ANALYSIS: The Liberal Party is alienating its traditional allies in the corporate world by rejecting a progressive stance that would be good for both business and the party. By Julia Banks.

The Liberal Party’s failure in the boardroom

Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton and Shadow Treasurer Angus Taylor dressed in suits.
Leader of the Opposition Peter Dutton and Shadow Treasurer Angus Taylor on Tuesday.
Credit: AAP Image / Nikki Short

The reigning sentiment in this moment of the coronation is the absurdity of Australians being invited to chant and pledge allegiance to the King and his heirs and successors. The British do pomp and ceremony very well – and long may that continue for Australians to enjoy, ignore or have distant interest in as they wish – but the time for this country to have its own head of state cannot come soon enough.

That view is not widely shared within our political opposition, which has become embedded in an anachronistic world, such that the phrase “modern Liberal Party” is an oxymoron. Not just with respect to the party’s stance on women, inclusion and diversity, and climate change action – but in its relationship with the business world. Their claim to being the “party for business” has become less and less credible, as their political process has skewed further from democratic to a “coronational” approach.

When Georgina Downer lost the Mayo byelection in 2018, her father and former Liberal leader Alexander Downer declared, in an embarrassing spectacle, “Our family have been nation-builders … nation-building is in our blood.” He expressed confidence that she would win in the 2019 election, as if this proclamation, dynastic in tone, would garner votes and support. Georgina Downer lost – not just once but twice – to the indefatigable Rebekha Sharkie, who was also once, like me, a Liberal.

And like the Downers, Liberals who lost to the teal independents behaved in the lead-up to and throughout the election campaign as if they would be re-elected by divine right. During and after the campaign, Alexander Downer had much to say and in one opinion piece – which read more like a pronouncement from on high – complained that these “so-called independent candidates” could rob the incumbents of their opportunity to become “truly great men”.

But since we’re talking about nation-building – Danny Gilbert, who is co-chair of the Australians for Indigenous Constitutional Recognition, director of the Business Council of Australia and managing partner of the law firm Gilbert + Tobin, recently and correctly said: “This is a nation-building moment. Corporates are corporate citizens, and they are part of the social economic and political infrastructure of this country. They employ a lot of people and have an interest in building a strong, healthy, inclusive democracy.”

Gilbert of course was talking about the Voice – a proposal that business leaders from the NAB, ANZ, Commonwealth Bank, along with BHP, Rio Tinto, Wesfarmers, Woolworths and Coles support, as prominent corporate advocates of the “Yes” campaign for the referendum. So are many of Australia’s largest law firms, including Allens, Baker McKenzie, Ashurst, Herbert Smith Freehills and King & Wood Mallesons, to name a few.

Most of them are no doubt frustrated by the Coalition’s “No” approach to everything, from their refusal to negotiate on the safeguard mechanism to the Voice.

Just as the Liberals’ self-description as a “broad church” is now patently wrong, given the dominance of the regressive right wing, so is its self-description as “the party for business”. Since the coup against former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull – a highly successful businessman outside politics – the party’s move to the right has coincided with a stark downward slide in its relationship with the business community, not least because the bulk of the remaining Liberal members of parliament, staffers and ministers are political clones of Turnbull’s successors in the Liberal leadership. The careers of both Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton have been enmeshed in politics outside the real world for most of their adult lives. One of the standout demonstrations of their disdain and disrespect for business leaders was when Morrison bellowed on the floor of parliament, with reference to the highly respected former Australia Post chief executive Christine Holgate, “She. Can. Go.”

Both Liberal leaders, and most of their cabinet ministers, have trotted out talking points that are now meaningless – variations of “we understand business”. They say this in practised tones that land like clichés to help them meet their goal for political donations. They are not seeking to understand, learn and grow with the business community with a view to establishing good policy for a strong economy.

When I had a seat in the Liberal party room, I’d regularly feign tolerance over the ignorance of some of the so-called political leaders of Dutton and Morrison’s ilk. Whether the debate was about climate change, marriage equality or business and the economy, I would often reflect that many of them wouldn’t survive two weeks in a good corporation.

Too often when the corporate sector has tried to point the way to a more successful future – for business and for the Liberal Party itself – it has been condescended to by Dutton in the most cringeworthy way.

In 2017 there was a massive, unified push in favour of marriage equality from corporate bosses across industries and major sporting bodies. Senior executives from the likes of Apple, AGL, Commonwealth Bank, ANZ, Westpac, Qantas, Telstra and Wesfarmers were all supporters. Peter Dutton, then a government minister, admonished and patronised them, saying those “in the CEO world who are on big dollars need to concentrate on their business and frankly on the improvement in the economy”. As for social issues, they were to “leave that up to the politicians, to the leaders, to talkback hosts like yourself, to normal people who can have those discussions without the millions of dollars being thrown behind campaigns,” he told a Radio 2GB presenter.

Yes, he actually included the talkback hosts. Unsurprisingly, business leaders from corporations, law firms and other organisations around the country responded that marriage equality was not only good for their employees and customers but also for Australia’s global reputation. These experienced, successful business leaders know that companies that embrace diversity perform better than those that don’t.

It was eminently predictable that disunity and division within the Liberal Party would get worse upon Dutton declaring support for the “No” campaign on the Voice. Though the lead-up was frustrating enough, with the constant demands for more detail – which already existed on the internet – and insistence on seeing the legal advice. The solicitor-general’s advice could not have been clearer: the Voice enhances the system of government, is advisory only, has no power of veto, doesn’t impede executive government, would not clog up the courts and would not slow down government processes. In a predictably tiresome response, Dutton’s ministers called for the earlier legal advice to cabinet, ignorant or unaware of the “cabinet in confidence” protocol.

Since then, Dutton, his deputy Sussan Ley and Treasury spokesman Angus Taylor have embarked on a “listening tour” around the country. This could have been described as their magical mystery tour, because Dutton and his ministers seem mystified by what they’re hearing from the business community – and no doubt the feeling is mutual. After their travels, the best they could come up with was to declare business leaders were “being played for fools” and to reprimand them for advocating publicly on social causes. Dutton offensively rationalised that corporations are signing up for “social causes” to satisfy some “craving popularity on social media”.

Moreover, in relation to energy policy, Dutton said business leaders should be staring down the “extremes of ESG”, or environmental, social and governance. What does that even mean? Perhaps Dutton and Co need to have it explained to them that stances among corporations on issues such as climate change, corporate governance, integrity and social issues are not only critical – in many contexts they are mandatory, as part of a company’s risk management and duty to shareholders.

The Liberal Party’s blinkered vision and ability to dismiss the strategic and business experience of leaders around the country – let alone the legal advice from the solicitor-general – is appalling. Their inability to say or do anything meaningful within the body politic is based on their striving for power and control, for the sake of power and control. The Liberal Party has no grasp of how good leaders make their decisions and it cannot read the boardrooms across Australia. This is not about the body politic against the body corporate – it’s just what the Liberal Party has become.

As for nation-building, the Voice wouldn’t be the first such opportunity Dutton has missed. He sought to justify his appalling walkout on then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations from his perspective as a young policeman in Queensland seeking practical solutions for Indigenous people. “I failed to grasp the symbolic significance,” he said.

“Yes” to the Voice referendum will be more than symbolic – it will be a foundational moment for our country, as will the “Yes”, in a referendum further in the future, to Australia becoming a republic. The right-wing conservatives of the Liberal Party are typically staunch monarchists and they’ll be celebrating the coronation – chanting and proclaiming at related events. But the Liberal Party has demonstrated its members and MPs are not nation-builders. The party is not modern, not inclusive and certainly no longer “the party for business”. The party is over.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 6, 2023 as "No business in the party".

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