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Where Was Business?

One group spent the Year of the Argument doing other things.

Depending on your interests, 2004 was supposed to be the Year of the Abolition of Slavery, the Year of Rice or the Year of the Child Who Stutters.

Downunder, we are not yet ready to commit to such grown-up causes. New Zealand ignored slaves, rice and stuttering children and spent 12 months engaged in a series of introspective arguments. After a year's conflict, it is possible to condense the debate into one easy question: should we allow two gay prostitutes to hold a civil union ceremony on the foreshore with a Supreme Court judge as celebrant? (Let's ignore for now the vexed matter of whether civil union guests should be allowed to smoke cigarettes.)

Not everybody played along. If conflict is the new national sport, one significant group wrote itself a sick note when the starting whistle blew, and has quietly wagged the Big Game ever since.

This group's conflict-avoidance started when the decriminalisation of prostitution held the nation's rapt attention in 2003. The silence continued in 2004 when city councils set local sex industry bylaws.

The crowd that remained silent was business. We were bombarded with the opinions of everyone else: prostitutes, ex-prostitutes, even concerned parents of supposedly wannabe prostitutes. Swarms of social conservatives and social liberals sniped at each other again and again.

It wasn't as if the suits didn't have a stake in the brawl. Brothel owners faced an extreme makeover of their entire industry. Here was an opportunity to advocate regulations that would suit them. Instead, they preferred to focus on business, leaving the politicking to people who had no idea what is involved in owning a sex parlour.

Debate on the foreshore and seabed was next. After New Zealand whipped itself into a lather trying to work out who owned the salt spray, civil union disunity arrived, along with a whole heap more "who are we?" angst.

All these headline-grabbing disputes were morality issues. A great feature of business is that it rarely sticks its head into areas that don't directly affect it. A less helpful feature is that the matters companies get excited about - employment regulations, savings, infrastructure, resource management and local government - seldom make the front page of newspapers.

On the occasions that business did engage in argument in 2004, it was on issues that gained little public currency compared to the morality stories. Business spoke with one voice on Supreme Court legislation, arguing that dumping the Privy Council would increase costs for companies. Many bar, café and restaurant owners fought hard against smokefree legislation, arguing for a private business owner's right to set the rules in his or her own establishment.

Both the Supreme Court and the smokefree legislation became reality. There was never any significant chance that the government would back down on either initiative. Some businesses therefore ask: why fight, especially when failure doesn't cause the sky to fall in? Arguing about compliance costs is in itself a compliance cost for firms, especially small ones.

Some in the business world claim that they have attempted to engage in two-way dialogue, and then backed off in frustration. Business groups complained they had just 11 weeks last summer to make parliamentary submissions on the unpopular Holidays Bill. A contemporaneous piece of legislation - relating to politicians' pecuniary interests - had a longer submission timeframe. Before his suspension from Cabinet, John Tamihere convened a small-business advisory group that made many recommendations to the government. The government rebuffed the recommendations. Tamihere's promise of "making love to small business" seemed to have turned into a sordid, short-term affair.

Business has been content doing its own thing in 2004. The economy has been buoyant. Consider it a form of Seasonal Affective Disorder: when the weather is sunny, everything seems brighter. Profits have been high. We've had more cash in our back pockets. The biggest concern of many employers has been finding enough skilled staff.

New Zealand might have spent 12 months arguing largely about the past, but business spent that time focusing on today. Christmas is the time to look ahead. As Jim Anderton recently cannily foreshadowed (so he can claim it was his idea), 2005 might just be the Year of the Corporate Tax Cut. Now that is something business would be happy to argue for.