Leo D'Angelo Fisher Columnist

Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

View more articles from Leo D'Angelo Fisher

When politics does not mean business

Published 03 December 2012 05:58, Updated 07 December 2012 12:55

+font -font print
When politics does not mean business

Australian Unity managing director Rohan Mead , laments the “absence of broad thinking, innovation and novel contributions to policy challenges” in the Federal Parliament. Photo: Paul Jones

Political parties are missing out on attracting talent from the top echelons of corporate life because chief executives are appalled by the current state of the political debate.

The founder of Aussie Home Loans, John Symond, is regularly sounded out by the major parties. The man who brought competition to the home loans market is one of Australia’s most recognised business figures and would be a star candidate for any party.

Much to his surprise and delight he is greeted almost daily by strangers in the street with the catch-cry he made famous in the long-running advertising campaign he fronted from the mid-1990s: “We’ll save you!”

However, he says he’s not interested in saving the fortunes of any political party as the current state of politics leaves him cold. “It’s disgusting, it’s appalling, it’s embarrassing,” he seethes. “I can’t remember any time in the past 40 or 50 years when we’ve had such a poor standard of political leadership and political behaviour.

“I wouldn’t consider it for a moment [running for parliament]. It’s something I would avoid like the plague and if any of my children expressed an interest in a political career, I’d do everything to dissuade them.”

Symond admits he would find it hard at the best of times to consider a career in politics. “You can’t be outspoken, you’ve got to toe the party line. It’s not for me,” he says. But it’s “the blood-thirsty nature of politics” that infuriates Symond.

He speculates that were he to accept preselection from one party, “the other side would immediately set out to smear my character”.

“The self-interest, the deception, the lies and scandal – what a terrible example it sets,” he says.

“It sets a poor example to those who would aspire to make a positive contribution through the political sphere and it’s setting a shocking example to young people who see the lies and deception and assume that this is the way things are done.”

Whether it’s the politics in his home state of NSW – where the Independent Commission Against Corruption is investigating what has been described as the biggest corruption scandal since the Rum Rebellion inside the previous Labor government – or in the acrimonious hothouse of minority government in Canberra, Symond fears it will take “decades” for Australians to regain respect for political institutions.

“People need to trust their leaders, whether its business leaders, union leaders or political leaders,” he says. “My feeling is that trust in all these sectors has been diminished in recent years.”

The latest Australian Institute of Company Directors director sentiment survey found that 83 per cent of directors believe the dysfunction of the current Federal Parliament is damaging consumer confidence and 67 per cent believed it is adversely affecting their business decision-making.

The minority federal government rated as a top five “economic challenge” facing business, according to the directors surveyed, and 78 per cent believe the Gillard government does not understand business.

Griffith University’s third Australian Constitutional Values survey (previously conducted in 2008 and 2010) records a similar lack of public confidence in the federal system of government and in particular with the federal government.

Dissatisfaction with the three-tier system of government has increased from 30.3 per cent in 2008 to 38 per cent in 2012. Levels of mistrust with the federal government, while stable for state and local government, increased sharply – from 15.8 per cent who did not trust the federal government in 2008 to 43.3 per cent in 2012. People’s faith in the ability of different levels of government to work co-operatively – never particularly strong – has been shaken in recent years: 47.8 per cent believe the three levels of government are not collaborating effectively but this shot up to 55.9 per cent in 2012.

The lead researcher of Brisbane-based Griffith University’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy, A.J. Brown, says that although support for federal government remains strong as the most important level of government, fewer Australians believe the present government is capable of ensuring the federal system of government functions smoothly.

“This declining faith in governments to secure a desired better future suggests we are headed for a crisis of confidence unless greater political priority is once again given to issues of federal co-operation and longer term reform,” Brown says.

“There are signs citizens are declaring ‘a plague on all your houses’ when it comes to confidence in the future of governance.”

Concern in the business community about the toxicity of politics and the view that politics has become the preserve of the professional political class – rather than people with “real life” experience – is widespread but business leaders are generally reluctant to take a public stance on the issue.

The president of the Business Council of Australia , Tony Shepherd, at the council’s recent annual dinner, called on “influential people” from business, government, opposition, the union movement and the community to work together towards a “long-term economic vision” rather than viewing each other as combatants.

He fondly recalled the economic reform era of the 1980s under the Hawke-Keating government: “In the days of the accord, different sectors were able to agree on a common purpose and a plan to foster productivity, competitiveness and growth.”

Even so, Shepherd declined to be interviewed for this story. A chief executive who also declined to be interviewed was not surprised that Shepherd erred on the side of caution, explaining that in the present political environment, business leaders who speak out against either the government or the Opposition “will get a serious beating behind the wood shed”.

“Canberra has become very wearing,” the chief executive says. “They’re constantly telling you that black is white and night is day. Discussion about policy, such as it is, has become much more personal and emotional.”

The managing director of healthcare and financial services group Australian Unity, Rohan Mead, laments the “absence of broad thinking, innovation and novel contributions to policy challenges” in the Federal Parliament.

“I do think that we lack diversity and life experience in the Parliament and it’s not just people from the business community that I’m talking about,” Mead says. “There no longer seems to be the broad representation that was once routine in the Parliament – the teachers, academics, scientists, people in artistic endeavours, returned service folk.

Mead believes there is a “real thirst for leadership” in politics but he harbours no ambitions for a parliamentary career post-business.

“I don’t think I’m particularly suited to that life,” he says. “I look at politics and the degree to which one can make a difference and make a contribution and I suspect it could be disappointing.

“I’m attached to commerce. I believe that in the private sector it’s possible to make a more concrete contribution to society.”

Comments