Business Activists

In the 1990’s environmental, social justice (not even a term back then) and other “idealists” were generally well intentioned and respected people who volunteered their time to make on the ground differences to their cause, for instance by picking up rubbish or hands on assisting people in need. Nowadays, noisy “activists” have taken over, and even businesses are getting in on the game. What has changed?

It has become much too easy to vote for a benefit than to work for one. The Not-for-profit sector was the first to cotton on to that rather than have to constantly recruit and inspire volunteers, raise funds, and actually execute the actions to achieve their objectives (actually do work yourself…), it was much easier and time effective to instead find ways to influence Government to do it for them. So the activities changed to organising protests and building political networks instead. Activism has become a big business. Governments love it too, because it justifies even more Government.

Businesses and Industry associations have been surprisingly slow to pick up on this trend. If you want to understand what is happening, you will never go wrong if you follow the money. Many of these activist organisations are funded by Government, so by perpetuating a narrative, they create a spiral of more funding to keep themselves (and Government) in business.

Investment in particularly mining in Australia is at a low, mainly because of all the colours of tape that make the approvals process long, cumbersome, expensive, and with uncertain outcomes. In a good example of where a business has finally taken a stance to fight back, let’s look at Santos $5.7 billion Barossa project. Because of the possible precedence, the case also delayed the $16.5 billion Woodside Scarborough project.

The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) is a legal council that was given tax payer funding by the incoming ALP Federal Government, and decided to stop or at least delay the 262 kilometer underwater pipeline to connect gas wells with the mainland. The strategy was to use a supposed lack of project consultation with a small group of Indigenous people claiming a connection to the sea. In the EDO’s case to the court, they used a Professor from the University of WA who appeared as a cultural expert. The case was forcefully rejected by Justice Natalie Charlesworth earlier this year because the applicants’ actions amounted to “confection” (that is, made up “facts”) and they were found to be coaching Indigenous witnesses to testify in particular ways to help the EDO’s cause.

Santos is now fighting back and is claiming damages from the applicants. This delay has impacted on the ability of Santos as well as other mining and exploration projects to get funding, making Australia a big sovereign risk (both in terms of signing supply agreements as well as investment), and has jeopardised jobs. This project should never have been delayed like this through the courts, and many in the business community are rather quietly supporting Santos action to make an example by holding activists to account for frivolous disruptions using the legal system.

It’s not just vocal minorities milking these strategies. Although slow on the uptake, there are now more and more businesses that have jumped on the “activist” band wagon. Why spend your own money on Research and Development if you can get Government to stump up the cash on unproven “green steel” or “green hydrogen”? Need to connect your new subsidised “renewable” power plant to the grid – just get Government to install the infrastructure for you at no cost and no risk. Want to take the leap into yet to be developed quantum computing? You don’t even need to be an Australian company, just promise 400 jobs (that don’t even have to be in Australia) and The Future Made in Australia fund will happily hand over $1 billion without even an equity stake. The much-touted Tritium battery charger producer showcases Governments ability to pick winners: the Qld company happily pocketed subsidies only to just a year later pack up in Australia as it was more economical to instead move manufacturing to the US.

But the undisputed Champion in the activist world would have to be the Electric Vehicle Council (EVC). In less than a decade, they have managed to convince multiple Governments (State and Federal) to exempt their members products from most taxes applied to competing products (tax discounts at purchase plus avoiding paying for road maintenance for example). They have managed to get Government to pay for the infrastructure to charge these vehicles, including often not paying for the power use either. The EVC managed to get Government and many corporates to commit to purchasing EV’s to show their “green” credentials, with non-private buyers representing the bulk of EV purchases. EV’s get special parking spots in shopping centres and the like. But the gold star status must be how the EVC managed to get a policy that shoots its own members in the foot by putting an effective target cap on non-EV vehicles, thereby bastardising the sales of the bulk of their own products to favour EV’s.

Gone are the days when manufacturers built products that sold based on the benefits they provided the purchasers. Sadly it is you and I, hard working tax payers, who pay for all this activism irrespective of which side it’s from. Tax money is diverted from much needed services like health care, defence and other services we all rely on. In nearly all cases, this activism adds to the cost of the products and services we all need, increasing our cost of living. There is nothing wrong with people having ideologies – just don’t make the rest of us pay for it.

Words from the wise

“Rent seeking is the act of growing one’s existing wealth or influence by manipulating the social or political environment without creating any benefits or wealth to the society” – the definition of activists?

“Don’t count the days, make the days count” – Muhammad Ali.

“The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty” – Winston Churchill.

As always, Onwards and Upwards!

Fred Carlsson

General Manager

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