Originally published in The Guardian on September 18, 2019

by Richard Denniss
[Originally Published on Guardian Australia, 18 September 2019]

In the same week that the prime minister told chief executives not to get “distracted” by issues like climate change, his National Party colleagues declared war on almond milk. Talk about focusing on the big issues. Needless to say, most business leaders paid as much attention to Scott Morrison as the public paid to the Nationals.

The six-year-old Coalition government is overseeing an economy that’s slowing, an unemployment rate that’s rising, and a “Pacific step-up” that’s turned into a total stuff-up. You can see why the prime minister decided to attack business leaders for failing to do their job. It’s a lot easier than explaining to voters why he is failing at his.

Distractions and virtue signalling are core business for Morrison, which is why his government launched an extraordinary attack on the freedom of chief executives to speak out on important issues like climate change. It’s quite the fight to pick.

Morrison and his frontbench have spent the past 12 months demanding that religious leaders have the right to be homophobic or sexist, but now Angus Taylor is arguing that business leaders should stay silent and stop “virtue signalling” – except for when it comes to his plans for further cuts to taxes and workers’ rights. I can’t wait until Morrison starts telling the leaders of the Catholic church to quit the virtue signalling about same-sex couples and get back to Jesus’s plans on helping the poor.

Leaving aside the absurdity of a government which defends freedom of speech but then tells people what they should and shouldn’t talk about, is it really “virtue signalling” for chief executives to talk about climate change? Or is it their job, given the government’s refusal to act on such a pressing economic, environmental and security issue?

Since winning office in 2013 and scrapping the carbon tax in 2014 the Coalition has presided over electricity price increases of 12% and wholesale gas prices have more than doubled. So you can see why the Coalition would rather talk about almond milk than energy policy, but you can also see why private sector chief executives want to focus on Australia’s lack of a credible climate and energy policy.

Australia’s population has grown by 2.2 million since the Coalition formed government and our GDP has grown by $41bn. Over the same period, our fleet of coal-fired power stations has shrunk. Despite Tony Abbott scrapping the carbon tax, no private investor has committed their own money to building a coal-fired power station. There are no laws to stop such investment, it’s just that investors know it is a crap idea. It makes no commercial sense to spend seven years or more building a giant steam engine that, once complete, will generate higher cost electricity than renewables.

While no coal-fired power stations have been built since the Coalition formed government, the private sector doubled its investment in large-scale renewable energy projects in 2018. With our ageing coal fleet that struggles in the heat, it’s not clear whether we will have blackouts this summer, but what is crystal clear is that without all the private sector investment in renewables Australia would have less reliable and more expensive electricity.

On Friday tens of thousands of Australians will participate in the global climate strike, as will millions of people around the world. Thanks to successive Coalition governments, Australia has the most stringent anti-strike legislation in the democratic world but, luckily for Australian workers, more than 1,500 businesses have signed up to the Not Business as Usual alliance and in doing so have given their staff the right to take a long lunch or a day off to participate in their democracy.

Fast-growing companies such as Future Super, Atlassian, Ben and Jerry’s and Canva are not just ignoring Morrison’s demand that they stay out of the climate debate, they are spending their shareholders’ money to encourage their staff to speak not just freely but loudly and publicly about the need for urgent action on climate change. I wonder how long it will be before we hear the “free marketeers” in the Coalition calling for regulation to stop employers protesting. I’m not joking.

While it’s hard to understand the Coalition’s sudden interest in almond milk, it’s easy to understand why so many businesses are keen to be so publicly associated with calls for climate action, equal marriage and Indigenous reconciliation.

First, climate change policy is a first-order issue for many companies. Cheap and reliable electricity is a much bigger economic issue for the private business sector than the kind of legislation that Coalition MPs are obsessed with, designed to impede unions from doing their jobs. Particularly when 91% of private sector workers aren’t even in unions. 

Second, for most retailers in Australia their brand is nearly everything. The only difference between a Commonwealth Bank home loan and a much cheaper home loan provided by a credit union is the public’s perception of the big banks. That’s why the big four banks spend more than $1bn a year on marketing. That’s why big brands are quick to join campaigns that unite them with their customers, and why they’re quick to drop sponsorship of conservatives such as Israel Folau and Alan Jones.

And third, while the Coalition and peak employer bodies obsess about making it easier to sack workers and harder for workers to go on strike, most of the companies that are experiencing growth are actually more interested in attracting and retaining great staff, motivating them, and helping them to work collaboratively and respectfully with each other.

It’s not “virtue signalling” for a company to make clear its support for diversity. It’s talent acquisition. It’s not virtue signalling for executives to align themselves with their customers in public debates. It’s PR 101. And it’s not “virtue signalling” for companies to call on governments to deliver a safe climate. It’s long-term planning. That’s supposed to be what governments are elected to do.

• Richard Denniss is the chief economist at the Australia Institute

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