Shopping cart

Show cart
   

QUARTERLY ESSAY 10 Bad Company

 

Correspondence

Tim Duncan

Two dimensions of Gideon Haigh’s breathless denunciation of the corporate world stand out: the first is how well it sits in the Australian intellectual tradition, culturally as distant from the world of business as ever, and the second is that it has arrived right on time, just after a few large companies have gone underwater and right in the middle of a property boom showing all the signs that more investors will go in the same direction.

The aftermaths of commercial booms are never pleasant. When values finally crystallise, winners and losers emerge. What was normal is redefined as criminal. A form of public revulsion develops. Some high flyers do porridge. Boom fashion is lampooned, boom predictions of immortality are re-broadcast so that people can fall about in fits, and then, as the reaction gets really serious, the soothsayers and the men of cloth arrive with incense, chanting, exorcising Mammon and demanding recantations.

Fortunately, Gideon Haigh has mostly stopped just short of the salvation bit – but for his suggestion that we replace company directors who employ CEOs just like them with time-honoured middle managers instead. This little break from the tirade mode is significantly revealing, however. The role of the middle manager reminds one of a stalwart symbol of redemption which emerged from another great boom and bust – the yeoman farmer, the kindly, goodly, sturdy opposite of the city jobber and boom speculator, lauded by the bush poets burnt by the boom and its values. This, of course, refers to Marvellous Melbourne, whose collapse in the 1890s triggered remorse and mourning so fundamental that it scarred the Australian sensibility for the whole of the last century.

Who would have thought that, so many decades later, someone would see salvation from the allures of greed and wealth in the anonymous salary-man, the loyal keeper of the corporate memory, the perennial victim of cost-cutting, megalomaniacal CEOs? It’s a strangely Japanese idea that the middle manager, forever the victim of hierarchy, but the figure who knows his place, should occupy the seat of judgement over the CEO. But there’s also something familiar and deeply nostalgic about it: in the Australian context the day of the middle manager was the day of lots of middle managers, and lots of long careers, and lots of middle class, and lots of government-owned or supported companies making lots of useful things. In those days, CEOs didn’t pay themselves multiples of what the blokes down the tree got. That wasn’t fair, was it?

While Peter Craven may be right that Haigh comes to his subject deep down as a genuine sympathiser of business, it’s worth asking what sort of business Haigh sympathises with. It’s certainly not the sort of business that sees people make heaps of money but hold the wrong opinions. That’s what Henry Ford did, but he was a bigoted and hopeless CEO according to Haigh, in contrast to Alfred Sloan of General Motors, the organisational genius whose sheer lack of human characteristics canonises him as a truly legitimate business leader.

One gets the impression that the sort of business Haigh admires is essentially bureaucratic and administrative, with no tall poppies to be seen, but many things to make and do. This is the sort of business where production values reign, profits are just and business leaders just shut up. It sounds very much like the Australian business of the immediate post-war era: protected, regulated, directed, much of it owned by governments, and essentially irrelevant to most people’s lives. Business that had it all on a plate like this was tame business, semi-socialised business, with little standing in Australian life over sport, or law or politics. That’s how it should be.

Haigh’s lament is instructive: “And if we are not in thrall to business, we are certainly complicit in a model of the world it finds amenable. Business rhetoric pervades the language of our politicians, our professionals, our academics, even our athletes. Business customs have infiltrated schools, universities, the public service, even volunteer organisations.”

Look who’s winning, it’s not fair! Something happened while the intelligentsia went off to write semiotics: business burst out from the corner of obscurity consigned it by the Federation deals and like that economic rationalism genie which unchained it in the first place, it won’t go back! That business does not know its place is fundamentally a very Australian charge. Despite the periodic wailings of the American Left, there is a very small audience in the US that is poleaxed with shock when confronted with the foremost place of American business in American life. It’s hard to get much moral indignation out of how it’s always been. Not here in Australia though, where Haigh correctly divines that he has a real audience for getting the beast back into its box because they remember when it was there.

The heritage of Marvellous Melbourne is worth referring to again. It’s hard to imagine the Federation deals without the collapse of the Australian banking system, most of it in Victoria, in the 1890s. The cultural and intellectual rejection of the legitimacy of business in Australia got its start there. The rejection of the city, the turn to the bush, the accommodation of the victims of the crash, and the subsequent regulation of Australia’s capital and labour markets and its overseas trade are rooted in the devastating sense of loss and failure that the 1890s engendered.

In turn it is hard to imagine the low status of business in Australia, and to understand why it endured for so long, without the longevity of the Federation deals. Now, however, most of it has gone. The bureaucracies so loved by Haigh, where middle management did in fact rule the roost, such as the SECV, TAA, the utilities and so on, are going or gone. The old protection dependencies, where anonymous local managers did good works after 5.00 p.m. through their local Rotary memberships, are gone as well. A regulated labour market survives to an extent, but most of the Australian workforce operates over award. Like or lump it, business and its success is now hugely relevant to this country, more than it has ever been since the days of Marvellous Melbourne.

What should the healthy response of Australian intellectuals be? Only in Australia could we contemplate a view of business so separate from ourselves as the one Haigh has presented. It’s so completely reified for the sake of setting up the straw man, but the reality asserted throughout is that there is normal life and there is business, this latter being something else. As it was in response to the 1890s, this is a deeply nostalgic and unproductive denial of reality. As the critics of the 1890s did, Haigh’s effort is to damn all boards and CEOs.

Yes, companies have fallen over recently, but in reality they are very few. HIH and One. Tel are the main examples. Yes, there was bad behaviour, but in the scheme of things, so what? Compared to the real Betsy, the 1980s, this is piddling so far. Where are CEO-entrepreneurs such as Bond, Skase et al, together with their middle management-dominated state government bank financiers? Those guys really knew how to bury shareholder and taxpayer funds. But this current cycle has seen very little of how bad it can get. To make it worse in retrospect in order to establish some platform for collective revulsion as Haigh seems to do is cheap.

Instead, it might be better to look more broadly at what is happening. This is not to say that Haigh has merely adopted the ACTU agenda – his concerns are more about legitimacy arising from quantum than the quantum of reward itself – but it is worth pointing out that executive remuneration is a core ACTU issue. It has been running for over a decade now and CEO bashing is a central part of it. Nonetheless, winning the argument on executive remuneration won’t help the union movement recover its lost trust and legitimacy. Its membership in the private sector is now sagging at around 15 per cent of the private sector workforce, which is on a par with union membership in the US. So, the ACTU gets more regulation of executive salaries. There’s a payback at last. But how will that solve the basic problem of the role of the union movement in a more open economy for a workforce that knows nothing of collectivist cultural values?

Executive remuneration is a legitimate area for intellectuals to begin to look at. But that’s not to say that business is illegitimate because some people ream a lot of money out of it. Another area is corporate social responsibility, a place replete with platitudes and MBA jargon, but where a more sustainable engagement of Australian business with the community must sooner or later begin. Finally, there is the university debate and the theme of equality of opportunity in an open economy. These broader issues have greater bearing upon the legitimacy questions surrounding business Haigh raises than the collection of greed and power vignettes he uses to crank up an unproductive, backward-looking polemic.

 

Tim Duncan is a financial communications consultant. He was Head of Australian External Affairs, Rio Tinto (1994–2002) and has worked also in politics and journalism, including for the Bulletin, BRW and The Australian. He is co-author of Australian and Argentina: On Parallel Paths.

CONTINUE READING

This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 10, Bad Company. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 11, Whitefella Jump Up.


ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY

Peter Hartcher
Waking Up to China’s Challenge
Annabel Crabb
Australia’s Parenthood Trap
Erik Jensen
How Scott Morrison won and Bill Shorten lost
Rebecca Huntley
Listening to the Nation
Sebastian Smee
The Inner Life in the Digital Age
Laura Tingle
Democracy and the Rise of the Strongman