21 May 2012

Lucky country's fortunes seen on the wane

7:07 am on 21 May 2012

The head of Australia's biggest company says the lucky country is becoming an uncompetitive place to do business.

As chairman of BHP Billiton, Jack Nasser carries a lot of clout. So ears pricked up last week when he complained that Australia was losing its way.

In a speech in Melbourne, Mr Nasser railed against the federal government's tax and industrial relations policies and appeared to threaten a capital strike if a more business-friendly environment does not ensue.

The son of working class Lebanese immigrants and former world chief executive of Ford Motor Company, Mr Nasser is worrying out loud that Australia is coasting on a commodity boom whose days might be numbered.

Radio New Zealand's Sydney correspondent reports commodity prices are looking shaky as the global economy shows signs of stalling. And the mining companies have huge lead times on extremely expensive projects.

BHP stock dropped 25% in value last year and it's down another 5% this year.

Mr Nasser's problem is that claims of an uncompetitive labour climate don't really stack up. The latest quarterly data showed wage costs growing at around 3.5% per year, which is fairly low and even lower once you take out the high-wage mining industry.

As for taxes, BHP and the other big miners did a very good job of cutting the legs out of the former Rudd government's resources profits tax two years ago.

But with all the upheaval in Europe, there is unprecedented foreign demand for Australian government bonds at the moment, as big sovereign wealth funds seek to diversify away from Europe and the United States.

As one of the few remaining AAA rated borrowers in the world, Radio New Zealand's correspondent Australia stands as a virtual safe haven in a troubled world.