Time for business to act

There’s a particular tenet of democracies that is so basic, we often tend to forget about it. Its basic premise is that any organisation, big or small, survives only by public consent. Now this concept doesn’t exist in a non-democratic society because in reality, those government systems don’t give a damn whether the public consents to something or not. In a democracy such as ours however, the notion of consent is paramount for the survival of the system.

In Australia as in all democracies, we give consent through many different means. Because of the consumerist nature of democracies, the dominant way we give consent is by buying. Yes, every time we buy something from Myer, Macdonalds or Macquarie Centre, we implicitly give consent for that business to keep functioning. Without our combined dollars, they would crash, and it’s only by consumer consent that our major businesses survive.

Another way we give consent is by voting. Every three years or so, we vote for the government of our choice. We either give consent for it to keep going, or shift consent and give another party a go. Simple.

Yet there’s two very large differences between consuming and voting. Besides us not having to pay to vote, it’s also true that we only get the chance to give or shift our consent every three years. The last possible date for the next Federal election is January 19, 2008. In anyone’s language, that’s a long time between drinks. Much can happen in three years, and without a means of withdrawing or shifting our consent, we’re pretty well stuck.

Now in ages past, if a society wasn’t happy with government decision making, the people would engage in social action. Burning and looting were common in the industrial era, while protests and strikes were more common toward the end of the 20th century. In 2005 however, the entire concept of social action has become so remote that we seem to have lost the ability to even think about it. It is as if our new-found national wealth has robbed us of any initiative to act in order to improve our already improved lot.

There is no doubt that de-unionising and the societal shift from working-class to professional class has weakened our inclination to act for change. The swift and almost total rise of the white-collar class has meant not only new-found individual wealth, but a work ethic that serves to preserve that wealth at the expense of everyone else. This is the very nature of competition, and in many ways we are all our own personal competitive business nowadays. I’m OK Jack…bugger you!

So what do we do when we suddenly start to understand and detest a government policy that’s been around for yonks…let’s say one like mandatory detention. What do we do when the true nature of the policy starts to sink in? The recent stuff-ups by the government highlighted by the Cornelia Rau and Virginia Leong affairs have made all sorts of people speak out…people who wouldn’t have spoken out before. People like Coalition Government ministers. People like TV personalities. People like you and me.

Yet gee, it’s also just sunk in that we only recently elected our government and if they decide to stick with the status quo like Mr Howard is indicating, we may have this awful policy for years to come! It’s like we’ve been on another planet! What can we do?

We personally can’t do much and to be honest, taking to the streets won’t do a lot of good. It will help show numbers, but won’t really hit the Howard government where it hurts. That can’t happen for another three years at voting time.

But while we as individuals can’t make a meaningful statement now, there is one extremely powerful group in Australian society that can land the Howard government such a body-blow on mandatory detention that it would easily turn policy. This group has increased in power dramatically since the arrival of the Howard Government and is arguably the most powerful sector in Australian society today. It’s also the group that is the quietest on social issues, as if they’re somehow deaf to any debate that doesn’t impact on them specifically. As if they’re somehow uninvolved in the greater community they work in.

The group I’m talking about is the business sector, and particularly the CEOs and directors of our Aussie businesses both big and small. Imagine if you will, that Australian businesses, in a combined show of ‘non-consent’ for the Howard Government policy on mandatory detention, or any damn policy for that matter, decided to actually make their feelings felt. I don’t mean taking to the streets here. I certainly don’t expect Gerry Harvey to pick up a placard or Richard Pratt to go on strike.

I’m talking money here lads, and I’m specifically talking about the considered non-payment of your quarterly ‘ GST payable’ your ‘Pay as you go instalments’ and your ‘Pay as you go withholdings.’ Now to the non-business person, this probably all seems like gobbledygook. Yet business people have now become so accustomed to paying these regular amounts to the government they don’t give it a thought. They especially don’t consider the absolute power they hold in NOT making the payments.

I can feel the quaking of the accountants now. What, refuse to pay our company tax! Preposterous! But listen up lads…it’s easy. I suggest its just a simple matter of writing the words ‘NO Mandatory Detention’ in large letters in black felt pen on a copy of your quarterly BAS statement (I’d use a copy just in case the ATO fines you for desecrating a legal document). Phase one could be simply making the statement. Let’s claim the next BAS due date of July 28 as ‘No mandatory detention day’. Phase two, in the next quarter, involves you not paying a cent and risking a fine.

Of course the government will say they’ll fine you just as Bob Carr in NSW stated that everyone who didn’t pay their train fare on Sydney’s recent ‘No fare’ day would be fined. In the face of such overwhelming public action, he backed down.

What perhaps the bean counters forget is that we, the public, give consent for their businesses to exist. By buying from them, we give permission for them to run their department stores, their factories and their fast-food restaurants. While we may like their products, it’s probably high time we also know where these businesses stand on the important issues in our society. If as individuals we have unconsciously relinquished our power for social action, we now rely on you, our business leaders to do the right thing and sway policy where you can. Where does the NAB’s Chief Executive John Stewart stand on mandatory detention? What is BHP Chief Executive Chip Goodyear’s view on Australia’s presence in Iraq? Does Kerry Packer support the Howard policy on industrial reform? And what lads, are you prepared to do about it?

Perhaps the most overlooked way we give consent in a democratic society is by being silent. If as has been the case, Australia’s business sector continues to remain silent on the important social issues present in our society, we can only assume they agree with policies such as mandatory detention. This being so, it is then up to us as consumers to direct our spending dollars to the business that makes a stand, and takes some action for change.

So accountants, CEOs and directors of small and big businesses everywhere, it’s time to realise there’s more to being in our society than just operating your business. As BAS time approaches, it’s high time you consider how you can act to make Australia a better place to live. Get that felt pen ready.

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