Friday, January 14, 2011

like watching Goliath pretend he's David

Last week an astonished Australian audience was treated to the spectacle of a self-styled community leader urging Australians to silence on prime time television.

If you believe in something, keep it to yourself, retail magnate Gerry Harvey earnestly recommended.

Harvey is of course famous for being famous, and always ready with helpful advice like plunge yourself into an amazing visual adventure with LG and the unforgettable NO DEPOSIT NO INTEREST.

Harvey has never been backward in coming forward to express his beliefs. He backed maverick conservationist Peter Andrews against all conventional wisdom, using Andrews' natural sequence farming method to rehabilitate his Baramal Stud.

In November 2010 Harvey observed to Harvey Norman shareholders that the Government should do something about taxing Internet shoppers. Right now no tax is imposed on transactions with international websites of less than a thousand Australian dollars.

Later, Harvey joined other retailers in a media campaign to force the Government's hand.

As many as 30,000 jobs might be lost from the Australian retail sector unless tax and import duty exemptions are removed from online purchases of less than a thousand Australian dollars, a consortium of 21 retailers asserted in press releases and newspaper advertisements.

I employ people in this country, I do pay taxes, I pay rent so can I have the same go? Harvey implored ABC Radio.

Assistant Treasurer Victorian MP Bill Shorten told the Courier-Mail the cost of collecting tax from overseas websites would be greater than the tax raised.

Harvey replied Shorten was dreaming. Bill, wake up, he urged.

Australians love a David and Goliath contest. However, between the billionaire businessman and former union leader and Assistant Treasurer Shorten, it is difficult to tell which is which.

Its like watching Goliath pretend he's David, the No Pokies Senator from South Australia Nick Xenophon opined.

Harvey had previously maintained over 90 percent of the e-retailers will in fact all go out of business one after the other. The problem is that it will be quite traumatic for an awful lot of people during this process.

Now, a traumatised Harvey faced the cameras to say his involvement in the media campaign was "suicidal", leaving him in a "very difficult position".

The Government had signalled it would not remove the tax free threshold on goods ordered from overseas websites. And Harvey had had a #Twitter moment.

The retailers' campaign to change Australia's tax laws in their favour lacked a Twitter and Facebook presence to explain the merits of their proposals, and, left unchecked, the Twitterverse in particular turned feral.

Australians seemed to think we have been ripping them off for years and that we deserve this Harvey said of a tsunami of negative tweets that propelled the debate over a previously obscure provision of the Australian Taxation Regulations to the fifth most popular topic on Earth.

You might have got a nasty phone call or a letter back in the old days but now anything slightly controversial, these people, whoever they might be, they go for you zealously and with hatred all over Twitter.

Harvey is a formidable businessman. He has, in the past, engaged with news and current affairs radio and television to publicise his retail empire. But, somewhere along the line, has self-publicity become something more, in Gerry Harvey's mind? Does Gerry Harvey believe his own publicity?

It is a myth, amongst Australian Journalists, that only ABC Television's Australian Story gives opinion-makers a free ride. At every other turn, opinions of the rich and powerful are keenly scrutinized, so the myth goes. However, the power of advertising dollars is such that Gerry Harvey's opinion is almost never contested by the media that he advertises in. Unless public opinion turns.

There is always another advertiser, but only one audience. Always sensitive to its demographic, the Australian mass media turned negative on Harvey.

Poor little Gerry Harvey says he can't make a profit selling televisions. Well don't then. Scratch any red-blooded free-market-loving capitalist and you'll find someone who either wants a monopoly or government assistance.

Harvey is a fierce competitor locked in a death struggle with upstart electronics discounter JB Hi-Fi. It is unlikely we have heard the last pithy quote from him, a spat with the Australian Media and an unlikely vow of silence notwithstanding. Money talks, and the Harvey Norman retail franchise is particularly verbose.

The unintended consequence is a staple of dramatic tragedy, and in his last television appearance Harvey stood before his audience like Oedipus lamenting the circumstances of his downfall and tearing out his eyes. Whatever you do, don't speak your mind, our fallen hero advised, stoically sacrificing a hitherto flawlessly performing silver tongue to an audience addicted to talk back and Twitter.

I guess if you are used to getting what you paid for, an independent media might cause some pain. But is ripping your tongue out part of any solution? Is it the end for NO DEPOSIT NO INTEREST, and how did that amazing visual adventure with LG turn out?

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, wrote Edmund Burke. In a robust democracy, staying silent shouldn't be an option when voting is compulsory. Harvey and others determined to sway public opinion should not expect to create desire for change as easily as their advertising agencies create desire for their products. Prime-time attack ads designed to sway focus groups' opinions are no substitute for sober public policy debate. Actions might lead to unintended consequences, without proper preparations. And silence is not golden. After all, someone other than Gerry Harvey might have a good idea once in a while. And I, for one, want to hear it.

1 comment:

  1. Is this a matter of 'power of the people'? I really don't think big business have anything to worry about, people love to shop it's part of our social ethos.