Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

An Uneasy Marriage

Politics involves three things. Power, Relationships and Compromise. And while Power (who’s up, who’s out) and compromise (who has sold out/who’s principled) are topics of endless conversation, relationships are almost never talked about. They are assumed eternal links, the union movement and labor, doctors and the conservatives. But like glaciers, their slow speed should not be mistaken for weakness and when they do bring change (Howard’s battlers) they fundamentally re-arrange politics far more than any policy or polling issue could hope for.

One of the more interesting relationships to watch over the last decade has been the de facto marriage between Economic Liberals and the small business/corporate World. On the face of it, these two groups should get along famously. The former favour a de-regulation of industries, reduced taxes, and the privatisation of government services. For the business world, this means they have to worry less, pay less, and can do more than previously. But the two groups interests don’t always run in parallel.

The clearest example of this can be found in the US at the moment, in the debate about Health Care Insurance. For the Libertarians/ardent Economic Liberals, Government shouldn’t be involved in the industry (like regulating about pre-existing conditions) and certainly shouldn’t be subsidizing or offering a public run insurance service (like Medicare). Given that health insurance is so critical, in the US businesses have slowly had to adopt a health insurance package as part of their salary offers. The problem with this is that it is very costly (and ties workers to jobs). So US firms that may compete with Canadian or European or Australian firms, have significantly higher overheads. Of course businesses in the Insurance industry love this set up, but for the vast majority of businesses in America, this is just a hassle and a cost. For them, it is far better for Government to provide Health Insurance. In this case the interests of the Economic Liberals and the Business community diverge, which Obama has been exploiting to aid his legislation, and confound the Republicans

In almost all cases, the relationship is dominated the corporate world. Business has resources to pressure politicians, and emotional arguments (you don’t want us to toss the workers onto the street) that dominate the usually more pragmatic than principled support for economic liberalism espoused by western politicians these days. In short the corporate world wears the pants over the economic liberals, and so have avoided most harmful changes save the short term pain of moving to low tariff economies for western countries in the 1980’s & 90’s. That however was offset consistently with increased corporate welfare. This payoff earned the ire of some economic liberals (though somewhat appeased as they had colleagues in government). It means taxes were higher, but whenever changes came through, like reduced tariffs, FTA’s, deregulation of industries, natural challenges (drought) or man made (airlines pre & post 9/11) the government was willing to step in to help the corporate and business world through. It contradicted all good economic policy, but it made pragmatic sense, kept business happy, workers employed and could generally be afforded.

I was thinking of all this whilst reading some recent reviews on the topic of the stimulus package in Australia. On the face of it, the Stimulus package has been a roaring success with Australia, almost alone among countries, staying out of recession. Indeed news today is that unemployment has fallen for September. On the other hand, it’s much much harder to link that spending to the economic performance of the country. We haven’t gone backwards, but nor have we gone forwards. So While the economic liberals point to this as evidence such spending routines are a complete waste of money (Malcolm Turnbull is currently making the exact same point at a press conference this morning), it’s important to note the business community isn’t completely on side with such claims.

For business, the stimulus meant a psychological and fiscal guarantee. It meant the bottom of the economy was never going to fall out, that taxpayers would in effect subsidize their continued operation, and therefore that they could continue to operate as normal. Economists models may try and sideline the role of psychology, but for the business community, such re-assurance is vital. The lure of extra corporate welfare, government spending (school construction for instance) and subsidies (pink bats) at least ensured that the economy would continue as normal, which is the pattern that we have seen. While business owners are also individuals with tax rates and an ideological worry about the debt, it has been noticeable how little energy or emotion came from the corporate world over the stimulus package. They don’t like government, but they knew they needed it. As such, economic liberal politicians who lack this connection to business (Turnbull, The US republicans) have been forced to throw themselves into the fray, without their usual cavalry, -in the form of the business lobbies-, to attack the government. They have become lonely soldiers on the battlefield, as business either holds back, or throws its self-interested lot in with the Keynsean big spenders in the hope of getting some of the loose dollars.

The relationship between economic liberals/libertarians and the small business/corporate world will continue to endure. They’ll patch things up over healthcare, and having seen off the economic crisis, will revert to attacking wasteful government spending and reject any cost cutting/tax rises to pay for the debt. But a smart politician who comes up against this collective force should recognise the fault lines in the relationship. There is a reason Howard (whose dad ran a suburban petrol station) was never keen on competition as an economic principle. There is a reason business is being very quiet about the ‘SOCIALISM!’ that Obama is supposedly introducing with his health care insurance policies, and likewise Rudd and his deficit spending. For this reason, Turnbull and Hockey this morning* are probably wasting their time trying to convince Australians they are the better economic managers by being so concerned about the debt. The public is only superficially concerned about it, and the silence of their favorite barometer, the business world, will tell them all they need to know about why they should stick with Rudd. The same thing happened in 07, when business failed to go into bat for workchoices. Noticing the quiet, the people decided that the policy was an over-reach that wouldn’t help the economy that much, and so could safely be rolled back under Rudd.

* The purpose of Turnbull & Hockey’s press conference this morning was a debt reduction strategy of 25%, which I found out about on Twitter. But when I looked for a news link, not a single one even mentioned the issue of debt. Not the SMH, not The Australian , not the ABC, or news.com.au. I love a good leadership story as much as the next political junkie, but surely just ONE reporter could actually mention the purpose of the press conference or attempt to talk about something different. I’ve seen schools of fish with more independent mindedness.

Update – Finally on the 14th, 6 days after the press conference we get our first serious engagement with the Coalitions 25% cut plans by a major media outlet. I hate that MSM v blogs argument, both are useful and necessary for different reasons, but this is a pretty stark comparison in how the media has become obsessed on personalities to the exclusion of everything else. The Australian people deserve and need better.