Chamber of Commerce chief James Pearson wants a stronger voice for business

The Australian, June 27, 2016

James Pearson knows better than most people that speaking out on policy matters comes at a price.

“I’ve been through it,” he told The Australian.

The former diplomat and Shell executive, who replaced Kate Carnell as head of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is talking about his 1992 expulsion from Vanuatu.

He was acting High Commissioner and given 24 hours to leave the country after he relayed the then Keating government’s concerns about a law allowing the South Pacific nation to revoke business licences with no reasons and no legal appeals.

“That expulsion was a very difficult time for me and my family, as you can imagine,” he recalls.

While the business and expatriate community rallied around Pearson, his wife and his young sons, “it did feel threatening when it’s announced on national radio that you are persona non grata”.

“Now as it turned out the 24 hours had to be extended to 48 hours because as someone pointed out to the Vanuatu government there was no flight in 24 hours back to Australia,” he recalls.

Almost 25 years have passed but for Pearson, the memories come flooding back as he worries that robust commentary is being impeded in Australia because corporate leaders fear some politicians could engage in a “settling of scores” after election campaigns.

“In terms of angst about standing up for what you believe in, I think the business community should recognise it has a legitimate point of view, it has a well-informed point of view,” he says.

“And it should never be scared of taking part in debate, public policy debate, no matter how robust it becomes, because those voices that are against the interests of business will not silence themselves. So why should business?”

Pearson was actively involved in student politics while an undergraduate at the University of Western Australia and says it taught him about the value of the political process and about “the power of collective action”.

“There is power in collective action and the more business voices that are added to the debate, the harder it is for that implicit threat of retribution to be taken seriously,” he says of the current election campaign.

While plenty of politicians got their start in student unions, Pearson only contemplated going down that path from time to time.

Besides, he considers the job he has now to be “intensely” political, except that “I don’t have the indignity of having to put myself up for election every three years”.

Pearson was appointed in April after the departure of former Liberal politician Kate Carnell.

He says his vision for the job is to allow the chamber to “become a movement” and use that to secure “long-term bipartisan backing for business in Australia”.

“The Australian chamber network represents around 300,000 enterprises employing around four million workers,” he says.

“Now the Australian trade union movement represents a little over one in 10 Australians working in the private sector. But who has the strongest voice? Shouldn’t we have a stronger, more influential voice?”

Pearson’s other frustration is that Australia’s competitiveness has slipped in rankings such as the World Economics Forum’s index.

He moved to Australia with his “£10 Pom” parents as a child and believes the migrant experience means “you do try hard, you want to make it a winner”. His frustration is also shaped by what he learned from Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade postings to Nigeria at a time when it was considered “the giant of Africa” and later to Beijing as China’s economic reforms gathered pace in the mid-1990s.

He realised when working and living overseas “that there are lots and lots of other countries and lots and lots of people living in them who are increasingly at least as well educated as we are, increasingly enjoy at least as good infrastructure as we do and in many cases are much more highly motivated to succeed than many Australians are”.

“That’s not meant as a criticism of Australians. It’s not some sly remark about young people. It’s more about expectations and what we’ve become used to. We cannot be complacent.”