Business, Truth, Trust and The Common Good
Tuesday, 26th June 2018 at 8:27 am
Business has an important role to play and it’s bigger than just creating profit and creating shareholder returns, writes Doug Taylor, group executive, Uniting NSW and ACT.
The Business Council of Australia’s new campaign For the Common Good has had a rocky start.
The stuffing was knocked out of it early with the leaked BCA members’ survey that confirmed business would bank any savings from corporate tax cuts and not pass on the benefits to customers or employees. And this amid the background of the banking royal commission and the stunning revelations of rorting and misconduct.
Yet the BCA is right to be concerning itself with the “common good”. This is exactly the issue business should be focusing on.
Of course the revelations coming out of the banking royal commission have undermined the public’s trust in the big end of town. Analysts also tell us that trust is diminishing around our institutions, our churches and our politicians.
Ironically in this era of “fake news” and what one commentator termed the “golden era of lying”, trust is never more important. People are more likely now to dismiss “truth” in favour of trust in the people who are saying it – often one who is part of their own tribe or faction.
The antidote for this erosion of trust is action. And it is here that the BCA has a seminal opportunity to play an important role in creating a fairer, more equitable society that allows more people to participate and to thrive.
In the past, BCA has struck the right chord on some social issues. It was a strong advocate of the campaign for a $50 a week increase in Newstart.
Unfortunately, the stated agenda of this latest BCA campaign – lower taxes and less regulation on the assumption that they will lead to economic growth, higher salaries and more jobs for all Australians – is too narrow.
Arguably the BCA hasn’t thought deeply enough about what the common good is and what it might mean for contemporary Australia.
The common good is not just a nice set of words, it is imbued with historical meaning.
Sir Henry Parkes and Sir Alfred Deakin were great proponents of the concept in the lead up to Federation. They were less enamoured with the republican overtones of the word and more taken with the sense of creating the common good and an idealistic vision of this new nation.
They were looking for something that would unify the diverse strands of the Australian people; liberal and conservative, communitarian and individualist as well as the idealist and pragmatist.
The use of the word by these founders of Federation was an attempt to make this “broad church” of a nation, during the 1890’s depression, more inclusive.
They also wanted to find unity in a politically fractured environment with many small parties and disparate views on the economic reforms of the day, namely removing colonial protectionism and promoting free trade.
Uniting employs some 8,000 people across NSW and the ACT to serve people who are marginalised, disadvantaged and vulnerable. Everyday we see evidence of growing inequality, people who are not benefiting from Australia’s economic growth.
What does all this mean for the role of business in creating the common good? Clearly business has an important role to play and it’s bigger than just creating profit and creating shareholder returns.
So, it will mean the BCA must develop a broader reform agenda that reflects a “triple bottom line” and that demonstrates how business works to build consensus and contributes to the common wealth of all Australians.
One area in which the BCA could work with its members is in the area of affordable housing.
The 2016 Census tells us that there are more than 116,000 people homeless in Australia and we also know that business needs to grow a workforce as more people move into retirement. This future workforce needs housing.
The BCA could play a leadership role in shifting the way business see housing. Instead of solely seeing housing investment as a means for short-term returns, they could develop a longer-term strategy to give our future workforce secure and affordable housing. This would include working with its members to explore new models of investment like building for rental housing, shared equity models and longer and secure leases.
In addition to this business must also accept that while the market holds opportunity for creating common good it also has its limitations because economic growth can only trickle so far, so it’s wise for the BCA to not over-reach in their claims.
Of course, we must also hold up the mirror to ourselves on all this. Many of us are shareholders in Australian businesses, particularly through our superannuation. We crave share price increases and in fact our retirement depends upon it.
What this tells us is that whilst businesses must understand the breadth of their responsibilities, all Australians have a role to play in the tough choices and trade-offs in keeping Australia as a place with common wealth.
This will become increasingly the case as we face up to our considerable challenge of an ageing population and shrinking tax paying base.
About the author: Doug Taylor is group executive at Uniting where he is responsible for social impact, advocacy, disability, early learning and home care services. He has built a 25-year professional career domestically and internationally in the social sector out of his passion for social impact. These interests are manifest in his membership of the Board of the Australian Centre for Social Innovation and the advisory boards of the Centre for Social Impact Advisory Board and the Community Services Industry Alliance Reform Council.