Hearings are for helping Australians, not showboating

22 April 2024

This opinion article by Business Council President Geoff Culbert and Chief Executive Bran Black was published in The Australian Financial Review on 22 April 2024

In 1954, United States Senator Joseph McCarthy was asked the pointed question “have you no decency, sir?”

That question, from the attorney Joseph Welch at the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, spelled the end of a chilling period in American history.

McCarthy had made himself infamous off the back of senate hearings, which he single-handedly turned into show trials, culminating in that pointed question.

He had turned what is a fundamentally important aspect of well-functioning democracies into a farce, detracting from the important truth-finding work of political leaders at public hearings by making a public spectacle of it.

Last week we had cause to recall those words, and perhaps reiterate them in response to the threat made to imprison Woolworth’s CEO Brad Banducci for the manner in which he responded to a senate hearing question.

Does anyone truly believe the Parliament would attempt to follow through on that? That threat has been exercised only once since Federation, in 1955, and for very different circumstances indeed.

These powers are important and exist for a reason. The Parliament’s ability to compel witnesses to appear is there to ensure a well-informed and scrutinised democratic Australia—something we can all support.

But weaponising this power as a threat to be brandished only distracts from that purpose. Our parliamentary hearings shouldn’t be a blood sport.

To be clear, last week’s Senate hearings are important to aid understanding of current cost-of-living concerns.

Supermarkets welcome the opportunity to support that rational and well-intentioned dialogue. There are sensible areas where all parties can agree on doing better for all Australians. The move to support a mandatory Food and Grocery Code of Conduct is an example in this regard.

Indeed, there were plenty of areas of rational and productive discussion at the Senate Select Committee on Supermarket Prices last week. This included critical areas of policy focus such as technology and how we use it to improve the workplace to support workers and businesses.

So, let’s find solutions, and let’s work together to do so.

But we can’t reach important solutions for Australia, and we can’t deal with issues that actually matter deeply to the way our society operates, if we view these valuable hearings as opportunities for a public flogging.

In the eyes of the Australian Greens, businesses generating jobs and paying taxes are the new ‘reds under the bed,’ a means of whipping up fear and anger to generate votes. In their eyes CEOs are to be publicly embarrassed, and successful business is something to be feared and torn down rather than valued.

All of this comes at the same time as the Government is launching its Future Made in Australia program. Why would any investor want to pour money into a country that will limit or demonise their success? We run the risk of repelling investment at the same time we are spending billions of dollars trying to attract it.

Our perspective is that we should listen to national experts to inform public discussions. As the Productivity Commission has pointed out “two large players with a competitive fringe [in the supermarkets sector] have provided a highly competitive market in Australia.”

Indeed, we imagine most economists would acknowledge that two large, successful Australian businesses aren’t the ones driving cost-of-living concerns. It’s inflation. It’s supply chains. It’s energy. It’s labour costs. Constantly using business as a punching bag deflects attention from the need to tackle meaningful, long-term reform in these areas.

But the expert-led, rational approach to policy discussions is getting lost at times, and populist news often wins the day. All of us lose out as a result.

It’s heartening that our Treasurer Jim Chalmers has called out this “confected outrage”, with similar commentary from Opposition Leader Peter Dutton—we need this sort of leadership from respected political figures.

Ultimately, it is going to be down to how everyday Australians respond. We hope our better instincts prevail.

At the end of the day, parliamentary processes are designed to build mutual understanding, collaboration, and in some cases use sharp scrutiny to uncover important truths. All with the goal of building a stronger and fairer Australia.

The cheapening of this important purpose last week is too galling for Australian business to remain silent.


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