One of the more remarkable things that has occurred in the business world since the election of the Rudd Government has been the meteoric ascendancy of Heather Ridout.
The chief executive of the Australian Industry Group is in everything. Yesterday she was appointed to the board of Infrastructure Australia, the body set up under the leadership of Sir Rod Eddington to advise the Government on the nation’s infrastructure needs.
Last week she was made a member of the tax review being headed by Treasury Secretary Ken Henry. She is also a member of the Government’s Business Advisory Group set up by Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and she is on the board of Skills Australia, also set up by Gillard.
Only a few years after her move to the leadership of AIG from being its chief economist, Ridout has suddenly became one of the nation’s most influential business people, and certainly one of the most powerful women.
In terms of political engagement, she and her organisation are wiping the floor with both of the other two peak bodies, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) and the Business Council of Australia (BCA).
ACCI became hopelessly politicised under the leadership of Peter Hendy – now chief of staff to Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson – or rather it was politicised on the wrong side at the wrong time.
The BCA, meanwhile, seems to be just fading away. One gets the feeling that it is not especially being cut out of things by the new Labor Government – it’s just not being cut into things either.
It hasn’t become entirely irrelevant under the leadership of new president Greig Gailey and CEO Katie Lahey, but nor is it particularly relevant. The BCA has become an interested spectator, providing commentary on the national debate from the gallery.
Heather Ridout, meanwhile, is front and centre of all of the key national issues.
This is due in part to a close friendship with Sharan Burrow. The president of the ACTU and the CEO of the peak manufacturing organisation are known to share a personal warmth that is unique in the history of relations between the bosses and the workers in this country.
It’s also fair to say that any Labor Government is going to feel more connected to the manufacturing sector than any other, given its traditionally higher level of unionisation.
The last two presidents of the BCA have been from the mining industry – Hugh Morgan and Greig Gailey – an industry that has led the removal of unions from Australian workplaces.
But while her friendship with Burrow has opened doors, Ridout has opened them wider and gone through them – she is highly regarded within the Government, from the Prime Minister down.
In fact she is doing so much work for the Government at the moment that in normal circumstances her board at the AIG might be asking some questions. But they probably don’t mind.