you give us an example of another country where the tax cuts have resulted in wage rises?

Jennifer Westacott: We’ll take it on notice.

Rhiannon: Seriously, you’ve come here

Senator Kristina Keneally: Surely you can give us something. I’m sorry, I have asked Mr King this question before in my previous incarnation

Rhiannon: And also you’ve come to this inquiry, Ms Westacott. This is a hot issue. You can’t take that on notice.

Senator Keneally: Come on. You’ve got to have

Senator Rhiannon: You’ve got all your advisers behind you. Seriously, this is the top question.

Big business has a problem. Its message is no longer cutting through. The banking Royal Commission has put its campaign for corporate tax cuts on a knife edge and its peak lobby group, Business Council of Australia, is ramping up its already heavy spending on propaganda.

Check out this website:

You won’t find any ostensible mention, none that we could find at least, about who is funding For The Common Good. There are clues however in the fine print at the bottom of the home page:

“Authorised by Centre Ground Limited of Level 42, 120 Collins Street, Melbourne VIC”

This also happens to be the office address of the Business Council of Australia – and the Collins St eyrie is no haunt for commoners. The BCA is the union for the chief executives of Australia’s largest companies, almost half of which are foreign controlled and almost half of which pay little or no income tax. Yet the centrepiece of its campaign is corporate tax cuts and cutting regulation.

“In an increasingly polarised Australia,” says For the Common Good, “the loudest voices don’t represent the majority of Australians, people who just want to get on with their lives, work hard, take care of their families and contribute to the community. For the Common Good is about giving these Australians a voice.”

Actually, the majority of Australians do now, finally, have a voice. Its called the internet; and on social media, the business lobby is getting a right-royal flogging. This despite the usual sycophantic coverage in the business press.

Westacott penned an oped for The Australian newspaper on Tuesday announcing the campaign, taking the customary pot-shot at its ideological adversary GetUp! and claiming high moral ground on “the facts”; a rather ironic posturing give the senators’ invitation above to produce one solitary, bellwether fact in relation to its central policy, tax cuts, and having to tell the senators, “We’ll have to get back to you on that”.

She also revealed the business lobby’s latest ties with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation:

“Our Strong Australia partnership with Sky News, supported by News Corp Australia (publisher of this newspaper), is taking business leaders to areas throughout the country that are all too often locked out of the Sydney-Melbourne-Canberra-centric debate.”

Bankrolled by News Corp, the BCA road-trip is even conducting a “Pub Test”:

Were they to shout the bar, they may find pockets of support although their emissaries might also find that playing pool is not easy when cufflinks are worn appropriately protruding from the Valentino suit on the underside of the wrist.

In their latest missive to members about the “grass-roots campaign”, they are asking for $200,000 apiece to finance the crusade of “giving these (hard-working) Australians (not those goats-cheese chomping ones with the “loud voices” but those common ones “who just want to get on with their lives and take care of their families”) a voice”.

The campaign rhetoric is laced with deprecation. Loud voices who can’t get their facts straight and presumably aren’t like other Australians who take care of their families, a community which requires “literacy on what makes a strong economy”.

The case however for “trickle-down” is thin.

Many companies in the US did give their workers a bonus after the Trump tax cuts were passed. Though most of the windfall was spent on share buy-backs – some 37 times more than on workers according to a recent study:

Share buy-backs lift the stock price of a company and so mostly deliver the financial gains to shareholders – and executives whose bonuses are struck on a rising share price.

Surely, some will trickle down to workers via shareholder and executives’ spending but a good deal will also be plonked in tax havens if the Australian tax package gets through parliament.

Although the BCA purports to represent the middle ground and small business, its members are exclusively big businesses. This is the only union where members, chief executives, don’t pay their membership fees, their shareholders do.

The lobby group is right on a few points however, the debate is increasingly polarised. And it is polarised because the business lobby is unable to furnish sufficient evidence that $50 billion in unfunded tax cuts will somehow benefit ordinary Australians.

Besides fumbling before the Senate to name one country where there was a positive nexus between tax cuts and rising wages for workers, BCA rep Grant King of Origin Energy was also forced into retreat over the same issue in an interview on Sky News on December 8, 2016:

The evidence is simply not there. The evidence of aggressive corporate tax avoidance however is there, as is the evidence of systemic predatory practices in financial services, systemic rule-breaking by the big end of town and systemic propagandising.

This is why, notwithstanding talk of “pub tests”, no BCA envoy is likely to step foot inside the uncontrolled environment of a pub because if somebody “literate” were to challenge them on “the facts”, they would be found wanting.

If yours truly were to bump into Jennifer propping up the bar with her pint of ale, or perhaps potting a double in the bottom pocket from a tight angle off the cushion, yours truly might inquire, as a small business person funded by people in the community, how one might procure a $30 million taxpayer hand-out like her member News Corporation, or perchance structure the affairs of the business like EnergyAustralia to manufacture a parent company in the British Virgin Islands, or at a stretch, figure out how to pay zero tax over three years despite total income of twenty-five thousand million dollars like her member ExxonMobil, or avoid tax on the sale of an $8 billion asset because the “gain” was allegedly “unrealised” like her member Origin Energy

When a sale is not a sale – Origin Energy’s unreal unrealised gain

or, even better, pocket $2.5 billion from taxpayers over ten years by giving advice to government like her members PwC, Deloitte, EY and KPMG, or get one of those fancy taxpayer bail-out funds like the banks so you can’t go bust, or last but not least, get away with breaching the Corporations Act at least 11 times in 20 years by failing to file the company accounts on time like the BCA itself.

BCA investigation: power of the business lobby in Australia

One has a mild suspicion, as a small business person, that if one were to engage in such activities one might find oneself pursued by the corporate regulators and the tax office like a rat up a drainpipe.

And these are the fundamental problems which the BCA faces, double standards and foundering credibility.

Community awareness has increased, the ordinary Australian is onto it, we know when we are being conned. Political party donations, influence peddling and propaganda are failing to withstand community disquiet because big business no longer controls the messenger. Traditional media control is unravelling. Where once, the newspaper fax machines churned out BCA press releases, often faithfully reported by the national newspaper duopoly, now anybody with a computer can have a say.

When this scribe was business editor of the Sydney Morning Herald in the wake of the global financial crisis, the term “anti-business” found its currency. The business lobby and its allies in the press are hawking that line even more belligerently now. It stacks up as much as the claim that a critical sports journalist is “anti-sport”.

Along with swelling numbers of ordinary citizens around the world who are experiencing rising inequality and the encroaching influence of corporations – “facts” which are supported by hard evidence unlike trickle-down economics – this writer and many thousands of others are not anti-business but anti-corruption, anti-rent-seeking and pro-fairness.

Will the combative strategies of the BCA work? They are more likely to polarise. The BCA has now foreshadowed its drive into electoral campaigning for tax cuts and is now framing its loud-of-voice antagonists as layabouts who don’t look after their families or contribute to the common good.

Unlike the humans who work for them, who are quite like the humans who don’t work for them, corporations live forever, enjoy limited liability status, claim tax deductions which are not available to humans and use the courts a lot at citizens’ expense.

The humans inside the corporations, and their shareholders, would surely benefit financially from corporate tax cuts. For other humans the evidence is negligible. But all humans will hardly benefit from a more polarised society.

Those to stand to win most from the tax package are the banks. These are the biggest single taxpayers, accounting for $31 billion in corporate income tax collectively over the three years of Tax Office transparency data.

Given events at the Royal Commission into banking, if you were to saunter down to the pub and tell the locals they were going to be subsidising tax cuts for the banks and AMP but, heh, did you know you are already on the hook to bail them out so they can’t go bust – yep, fair dinkum, they’ve got this thing called the Committed Liquidity Facility with the Reserve Bank – how do you reckon you would go? That’s the right pub test.

So it is that the BCA will forget about the pub and instead focus at deploying its resources on TV ads, flimsy in content and glitzy in style – including the $200,000 apiece already tossed into the pot by Qantas and Coca-Cola Amatil. It worked when the Minerals Council managed to oust Kevin Rudd as prime minister and stave off the resources tax.

Royal Commission: no easy fix for systemic corruption