The BCA and the Easter Bunny

Watching its granddaughter search for Easter eggs in the garden the blog suddenly thought how much the Turnbull Government’s and the Business Council of Australia’s arguments for company tax cuts were like belief in the Easter Bunny.

When you are young you believe passionately in the Easter Bunny and Father Christmas but after a while some kid tells you it’s not true, or worse you discover when half awake, that the eggs and presents are actually being left by your parents. The blog began to suspect the truth when it couldn’t understand why it couldn’t leave Coca Cola for Father Christmas and had to leave Passiona – which just happened to be its mother’s favourite soft drink.

That’s the government’s and the BCA’s problem. They keep mouthing their evidence free neoliberal mantras – echoed by the usual suspects in the media – even though the public have long ago recognised that there is no Easter Bunny, no Father Christmas and the Prime Minister is, like the Wizard of Oz, just a little man behind a curtain rather than a visionary saviour.

Worse, the tactics and the strategy used to try to get the legislation passed were just ham-fisted. Indeed, despite the constant repetition of the supposed company tax cut benefits all the most tangible evidence suggests they are minor or non-existent. For instance, when then White House economic adviser, Gary Cohn, asked a roomful of top businessmen whether they would create more jobs and pay more to workers thanks to company tax cuts only a few people raised their hand. Cohn looked surprised and expressed puzzlement at the response. Sadly for him the question and response were being filmed. Nevertheless, he will no doubt hurry back to Goldman Sachs and get paid squillions for his deep understanding of finance and business intentions.

The BCA provided more evidence, although they got caught trying to hide the result. In this case they did a survey of members to demonstrate their commitment to jobs and increased wages. Sadly 80% of respondents didn’t come up with the expected answer so the BCA deep-sixed the survey results and then, when it got leaked, pretended the survey was faulty because of inadequate responses.

Every young PR practitioner learns that one of the quickest ways to generate publicity is to conduct a survey. You simply devise a suitable question and tack it on to an omnibus survey. If you are really ethical you will avoid agreement set response type questions although it is not essential as much of the media will just read the result and not look at the methodology.

As an example, back in the 1980s, environmental campaigners surveyed Australian opinion on forestry with a question which basically said: Are you in favour of cutting down pristine Australian native forests, converting them into woodchips and exporting them to Japan? Unsurprisingly about 90% of the sample agreed and the finding generated significant publicity. The blog’s firm – more out of sheer mischief than anything else – conducted another survey with a different question: Are you in favour of waste from responsibly harvested forests being converted into recyclable paper products? The result: 90% in favour although it didn’t receive quite the same publicity.

Surprisingly offbeat surveys – without the benefit of agreement set response construction – can generate huge amounts of publicity. The blog’s firm conducted a survey once about what happened to the socks which went missing in the wash. It dominated national talk radio, breakfast shows and much print media for several days.

But the BCA survey experience is not like the standard PR survey to generate publicity – rather it mirrors the pharmaceutical industry’s approach to research results. Dr Ben Goldacre’s books – Bad Pharma, Bad Science and I think you will find it’s a bit more complicated than that – exposed a multitude of dodgy science, dodgy government statistics, attacks on the NHS, and dodgy research used for policy rationales, media furores, drug approvals and a host of other nefarious purposes. Among his other achievements was being in the forefront of the campaign to expose just how dodgy the research on which the anti-vaccination propaganda is based.

With Bad Pharma the cover blurb is actually a rare brilliant summary of the book: “Medicine is broken. While patients trust their drugs are safe and regulated, and doctors attempt to provide the most effective cures, the global pharmaceutical industry is a $600 billion (that was back in 2012) business rife with corruption and greed. Doctors and patients need good science to make informed decisions. But companies run biased trials on their own drugs, which distort and exaggerate results. Unflattering data is simply buried. Government regulators withhold vitally important information. Seemingly independent doctor and patient groups are funded by the industry, in a world so cracked that medics and nurses are now educated by the drug industry.”

That comment about ‘unflattering data’ is apposite when it comes to the BCA. The blog’s Google search of the BCA membership was unsuccessful – the page has disappeared just like the membership survey apparently – so we can’t know how many pharmaceutical companies are members. But we do know the treatment of its survey was remarkably similar to all that pharmaceutical ‘research’.

Of course it’s not only the Easter Bunny which is instructive. This most recent weekend was one of those occasions when some important dates coincided. The Israelites marked their wandering in the desert for 40 years albeit over the distance the explorer Charles Sturt covered in a week or so getting from sparse waterhole to waterhole in the Australian desert a few thousand years later. The Christians mark the crucifixion and the resurrection while providing pictorial representations of their saviour (as highlighted in The Conversation) as blond and white skinned despite the reality that he would actually have been a dark-skinned Middle Eastern Jew.

But the most interesting coincidence of weekend dates, at least for the BCA and Malcolm Turnbull, was that it also included April Fools’ Day.