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Rise of the corporate cowboys

  • 29 September 2014

A previous Prime Minister reckoned that he aimed to make Australia the world’s biggest share-holding democracy. He succeeded in changing the political culture to have a greater focus on individualism, financial worth and competition.

Unfortunately, when people pin their hopes for a just and fair society to a corporation, they can be sadly disappointed. A spate of deaths around the country suggests that many corporations have plenty of power to influence governments to produce policies and legislation convenient for their operations, but fail to take responsibility for their bad outcomes.

The saddest aspect of these deaths – some in workplaces and some on the roads – is that they seem to have been very easily avoidable, and if this so, then management was negligent. Young men have died cleaning out apparatus or in scaffolding collapses. Women and children have died when heavy vehicles collided with them. Given that the Abbott Government has assiduously pursued Labor over the tragic deaths that occurred during installation of ceiling insulation, we have grounds to hope that it might take a stronger line in bringing corporate cowboys into line with decency.

Although governments might like to cry ‘hands off’ where private business is concerned, they cannot evade responsibility entirely. During the Wran years in New South Wales, a strong member of the railways union complained about a deliberate but tacit policy of sending more freight onto the roads. He implied that he thought that some ministers were receiving inducements from trucking companies and fuel suppliers to support the policy. Either that or they were promised some future benefit. We can debate forever the social impact of having more heavy vehicles on the roads, but the old slogan applies - ‘privatise the profits’ while letting the community pay the costs.

When the BP shareholders accept their dividends this year, some of them might spare a thought for the laws which enable the company’s profits to grow. A few might even wonder whether the company’s management policies, which are predicated on the maximisation of profit, meant that its trucks could be sent out without adequate maintenance, or their drivers despatched without proper training and rest periods. 

The loss of some 40 Australian lives in the MH17 air disaster was a tragedy that the federal government rightly addressed. It took firm action and spoken plainly to many people in positions of great power. Coalition policies on workplace relations and economic development make