How business leaders can get along with government, according to a parade of ex-premiers

By Stephen Easton

September 19, 2019

The Morrison government’s combative rhetoric toward business leaders is one of many signs of strained relationships across the public-private divide, but a new report offers hope of happier times and mutually satisfying public policy.

Describing government as a“complex dance” involving politicians, departments, regulatory bodies, the media, advocates and lobbyists, the report distils the views and advice of 15 influential Australians and New Zealanders including a parade of former political and public service leaders who now ply a trade in the private sector.

Management consulting firm Korn Ferry captured their thoughts on what drives misunderstandings and mistrust between the sectors. People on both sides typically think the others just don’t get it, and both are right, according to former federal treasurer Peter Costello.

A key message is that business leaders need a good understanding of how government works at an administrative level, in terms of the role of the public service, legislative processes and budget cycles.

“By the same token, building a good understanding of the imperatives that business faces, particularly in a globally competitive world, is also extremely important for governments,” adds former federal minister Greg Combet.

“The senior public servants have a role to play in enhancing this mutual understanding. I would have benefited, as a minister, from senior public service officials that engaged more with business.”

AustralianSuper chair Heather Ridout adds: “It’s not going to be easy to improve the relationship as ministerial offices are very tactical and transactional and their lens is heavily political. Ministerial offices are deeply involved in policy development – while they always had a role, the public service used to own this – and they view the world very differently.

“This can lead to more short-term and tactical policy-making which is very difficult for business which likes a longer term and more predictable approach. We’ve seen a number of examples of this in recent times.”

Publicly attacking policy was seen as a risky option and a last resort by most of the commentators. Business leaders are also advised to frame their submissions in terms of the public interest, and not to think they can bypass the public service and go straight to the minister.

There was general agreement that chief executives and boards should take the lead in maintaining cordial, long-term relationships with both major parties – regardless of who is in power – and consider minor parties and independents as well. The respondents say lobbyists and peak bodies have their uses, but are no substitute for direct engagement at the top level.

“The way a company works well with the Australian government is when the CEO rolls up his or her sleeves and pitches in and regards a relationship with government as an important part of their key performance indicators,” said Dr Ian Watt, a former secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

The report helpfully includes a 10-point framework to explain in what rolling up one’s sleeves means in this context.

“You’ve got to put the shoe-leather time in,” added Watt. “You’ve got to work regularly on relationships, and you’ve got to be serious about it.”

While aimed at big business, much of the advice on successfully taking part in the public policy process is equally relevant to academics, activists, advocates or philanthropic groups.

Anyone wanting to have meaningful input should take note of the actual policy goals set out by the government of the day, and try to inject realistic ideas at the right phase of the budget cycle.

“If your particular organisation is going to be the subject of a piece of legislation or regulation, you have to engage with the process,” says former federal minister Helen Coonan.

“As the people who are going to have to make it work, you’ve got a real obligation to alert those who are designing it on where the pitfalls might be.”

Korn Ferry’s panel were unanimous in the view that political donations and fundraising events gave very little or no direct advantage to businesses and certainly were unwilling to agree that donations could lead to special access or favourable public policy outcomes. MRDA, perhaps.

The report also includes the views of former New Zealand prime minister Bill English, past New South Wales premiers Bob Carr and Nick Greiner, former Queensland premier Anna Bligh, Victorian ex-premiers Steve Bracks and John Brumby, former ACT chief minister Kate Carnell, Australian business leaders Tony Shepherd and Jennifer Westacott, who was once a NSW department head, and NZ businessman Phil O’Reilly.

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