With the whole world on fire, it might be time to take that leap of faith

The corporate speak around the pandemic is changing but is anything else, asks Robert MacDonald

Jul 20, 2020, updated Jul 20, 2020
Pic: Elijah O'Donnell

Pic: Elijah O'Donnell

If you’re sick of pivoting through the pandemic, stand still for a moment and prepare to jump off the burning platform.

It’s the latest piece of corporate speak to find favour in the current crisis.

We’re facing desperate times and pivoting is no longer enough.

It’s time to take a leap of faith, just like Andy Mochan, a worker on the Piper Alpha oil-drilling platform North Sea, which caught fire in July 1988.

One hundred and sixty-six crew members lost their lives. But not Mochan, who had leapt 30 metres to the icy waters below.

“It was either jump or fry,” he said later.

A metaphor too good to pass up for business management consultants who have been using it ever since to capture the idea of companies having to take radical action when they have no other choice.

All sorts of previously unpopular ideas, untenable during business-as-normal times, are now being championed by promoters armed with the burning platform argument.

In the United Kingdom, Lord O’Donnell, Cabinet Secretary under David Cameron, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, believes things could be sufficiently dire to see the introduction of a wealth tax – long a highly contentious concept for politicians of all stripes.

He argues that the COVID-19 crisis has created “a clear burning platform” for tax reform – including a wealth tax – by exposing and widening the gulf between the rich and the poor.

Likewise, here in Australia, former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry, who helped bring in the goods and services tax 20 years ago, says the Government should be using the “burning platform” of the COVID-19 economic recession to win public support for major tax reform.

He doesn’t speculate on a wealth tax but notes the failings of the current system – a shrinking GST take for the states and poor-quality state taxes, such as stamp duties and payroll and resource royalties.

But he also says tax reform should not be revenue-neutral.

In other words, someone’s going to pay more – something for those who have done well in life to think about as they brace for a plunge into the unknown.

The Government, however, is showing little appetite for raising taxes even as it pumps billions of dollars into economic stimulation programs.

“We have a track record when it comes to tax reform of reducing taxes and you’ve seen that both on the income tax side and the company tax side,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has said.

He has also batted away State-led suggestions to increase the GST rate.

So, as far as substantial tax reform is concerned, it looks as if the money bags among us can rest easy for a while longer, to the extent possible on a burning platform.

The Business Council of Australia and the Asia Society of Australia use the burning platform argument to tell us now is the right time to launch a renewed effort to engage with Asia.

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“As a business community, we have never fully committed to the region,”  they say in their recently released report, “A Second  Chance. Getting Asia right for Australia in a post-COVID-19 World”.

This is despite the fact that seven of Australia’s top 10 export destinations are in Asia.

But according the report:

“COVID-19 presents Australia with a second chance that we must take now if future generations are going to enjoy the same standard of living to which we have become accustomed.

“If we act urgently Australia has a unique chance to capitalise on demand from the world’s largest and fastest-growing middle class, particularly for premium, trusted products and services.”

The report, which does have a chapter headed “The Burning Platform”, without further explanation, recommends a range of actions, among them:

“Establishing a small, agile national business advisory group that works with the Federal Government and Austrade on international trade and investment promotion and facilitation.”

The advisory group would “provide ‘hands-on’ focused business inputs to Austrade and to the delivery of joint activities in Australia and Asia.”

And what better way to respond to the fire raging around us than establish a new committee?

So, on second thoughts, don’t stop pivoting, or being agile or nimble or all the other things we’ve been told to do during these past few months.

You’re going to have to keep dodging the flames around us for a while longer.

It looks as if we won’t be leaping from this burning platform any time soon.

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