Nasser tells it like it is
It's not quite going from the sublime to the ridiculous - but it's close. Two speeches have captured the national headlines over the past week.
First there was Jac Nasser, the chairman of Australia's biggest taxpayer, BHP Billiton, outlining his plan for a more productive and prosperous nation.
Then came Craig Thomson, claiming he did not use his trade union credit card to pay for prostitutes. As a result, parents around the country are now having a difficult time explaining to their children what's being talked about in the nation's Parliament.
Nasser got the front page for a day. Thomson has had the front page week after week after week. The different media treatment of the speeches says something about our priorities.
And it reveals what the public finds more interesting.
From the important to the incredible is a better description of the news cycle last week. The sorry saga of Thomson will ultimately end up as a political footnote. But what Nasser said could prove to be something of a turning point in the debate about the shape of Australia's future.
Nasser said two things of particular significance. The first had to do with industrial relations and tax.
He declared Labor's industrial relations laws were hurting productivity and he basically said trade unions had too much power.
"It is important to have a co-operative framework within which to engage employees who choose union representation.
"But we do not believe that the influence of unions should be disproportionate to the level of union membership which today accounts for around 15 per cent of employees in Australia's private sector . . ."
That's strong stuff. And it's from the chairman of a company that's traditionally been more sympathetic than its competitor, Rio Tinto, to unions. Such criticisms of the so-called Fair Work Act are not new. What's special about Nasser's remarks are that now even BHP is critical of the country's labour laws.
Nasser's comments about tax were along the same lines.
"It is the right of governments to set the tax regime but I cannot overstate how the level of uncertainty about Australia's tax system is generating negative investor feedback. People don't know where it's going."
This was just days after Wayne Swan reneged on his commitment to cut the corporate tax rate and instead spent the money on handouts to families to compensate them for the carbon tax.
Again, there was nothing original about Nasser's statement.
It's impact rests on the delicious irony that it's the carbon tax that forced the government to break its promise on the corporate tax, and it was BHP's chief executive, Marius Kloppers, who urged Julia Gillard to introduce a carbon tax in the first place. In September 2010, when the PM started to justify the carbon tax, she named Kloppers as someone who supported the tax.
The second thing of significance in Nasser's speech was his defence of Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest and Clive Palmer. Not too many business leaders have had the courage to come out and back those such as Rinehart, Forrest and Palmer who have been successful, as Nasser put it, "by their own toil".
It's one thing to jump on the industrial relations and tax bandwagon, as many corporate bosses have done recently, but it takes some fortitude to confront a government and a treasurer and tell them they're wrong.
The government can be remarkably vindictive. Look no further than the government inquiry into the media that was aimed fairly and squarely at Rupert Murdoch.
Nasser's statement that "attacking individuals and specific industries doesn't build confidence in our country - nothing good comes from this" was merely a declaration of the obvious. However, it's a statement too few people in Australia have been willing to make.
It's unlikely the Gillard government will pay too much attention to Nasser.
The Prime Minister won't be quoting him in support of industrial relations reform, as she quoted Kloppers on the need for a carbon tax. But in any case it's unlikely that Nasser made his speech with the purpose of influencing Labor government policy.
The purpose of Nasser's speech was to tell the Australian public what he thought it needs to hear. He won't be too concerned about the government.
He knows that given the government's predicament, ministers will spend more time worrying about what Thomson said than anything the chairman of BHP Billiton said.