Tony Abbott not only survived four years as health minister in the Howard government, he thrived. His success in the portfolio is all the more remarkable because health is a sector that has more than its fair share of know-alls, interest groups and rent-seekers.
Abbott’s secret is summed up in a simple challenge he usually gave his petitioners. “Don’t just bring me a problem”, he said, “bring me a solution”.
Now that he is Opposition Leader with a strong likelihood of winning the prime ministership in a few months’ time, Abbott attracts an even bigger and more powerful set of vested interests, all bringing problems to be solved by an incoming government. While they themselves would deny it, leaders of the Business Council of Australia (BCA) are no exception.
The BCA has been busy in the last week or so raising a slew of social policy problems that a Prime Minister Abbott would have to deal with.
First was a tax levy to part fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Last week the BCA joined Myer CEO Bernie Brookes to question the need for such a levy. BCA CEO Jennifer Westacott talked about putting the cart before the NDIS horse and made reasonable comments about designing, piloting and evaluating the scheme before finalising its funding. Problems.
Then the BCA joined backbench Liberal MP Alex Hawke’s attacking Abbott’s “fair dinkum” paid parental leave (PPL) scheme. While endorsing the PPL principle, BCA chairman Tony Shepherd warned about the cost of Abbott’s company tax levy on Australia’s most profitable companies. “We don’t agree that it should be funded by a special impost on a narrow band of companies. Society should pay for it. It is a societal issue”, said Shepherd. More problems.
Third, healthcare. This week the BCA released a commissioned Deloitte Access Economics report indicating that federal and state government health outlays will be virtually unfundable by mid-century, effectively crippling primary, acute- and aged-care sectors. The BCA’s Healthy Australia taskforce chairman, Rohan Mead, spruiked the report in The Australian Financial Review by urging policy-makers to shore up the sustainability on public finances, end related Commonwealth-State funding and administrative dysfunctions, and tackle antiquated health sector work and industry practices. Yet more problems.
But there were no proffered solutions, just demands for action.
This approach does not help business’s cause with Coalition MPs scarred by the 2007 election loss. They have forgiven, but not forgotten, the BCA and other business groups’ indifference to that government’s defeat by “fiscal conservative” Kevin Rudd in 2007 – a defeat in large part due to John Howard championing the industrial relations reform long craved by business and employer groups. When it came to defending WorkChoices against Labor and the unions, the Howard government stood virtually alone, deserted and undermined by ungrateful business. In now lecturing Abbott and the Coalition on perceived policy shortcomings, business leaders have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
If the BCA and other business organisations want to be effective in engaging with an Abbott government, and especially Abbott himself, therefore really should heed his mantra and bring him solutions as well as problems.
Above all, they need to realise that Abbott will not dump policies in which he has invested considerable personal and political capital. If he wins the election, there will be an NDIS with a “temporary” levy attached. Abbott’s PPL vision will be a signature priority for his government. And in health the indications are that he will put balancing financial sustainability with quality outcomes ahead of sweeping utopian but impractical systemic reforms favoured by opinion leaders, including the BCA.
Take paid parental leave. After Alex Hawke’s ill-judged assault, Abbott is more determined to deliver his grand scheme than ever. The BCA insists that a company tax levy is wrong, and that society (that is, government) should pay for more generous PPL. Instead of simply whingeing, why isn’t the BCA giving him modelled and costed alternatives that are economically viable and politically palatable? If PPL is to be funded from the budget, how can it be accommodated? What offsetting savings can safely be made? Could business be offered targeted incentives to partner with Abbott on PPL, and what could these be?
If the BCA indeed supports the principle of Abbott’s PPL, it and other business organisations should help him to implement it in a way that has the least impact on the productive economy. Alternative practical approaches to a shared goal – business’s business case as it were – would give Abbott fresh options, avoid antagonism and just might get taken on board.
This is a not about whether Abbott’s PPL, an NDIS levy or other Coalition policy is right or wrong. It’s a matter of process and constructive engagement. If a policy will be implemented by the likely next government whether you like it or not, you don’t try and stop the inevitable but try to mitigate the consequences. You offer better ways of achieving the goal, not just carp and whinge out of a sense of injured entitlement. No wonder big business is such an easy target for its detractors. They’re big girl’s blouses, not statesmen.
Policy advocacy is parties finding common ground and applying common sense for the common good. Having held the tough ministerial portfolios of workplace relations and health, Abbott already has an extensive track record as a pro-private sector problem solver. Business can and should trust him.
What unites business leaders and Abbott’s Coalition far outweighs their differences. Abbott needs their advice, not just criticism. If they are uncomfortable with elements of his policy agenda, it’s up to them offer him practical and politically-acceptable alternatives. But that’s expecting too much.
Terry Barnes runs social policy consultancy Cormorant Policy Advice and was senior policy adviser to Tony Abbott as health minister