More than a slogan
The failure of Australia’s referendum on an Indigenous Voice to parliament has provided plenty of fodder for soul searching and recrimination. It also asks questions about an issue that comes up relatively often in sustainable finance conversations – the concept of ‘corporate leadership’ – and, to take things a step further, once again highlights what happens when we refuse to have difficult societal conversations.
Laurence Davison Head of Content KANGANEWS
This is a capital markets column so I will refrain from making too many comments on the actual result
of the referendum, beyond saying that Australians were offered an opportunity to do the least they could
do and more than 60 per cent of them decided it was too much. Perhaps it was because petrol is expensive.
The relevant issue to markets is the spectacular failure of corporate voices, which came down overwhelmingly on the side of a yes vote, to win public support. Of the top 20 ASX-listed companies, 13 publicly supported the Voice and seven had no public position. I cannot immediately find a single business of significant size that voiced opposition to the Voice.
Among the supporters were most of Australia’s most prominent businesses: all the big-four banks, Coles, Qantas, Telstra and Woolworths, to name just a few. The top end of the mining sector was also generally on board: BHP, Newcrest Mining, Rio Tinto and Woodside Energy were all pro-Voice, though Fortescue Metals Group and Santos were among the companies that did not express a position.
Far from helping the yes cause, it is entirely plausible that this high-profile corporate support was counterproductive.
The no campaign did a masterful job of painting any and all advocacy for the Voice as hectoring inner city virtue signallers trying to tell everyone else what to do. In an atmosphere of resentment about cost-of-living pressure, it is natural to suspect that the idea of being told how to vote by a big bank was never going to go down well.
Whether there is a material difference between a company expressing support for a cause and the same company telling people how to vote is largely moot. Support for the Voice came from a lot of institutions toward which many, many voters are not favourable, and this support was successfully presented as an unwanted lecture. In these circumstances, even supporters of the Voice must be wondering if they would have been better off had corporate Australia kept its views to itself.
Let's not forget that a few months ago polling support for the voice was running as much, if not more, in favour than the referendum result went against. Many of the original corporate statements in favaour came out as early as mid-2022, when polls suggested public support of two-thirds or more.
This raises the whole question of corporate leadership. We often hear that this is a positive component of corporate sustainability and sustainable finance. People nowadays – especially young people – not only vote their values but also want to work, spend and invest their values. Make sure you are the type of business people want to associate with, companies are told. This will help you attract and retain staff as well as making people comfortable giving you their money.
But what if it turns out that a lot of people’s values are not aligned with what the people running the business think should be common social and environmental goals? The conversation about corporate leadership in Australia has tended to focus on environmental issues, which is low-hanging fruit in the values world. It is fairly straightforward to dismiss the remaining rump of climate change deniers as dinosaurs, and expressing milquetoast pro-decarbonisation positions certainly isn’t likely to spectacularly backfire on a company.
Go much beyond this, however, and the resistance lines start to harden. The activist far right in the US has punished businesses for aligning with progressive values. For instance, Anheuser-Busch’s US revenue fell by 10 per cent in Q2 after a backlash against its Bud Light brand acknowledging the existence of transgender people.
I have no desire to ‘both sides’ this discussion, so I will be clear that the primary roadblock to the type of outcome sought by corporate sustainability strategies – typically associated with environmental transition or diversity, equity and inclusion – is coming from those opposed to progressive values on the populist right.
But I think it is important to mention that companies should also not assume that progressive stances will automatically rubber stamp their social licence with Gen Z. Spend some time in social media spaces and you will see a strong thread of what could broadly be described as far left opinion among young people.
This probably does not prefigure the rise of revolutionary socialism, but equally it is not likely to be assuaged by the type of centrist fare proffered by mainstream progressive parties since the 1990s – which is also exactly the type of vague acknowledgment of social and environmental causes that makes up so much of corporate ‘leadership’.
This is inevitably a huge generalisation, but people who feel they have been locked out of the benefits of society their parents and grandparents enjoyed – secure employment and professional advancement, affordable education, home ownership and the absence of environmental catastrophe – are ever-less willing to see the solution in mainstream politics of any hue. They may not align with the old culture war tropes of the populist right, but they are just as unlikely to find significant appeal in a major bank’s protestations of being on the right side of environmental or social issues.
It will not be easy for major companies to convince people that what is good for business may also be good for the general public. Perhaps it should be easier, but we have ended up in a position where too many people view themselves largely through the lens of fundamental opposition.
THE NATURE OF LEADERSHIP
The heart of the issue is whether corporate leadership is really anything of the kind. When a major company takes a public policy stance, is it doing so because it believes it can rally support to this cause or, more cynically, because it believes the cause is already popular and it is therefore better for business to be seen to support it?
As with most issues like this, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. I know from experience that there are many senior people working in the Australian corporate and financial sectors who have deep commitments to environmental and social outcomes, and I am not so cynical that I believe corporate support for issues like the Voice are purely commercial decisions.
I do wonder, however, whether companies that espouse corporate leadership are prepared to take a position on issues they know to be against the tide of public opinion. Let’s not forget that a few months ago polling support for the Voice was running as much, if not more, in favour than the referendum result went against. Many of the original corporate statements in favour came out as early as mid-2022, when polls suggested public support of two-thirds or more.
This raises a topic I have discussed in the past: the collective unwillingness of influential agents in society, from government to corporations, to engage with the public on difficult topics.This is particularly apparent in the financial sector. People, in general, hate banks – and this cannot come as much of a surprise, and nor is it likely to change, when major retail banking brands choose to advertise under the slogan “less bank stuff” while also having virtually no visible presence promoting financial literacy.
How do banks expect people to do anything other than resent them when we have spent 15 years since the financial crisis resolutely failing to have a public conversation about the value, cost and mechanism of credit creation?
Given this, how can banks possibly think their pronouncements on social and environmental issues are going to be received with anything other than dismissiveness?
The question thus becomes whether there is value to the idea of corporate leadership at all, and if there is what form it might take to avoid the risk of being ineffective or counterproductive. Have we collectively gone too far down the line of taking our social and economic infrastructure for granted that we cannot go back and promote the values of the mixed model society?
The starting point should be trying to resuscitate the idea of mutual benefit. Something that was curiously absent from the Voice yes campaign was a focus on the idea that promoting better outcomes for the most disadvantaged group in society would be beneficial for everyone. In the absence of wider understanding of this concept, it was not hard to convince people a yes vote was too ‘risky’: they saw no upside for themselves, so did not need much of a push on the down side.
It will not be easy for major companies to convince people that what is good for business may also be good for the general public. Perhaps it should be easier, but we have ended up in a position where too many people view themselves largely through the lens of fundamental opposition – sometimes to social progressivism but more commonly to business interests.
Perhaps environmental leadership can make a difference here, at least in the sense that it should not be impossible to promote the idea of decarbonisation as a goal that produces benefits for all. But it will take genuine bravery and a willingness to engage with a social conversation that goes beyond advertising slogans. This work is already happening, but how it is communicated is key.