Should corporate Australia stay out of the politics of social issues?
In 2017, the leaders of Australia’s biggest businesses earned the ire of then immigration minister Peter Dutton by very publicly backing same-sex marriage.
Business leaders were making speeches, giving interviews, and jointly signing letters and communiques in support of the same-sex marriage plebiscite.
Mr Dutton very pointedly told business leaders to stay away from social issues that he considered the domain of politicians, not business.
Fast forward to 2023 and we have another nation-shaping issue in front of us, the referendum to amend the Constitution to recognise our First Nation’s people and create the voice to parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The voice referendum is an opportunity for Australians to right a historic wrong and recognise Indigenous peoples in our Constitution and give them a voice.
Mr Dutton is now the Opposition Leader and a man of many questions when it comes to the voice, and is sceptical of the likely success of a referendum.
So where is corporate Australia when it comes to the Indigenous voice?
Not as vocal as on same-sex marriage, it seems.
Yes, there are some big brands and businesses that have pledged their support, but the majority have not.
For the record, Dentsu strongly supports the creation of the voice and we will be working hard to educate our 1630 colleagues about what the voice means to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
There is a real sense that business leaders are hedging their bets regarding the voice.
Corporate Australia likes to back a winner, and business leaders don’t like sticking their heads up on social issues if they are not sure of the ground under their feet.
Hearing some Aboriginal activists oppose the voice (those who argue for a treaty first), the Nationals oppose the voice and the conservatives’ tactics of constantly asking for “more detail” might have spooked some business leaders.
The question is, should brands and business campaign on social issues in the first place, or leave it to the politicians?
We are not talking about the normal rent seeking and pursuit of favourable regulatory or economic policy that drives big business interaction with governments.
We are talking about broader social issues including racism, sexism, inclusion and diversity, and economic disadvantage.
Business leaders now find themselves with their own politically active constituency: their employees and their customers.
There is plenty of data charting the rise of purpose-driven employees and socially conscious consumers.
According to a recent survey, more than 30 per cent of Australians are of the opinion that businesses must assume a leading role in addressing social issues, and there is a growing expectation for them to fill the void left by the government.
Analysts talk about the democratisation of the workplace and Gen Z’s expectation of “radical inclusivity”. Human rights and political, social, and environmental issues really matter for this cohort, and they expect their jobs and workplaces to reflect their personal values.
Leaders need to be seen to be in tune with the zeitgeist and not be out of touch or holding back progress.
So whether corporate leaders personally feel strongly about same-sex marriage, or climate change or the voice referendum matters less than the need to remain aligned with key constituencies.
Business leaders, therefore, find themselves partly performing the role of politicians. That is, trying to stay in touch with different constituencies and represent their values and aspirations while balancing the commercial needs of a business.
And this brings risk. Risks of doing something, and also risks for doing nothing.
There is the risk of being accused of corporate hypocrisy for those who sit out the tricky political bit of social issues. There are plenty more brands with Reconciliation Action Plans than there are business leaders who turned up for the vigils for the murdered West Australian schoolboy Cassius Turvey. These things are noticed.
Brands need deep alignment within their businesses on social issues or they risk brand damage.
The business behind the brand needs to be consistent, authentic, and actually do what their plans and commitments and pledges and values and purposes commit them to doing.
While most businesses are making progress on diversity and inclusion, sometimes the promises and the pledges are way in front of the reality of delivery.
The politics of a referendum is doubly fascinating because traditional voting patterns and party lines matter less. It is a freer contest of ideas around one focused question.
People feel more comfortable chatting over the workstation about something that transcends party political lines and could change the nation for the better. The people’s vote.
That makes life as the leader of a big brand or business more uncomfortable. Because as the referendum gets closer, there will be fewer places to hide.
And because to choose to do nothing is a political act in itself.
Tim Powell is Dentsu Creative’s chief public relations officer and chairman of Cox Inall Ridgeway.