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ALP courts private sector in a two-day forum at the Sydney Convention Centre.

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Thursday 27 October 2005

ALP courts private sector in a two-day forum at the Sydney Convention Centre


MARK COLVIN: The Federal Opposition has been courting corporate Austr alia today, trying to undo the damage said to have been caused by the former leader, Mark Latham. 


In the lead-up to last year's election, Mr Latham showed little interest in engaging the business community. 


And during the campaign, the Government took aim at Labor's economic credibility with a series of advertisements claiming interest rates would rise under a Labor government. 


Although many in the ALP have been keen to blame their former leader for Labor's poor standing on business and economic issues, at least one former insider says it's a problem that goes back well before Mark Latham. 


Karen Percy reports. 


KAREN PERCY: Opposition frontbenchers are known to enjoy the media limelight, but few attending the two-day corporate talkfest in Sydney today were keen to talk in any detail about what Labor hopes to achieve during the two-day forum. 


SHADOW MINISTER 1: There will be many discussions had today and those discussions will inform us about policy, about a whole range of ideas that'll be exchanged between Labor and business. 


SHADOW MINISTER 2: Well it's important to engage with the whole community, business, unions, investors, you've got to engage with the whole community; that's what we're doing today. 


KAREN PERCY: Even their leader was keeping his cards close to his chest. 


KIM BEAZLEY: Whatever the last election was is past, we're getting into it now. 


KAREN PERCY: Kim Beazley was saving his thoughts for his key note speech, which saw the Opposition leader attack the Government's record on foreign debt and the soaring trade deficit. 


Reporters weren't invited to Federal Labor's business forum, but 100 of the country's leading business leaders were. 


Bankers and economists joined executives from Telstra, the private health sector, even a director from the Reserve Bank. 


Each of them paid as much as $5,000 to attend the conference at Sydney's convention centre, which includes a private dinner tonight with Kim Beazley. 

Participants are also given the chance of a one-on-one meeting with the shadow minister of their choice. 


JOHN BUTTON: I don't think they're alienated by the Labor Party particularly, anymore than other sections of the electorate might be at various times. 


But I think they don't understand the Labor Party, and need to know more about it, just as the Labor Party needs to know more about business. 


KAREN PERCY: While former Labor minister and senator John Button says the relationship between Labor and business needs work, he says the problems can't all be attributed to the former leader, Mark Latham. 


JOHN BUTTON: Businessmen are individuals, they're not always a homogenous corporate mass, as it were, and some might've been put off by Mark Latham's comments about them, or his apparent failure to meet with them sufficiently, but I don't think all of them would be, and I don't think the problem just goes back to Mark Latham. 


I mean, I think business has been uncertain about the Labor Party for some time, and it needs to be more certain than it is now. 


KAREN PERCY: A common criticism of Labor is that it's allowing the current Coalition Government to take credit for prosperity that stemmed from the economic changes made by the Hawke and Keating Government in the 1980s. 


John Button says the Party needs to reclaim the credit and the credibility. 


JOHN BUTTON: It's only an excellent idea in my view, if it goes on, that it's not just a one-off forum, that it goes on with a continuing dialogue between business interests and the Labor Party. 


And the Labor Party is… can never get into bed with business, that's a terrible mistake, you know, if a quid's on offer business will take it, and that's not a good in bed relationship I think. 


KAREN PERCY: By their very nature, the Labor Party and corporate Australia have always had an uneasy relationship, according to Professor John Warhurst, Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University in Canberra. 


JOHN WARHURST: There will be individual businesses and individual businesspeople, business leaders who have a much warmer relationship with the Labor Party and maybe it will vary from sector to sector.  


But it's not a level playing field as far as Labor is concerned with the business community, just as it never is between the Coalition and trade unions. 


KAREN PERCY: Professor Warhurst says Labor needs to participate in forums like this to rebuild trust. 


JOHN WARHURST: What business wants to see, I think is that Labor really is a serious candidate for winning in 2007, because business won't waste too much time and effort on party that it feels is a very long shot of winning. 


But secondly, some serious proposals, not general proposals, but serious proposals about the issues that are before the Australian economy at the moment. 


KAREN PERCY: Professor Warhurst points out that those in the business community have a long memory, and above all else, he says, they are pragmatic. 


They are already working with Labor governments in the states and territories, he says, and they know they'll have to deal with a Labor federal government again one of these days. 


MARK COLVIN: Karen Percy.