Never before has the public opinion of Australian business been so low.

There is growing distrust of and cynicism about businesses, with the belief that corporate Australia is interested solely in maximising profits and returns to shareholders, regardless of the cost to broader society or the environment.

Over the past couple of years big business has been in the spotlight, including Seven West Media, whose chief executive had an affair, the pay packets of workers at Domino's Pizza, and Ardent Leisure after four people died at its Gold Coast Dreamworld amusement park.

And then there's the banks and allegations about manipulation of interest rates, denial of life insurance and medical claims, and poor advice.


All of this, as well as global issues like Volkswagen's emissions scandal, has created mistrust.

But there are also longer economic factors at play in the fracturing of the compact between business and the broader society.

There has been a long-standing belief that what was good for business was good for the country and good for society at large.

It's a belief that served us well in periods of strong growth and certain times, when jobs and improving living standards were assured.

It also served business well. They could make the case for reform — self-serving or otherwise — in the knowledge that they would have the broad backing of the community and policymakers.

But this belief has fractured as business models have been disrupted by digital developments and developed economies have been challenged by emerging economies. We can no longer be confident that our employer will look after us or that we have a job for life.

Now that the community feels its interests are no longer aligned with those of business, it is harder for business to make its voice heard and to influence policy.

We no longer automatically accept that if something benefits business it will also benefit the rest of us with economic growth and more jobs.


The risk for business is that community cynicism spills over to politicians and regulators and they are hit with more punitive laws and strictures.

There are signs this is already happening.

At a lunch a couple of weeks ago with the Business Council of Australia, Opposition leader Bill Shorten told the business lobby group to "expect nothing from a Shorten Labor government". He also boasted how "it's good for his political prospects to be at war with big business", according to reports.

And it's not just Labor. The Liberal-National government, usually a friend of business, earlier this year introduced a bank tax.

The tax is little more than a money grab, but Malcolm Turnbull knew that no one in the general community would stick up for the banks.

The banks are also to face a Royal Commission into misconduct in the banking industry next year.

The four major banks had resisted the idea for years since it was mooted by Labor, but at the end of last month gave in to the inevitable, writing to Turnbull to say they would support a Royal Commission.

It seems the banks reasoned that it was better to face a softer inquiry from the Turnbull government than risk a bigger, tougher inquiry initiated by Labor in a couple of years' time.

Corporate Australia has a lot of work to do.