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Suncorp boss threatens to take company into thick of politics - he should tread carefully

Opinion

Suncorp boss Steve Johnston has said he will throw down the challenge to governments. His company, Queensland’s biggest and most influential, is threatening to become a corporate activist, writes John McCarthy.

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There are few winners in this game. Alan Joyce gambled and ended up on the winning side in same-sex marriage, the mining industry gave the Rudd government an absolute pasting over the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, but made lifelong enemies with Labor along the way.

Former Telstra boss Sol Trujillo took on the Howard government over Labor’s planned NBN and well, that ended badly for everyone. Adani is the company that took it to a new level and won handsomely but I doubt it will ever get any favours from the Palaszczuk Government any time soon.

So when Johnston stood at the lectern last week and promised governments of all levels that Suncorp was not going to sit on the sidelines, he was playing with big stakes.

“Over the coming months we will outline a series of opportunities for the Government to implement that will ensure a physically and financially resilient and sustainable community,’’ he said.

Importantly, he was saying Suncorp was going to tell the government what it should do. Not what Suncorp could do. Crucially, he said over the next few months which coincides with the state election.

“We believe the time is right for a nation-building program encompassing infrastructure, incentives, improved building standards and removal of inefficient taxes and charges, all designed to create jobs and stimulate the economy,” he said.

“This is about government at all levels coming together with business – big and small – to make a long-overdue investment in our future.’’

At the very same time, Suncorp has stated it was getting out of financing and insuring fossil fuels, one of Queensland’s biggest industries. That’s fair enough, they aren’t alone there, but it’s interesting symbolism.

This was right after he reminded everyone that we are heading into another summer and nothing has been done by governments to prevent a repeat of last summer’s disaster, except that most of the bush is in ash. In essence, he was saying governments had taken their eye off the game.

Johnston is far from politically naïve. Having served as an adviser to then-premier Rob Borbidge he would know how statements like that would go down in George Street and saying them to an audience of journalists and analysts would ensure the comments get a wide audience.

He would also have known that “over the coming months’’ will be seen as the run-up to a state election in October. And the issues he wants to raise fit nicely with an election campaign.

Suncorp is not known for corporate activism but it does have some experienced hands-on its board: Doug McTaggart and Lindsay Tanner both have strong political pedigrees and have done the hard yards. You would assume Johnston ran this idea past them before saying it.

But the problem is that if you take on any side of government and tell them what to do you annoy not just the politicians but their supporters. A lot of them would be Suncorp customers.

Johnston should tread carefully.

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