Business and Politics don't Mix... Unless we say So

Recently, the family-owned Coopers beer company found itself the subject of a vicious and targeted boycott campaign. Their crime? Providing beer to two politicians respectfully debating the issue of same-sex marriage.

In a video published by the Bible Society of Australia, with which Coopers has a tenuous but long-standing historical connection, Liberal MPs Andrew Hastie and Tim Wilson collegially debate the issue of same-sex marriage over a frosty Coopers Light. After Hastie states his points in support of traditional marriage, the openly-gay Tim Wilson responds calmly and articulately with his own, quite persuasive, reasons for supporting the change. Wilson goes on to note, however, that it is possible for individuals ‘to disagree without being disagreeable’.

The video did not endorse a specific position, nor present either Wilson or Hastie as the winner of the debate. Rather, it merely demonstrated that even on as contentious an issue as same-sex marriage, reasonable minds can disagree respectfully and without vitriol. It highlighted the importance of mutual common decency and the possibility of having a calm and non-vindictive discussion over a hot-button issue facing the Australian polity.

Even though the video was never explicitly sponsored by Coopers and their initial press statement clarified their agnosticism on the same-sex marriage issue, the usual Twitterati Lynch Mob and Social Justice Media Brigade came together to brand Coopers as public enemy number one and mass oppressor of the gay community. ‘Why beer and religion don’t mix’, read one headline. ‘Keep your politics and your business separate’, went another hashtag. The histrionics and hyperbole all over the Coopers Facebook page was cringe-worthy.

Give me a break…

Recently, the response to the Australian Marriage Equality Organisation’s letter to Malcolm Turnbull – signed by 20 high-profile Australian corporate CEOs – was markedly different. Published in The Australian, the letter included the signatures of Ian Narev from the Commonwealth Bank, Andy Penn of Telstra, Mark Bernhard from the heavily-publicly-subsidised Holden and, perhaps most vocally, Alan Joyce from QANTAS.

Whatever his flaws, Peter Dutton was effectively the only high-profile public figure to criticise this blurring of roles between corporate director and political agitator.

Putting aside the rank hypocrisy demonstrated by those progressive cyber-warriors who, having no less than two weeks earlier decried the admixture of business and politics, were now deafeningly silent, a few points should be noted:

Firstly, the Bible Society video didn’t endorse a specific position and agitated neither for legislative change nor for the status quo. The letter, however, sought to pressure Mr Turnbull into swift and specific parliamentary action. Such change would be in breach of a promise he made to the people at the last election that the issue would be resolved by plebiscite or otherwise not in the current Parliamentary term –  but to hell with democracy when you have virtue on your side and a corporate pulpit to spout your personal views!

Secondly, while Coopers is a privately-owned and family-operated company, Joyce, Narev and the other CEO signatories of the letter represent publically-listed corporations – a great many of which were former iconic state-owned enterprises paid for and supported by the tax dollars of successive generations of Australians.

Although these companies are stewarded by their boards of directors, since their privatisation and listing on the ASX they have been technically and legally owned by their shareholders – of which a great many thousand are mum and dad investors and superannuants.

Accordingly, in the absence of a successful company resolution giving these CEOs their companies’ imprimatur to support such a position, Alan Joyce and his corporate ilk have about as much right dictating politics in their corporate-figurehead capacities as this angsty bartender and struggling latter-year law student does in telling them how to empty a 747 lavatory, when to adjust interest rates, or what price the latest Commodore should be marketed at. Perhaps if Joyce had spent more time focusing on the financial side of the business and less time on painting the outside of our planes is his favourite colours, the company might have paid actual shareholder dividends between 2009 and August 2016, rather than withholding them.

I for one, and no doubt a great many others, are sick and tired of this screechy brand of corporate activism. What a misuse of office! What a snub to the great many investors and workers who do not support the change or who are still undecided on the matter. If these CEOs want to play activist and throw their hat into the political ring, they should resign from their positions and stand for elected office. Otherwise, they should restrict their opinions to their personal lives, or at very least their personal capacities, perhaps discussing them over bottles of Grange at dinner parties in their mansions and gated communities, far away from the vulgar common-folk and their antediluvian worldviews.

If they are happy in their multi-million dollar positions, they should stick to profit sheets and annual reports, focusing their energy on carrying out their fiduciary duty to act in the best financial interest of the company rather than advancing quixotic notions of social justice.

As a matter of principle though, this author would apply these same criticisms to a CEO of a publicly-listed company who unilaterally declared support for a conservative or Christian position – or a conservative Islamic, Buddhist, Jewish or Hindu one for that matter – as if it were the view of the company as a whole.

However, noting the culture of bullying towards those who don’t toe the progressive line, and the general absence of overt Christians and conservatives in the corporate sector, this seems like an unlikely scenario. Readers are invited to investigate the case of IBM executive Michael Allaby and Mozilla Firefox founder Brendan Eich for evidence of this. As a side note, one can’t help but wonder whether Alan Joyce lectures his UAE/Emirates Business partners and associates about same sex-marriage  with the same zeal he uses when moralising at the Australian public and our elected representatives.

Ultimately, if a business making a foray into the same-sex marriage debate warrants a boycott of their product or service, then you won’t be seeing this author on a QANTAS flight anytime soon. To anyone with a vaguely traditional position on marriage, or even someone undecided, or even a supporter who nonetheless finds the Coopers brouhaha risible and thinks it inappropriate to use one’s corporate office to advance one’s personal opinion without the blessing of the company’s shareholders and employees; I would encourage you to do the same.