Speech to the Brisbane Mining Club - Corporations should contribute to Australia's defence

In 1934, as Managing Director of BHP, Essington Lewis, travelled to Japan. Within days of leaving, Lewis wrote to his fellow BHP Director, Harold Darling, and said that "Japan may be described as a big gun-powder magazine and the people as fanatics and any day the two might connect and there will be an explosion."
Lewis immediately drew up plans for BHP to start stockpiling raw materials and to manufacture munitions to improve Australia's defence. By 1936, Lewis, in cooperation with Holden and Orica, formed the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation. By 1937, they were making planes at a factory in Melbourne. Eventually, the Australian designed Wirraway warplane would be manufactured there.
Today we face similar threats to our nation's defence given the aggressive conduct of the Chinese Communist Party. Who, however, among our nation's large mining companies, or corporate sector more generally, will play a role like Essington's in helping to bolster our nation's defences?
An unremarked vulnerability of our nation now, compared to then, is the distinct lack of evident patriotism of our corporate sector. I would gamble that you are more likely to find rainbow flags flying in our nation's corporate offices than Australian flags.
We need our corporate leaders back on Team Australia to help defend this country and all the benefits it has provided our businesses. We need a new era of business leaders willing to unashamedly fly our flag and defend all the good that it represents.
I know that there are business leaders that are patriotic, that do worry about the threat of Chinese aggression. What we need though is more of these people to publicly shout their love of country so we can remove the unwarranted, social-media-driven stigma of being patriotic.
I say this as someone who has never been critical of corporations involving themselves in political debates. I disagreed with the position that many businesses took in supporting same sex marriage, but I never quibbled with their right to involve themselves in political issues, even ones that are controversial.
But from that logic, there should be no compunction for corporate leaders to involve themselves in the political debate about the defence of our country. That is also controversial. But the defence of our country is at least as important as the rights of same sex attracted Australians. Indeed, defending Australia is the only way that minority groups will continue to enjoy the unapparelled rights they enjoy in modern Australia. The Chinese Communist Party is not particularly fond of homosexuality.
There is much talk in the corporate sector about the importance of Environmental, Social and Governance principles. An ESG approach seeks to put principles over profit. Likewise, there is a case now for a new principle. If companies are expected to prioritise the environment over profits, why shouldn't they prioritise patriotism over profits too?
This would make business sense. Most large Australian companies have climate change plans. We are told these are in place to protect the viability of the business from the impacts of climate change, or climate change policies that may be implemented by us or others. Yet, when I ask Australian mining companies whether they have a China plan, I normally get a blank response. But the risks and consequences of China triggering a conflict in our region are much greater than any impact of climate change, especially to those Australian businesses heavily reliant on iron ore for profits.
Instead of organising press conferences with Chinese government officials, our corporations should develop plans to tackle the Chinese Communist Party.
Corporate leaders can play an important role in leading the debate on Australia's defence and many corporations can do more than just talk. We also need action to restore our industrial strength and ability to fight any coming conflict.
All Australian companies have benefited from the generosity of the Australian Government over the past year. I don't expect companies to pay back JobKeeper directly, but indirectly there is a moral obligation for Australian companies to be part of a NationKeeper program that sees them invest in industries that can strengthen Australia's defence capabilities.
With that in mind, there are many actions that Australian businesses could take to help defend the country. In the mining sector, that could involve large Australian companies getting back into manufacturing again in a serious way. The Whyalla steel mill is in some difficulty at the moment. I would love to see an Australian mining company get back to steel making and buy it. They may not make lots of money but they would be doing something more vital for our nation than that.
Others could help build a coal fired power station to at least somewhat match the 97 coal fired power stations China is currently building. If Australian companies are happy to make money selling coal to China, why shouldn't some of the profits help build reliable power in Australia too?
Some Australian companies are leading the charge in the manufacture of missiles and other military equipment. More established and more capitalised businesses could join them to do what Essington Lewis did almost 100 years ago.
Why can't our superannuation funds get together and create a consortium to buy back the Darwin, Newcastle and Melbourne ports from Chinese investors? Indeed, there is a lot of talk about the regulations that should be imposed on investments by superannuation. Perhaps there is a need to require or provide and incentive for Australian superannuation funds to make investments in the national interest.
I believe that some of the timidity of Australia's leaders is that they have become too distracted by the pied piper of social media. Like our corporate offices, there are more rainbow flag emojis, than Australian flag emojis, on twitter. Yet social media is a fake version of Australia. Very few Australians actually post about politics on Instagram or Facebook.
Essington Lewis made a habit of regularly visiting the mines and shopfloors of his company. On one visit he asked an employee what the magnifying glass on the shadow board was for. The worker shot back to his boss with a brilliant mix of Aussie humour and contempt for authority, "that's so I can see me pay."
I encourage our business leaders to get off social media and spend more time with their workforces. There I am sure they will find people who want to defend our nation against Chinese aggression whatever the cost to their jobs or livelihoods. Australia is worth the sacrifice.

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  • Matthew Canavan
    published this page in Public speeches 2021-05-04 12:40:10 +1000



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