Adieu Alasdair Thompson. But is one man's fall from grace a sign of a larger shift in the business world?

On one level Alasdair Thompson's dismissal is just a story of a guy who has paid the ultimate professional price for a slip of the tongue, revealing an outdated worldview. But on another it's a sign of inter-generational change in New Zealand.

Thompson has been at the helm of the Employers' the Employers and Manufacturers Association (Northern) for over a decade and there had been no public suggestion that his performance was below par until the fateful Newstalk ZB interview he gave almost two weeks ago.

There will be fuss about the payout he will receive (which is a golden handshake). There will be some jubilation amongst his political opponents that such a staunch advocate of bosses power and the free market has been removed. And there will be a push to make progress on women's pay rates which, while of serious import, will get nowhere in the forseeable future.

The market won't do anything to make pay rates more equal; it will require government. And this government is hardly likely to focus on this issue given its other priorities. Even if it showed the sense to see the potential in this issue to protect some of the female vote it's likely to lose to Labour and the Greens come the election, it won't want to put the money and effort into substantial and complex change.

But what interests me is that fact that Thompson was removed by his fellow employers. For all the debate about Thompson failing to represent the women of New Zealand, that was never his job. His constituency was employers – nothing more, nothing less. If he could say the moon was made of green cheese and as long as they agreed, that would have been fine.

Instead, employers have said "enough". I've spoken to a few leading businesspeople in the past week or so, and I was interested to hear that they were as unimpressed as anyone. The people I spoke with were of a younger generation, and it was clear that Thompson and his ideas did not represent them.

And it wasn't just his ideas of women's work. While you can never generalise, many in the new generation of business leaders are tired of the old debate over the free-market and laissez faire ideology. To them  Ayn Rand may as well be a chocolate bar.

They want to get on with business, do smart deals, and frankly they're not scared of government. Sure, they hate red tape, they may have no great love of unions and they don't want Wellington telling them what to do.

But they see a crucial role for government in business, they understand that as a country of just four million people the free market debate is largely academic. They're serious about New Zealand working as one, whether you call that NZ Inc or something else. If New Zealand wants to prosper and create jobs and grow wages, the government has a role, supporting start-ups, opening doors to new markets, recruiting big companies and wealthy investors, incentivising savings and investment, even picking some winners.

Looking a politics, it's clear that Don Brash's move for control of ACT was motivated because it was his 'last chance saloon'. The old guard of the Business Roundtable are all at or over retirement age and this is their last roll of the dice. Brash, Roger Kerr, John Banks et al are having one last crack this November to engage New Zealand with their unchanging ideology.

The polls have not been kind since Brash took over, and Thompson's demise is another bad omen for that (literally) old boys' club. The rest of the country has moved on. Even those in business, who should be their core constituency.

Comments (5)

by Deborah Coddington on July 07, 2011
Deborah Coddington

Amen to that, Tim. And on his way out, can he take more of the Codgeratti with him? Roger Kerr from the Business Roundtable who hasn't had an original thought for decades. Plus all the National Party's selection bosses who insist on asking female candidates if they are planning on "doing a Katherine Rich" and having babies while they're in Parliament, ignoring the fact that Rich was one of the National Party Parliamentary wing's best assets.

Why do you think Act's polling is dismal? Because NZers, as you say, just want to get on with their lives. They might want a little less RMA in their property, they'd like some more money in their wallets, they have an inherent sense of justice and fairness, but the polling of Act since Brash took over shows (thankfully) that we don't have 15% of the country who want Maori shut out of decision making - as I predicted when he announced he was going to roll Rodney Hide. (just wanted to take credit for that, since my political predictions are rarely on the mark.)

Put your hands up, all you women, who are sick and tired of these pompous, arrogant, boring old farts who, at functions, just instinctively treat women as inferior to men. It's so rude. Lately I've been behaving appropriately for someone pushing 60 (ie, when the politeness filter starts wearing out) and when some rich-and-powerful-therefore-I'm-not-to-be-trifled-with member of the Cogderatti starts spouting bullshit to me, I bully them right on back until they risk giving themselves apoplexy with their own self-righteous indignation.

I might be shunned, but at least it leaves me alone with more drinking time.

by Andin on July 07, 2011

They want to get on with business, do smart deals, and frankly they're not scared of government. Sure, they hate red tape, they may have no great love of unions and they don't want Wellington telling them what to do.

They can do what they like as long as they don't try to accountant their way out of tax and pay their workers a wage they can live on. They also might like to have a go at internalising the fact that they don't live in a bubble and the rest of humanity is not here just to serve their ends. Being a business person doesnt mean you are always right, and making money isnt some kind of higher calling for the humanimal.

by Tim Watkin on July 07, 2011
Tim Watkin

I'd love to see you in full flight, Deborah!

ACT polling? Because the brand's been damaged by Hide, Garrett et al. And because they are associated with an era, and more to the point, an era that many have qualms about. I think the gut feeling of the masses is that in the '80s we needed an overhaul, but we went too far. The free market wasn't our friend. Having been laid off, seen Grandad lose his life savings, Mum's lost money on Goldcorp, and aunty sell her leaky home at a huge loss, we do want the government there to have our backs.

More than that I think that "inherent sense of justice and fairness" makes people suspicious of ACT. Sure, I don't want three inches of paperwork to file some taxes or cut down a tree. But neither do I want ordinary workers beholden to rich pricks or policies that only suit the guys in suits. We don't like too much government, but we don't think it should pack up and bugger off altogether.

by Tim Watkin on July 07, 2011
Tim Watkin

For me the new breed are closer to their staff, less hierachical, and there's more social pressure to care about family, work/life balance etc. There's still the individualism over collectivism, perhaps even stronger than the noblesse oblige generation. And the money still matters, of course. But they have a bigger world view... Although this is all terrible generalising...

by Deborah Coddington on July 07, 2011
Deborah Coddington

Tim, think Briar but older.

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