Leading Voice

This article appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 30 August 2016 (subscription may be required).

As our new Parliament takes its place in the nation’s capital, Australia’s business leaders must take their place leading the campaign for long-term policy to drive the nation’s growth.

Vacating the campaign field is not an option and won’t shift the short-termism in policy debate that so troubles Australia’s directors.

In a time where Australia desperately needs long-term policy and serious reform, sections of the business community have gone missing in action.

Business has every right to advocate on behalf of its owners and shareholders for good policy – and a responsibility to stand in the path of poor policy.

Directors, business and the broader community are hungry for long-term policy and reform. The only way these reforms will be achieved is if our community leaders, including directors, stand up and actively campaign on the issues that matter.

Following the recent election the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) asked our diverse membership for views on the priorities for government and the nation.

In a concerning result, 85 per cent of directors rate the quality of Australia’s public policy debate as poor.

It’s tempting to place the blame for this solely on our politicians.

But in the face of such overwhelming sentiment, shifting this dial demands a contribution from us all.

All stakeholders must have a role to play in driving the policy and reform outcomes that will benefit the nation.

Business in particular has a vital role to play in promoting the long-term thinking and national interest focus that will improve the quality of public policy debate.

For Australian business leaders, this means taking a more public role in promoting issues and reforms that benefit the community overall.

Too often these contributions risk being viewed as part of the partisan political debate. A strong voice on policy, however, is not a partisan position.

Prosecuting a case for reform isn’t easy. There will always be short-term winners and losers, and fair and balanced policy requires hard work. Many voices are needed to deliver better policy debate and more long-term thinking. Sectional interests need to give way to a view of the bigger picture, and public confidence built in the long-term gains to be achieved.

Our national interest requires leadership from political leaders as well as business and community voices.

The AICD’s survey results also present a challenge to our incoming elected representatives, to show that they can work together to put the community’s interests first.

In a Parliament that has never seen so many minor parties and independents, all with their own contrasting and conflicting agendas, confidence in long term thinking and policy is low.

Australian directors have said a move away from short-termism is the key to boosting growth, but they hold grave doubts about the new Parliament’s ability to deliver necessary reform.

Poor quality policy debate, potential parliamentary roadblocks and falling confidence in government understanding of business are common concerns.

This tells us that in boardrooms around the country – from large listed companies to local not-for-profits and small private enterprises – there is concern that politicians are too focused on the short-term and not delivering the long-term vision and thinking Australia requires.

Earlier this year the AICD released an agenda for national reform with six priority areas for government action and focus, our “Blueprint for Growth”.

Infrastructure investment was identified in the Blueprint and has the potential to be an issue on which business, the community and all sides of politics could unite.

The creation of long-lived productive assets can reduce the cost of living and lift national prosperity over the long term, generating economic returns.

In his recent valedictory speech outgoing RBA Governor Glenn Stevens made this point.

Government has the opportunity for bold action to lift the nation’s productive capacity and boost productivity, which has languished since the end of the mining investment boom. Borrowing costs for government, after all, are at record lows.

But government should not and cannot be expected to carry this work alone.

The corporate sector needs to play its part by shrugging off the short termism that has infected too much business decision making.

Australian businesses need to be willing to take risks and invest for the future.

And importantly, business leaders must also hear the community’s calls for a higher standard of ethics and accountability.

Anti-big business sentiment has never been so strong. Changing the public mood will take more than better messaging from industry.

Australia needs strong and successful businesses – business drives the economy, jobs and prosperity for the nation. But a successful business is not only about profits.

It is also about contribution to the community, and the good governance needed to drive high standards of conduct and accountability.

Shifting the dial on the quality of public policy debate is a task too big, and too important, to leave to politicians alone.

John Brogden is Managing Director & Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Institute of Company Directors