What Australia’s marriage equality vote says about corporate activism

In the build-up to Australia’s same-sex marriage vote, some corporations became activists for the cause, but most have been quiet since

Associate Professor Susan Ainsworth, Dr Andi Pekarek and Peter Ghin, University of Melbourne

Dr Andi Pekarek

Published 15 November 2018

Corporate activism on social and political issues not directly related to business objectives is becoming more common.

Granted, many companies have long had corporate social responsibility programs but this activism has a different quality.

Corporates and their CEOs joined in the campaign to legalise same-sex marriage. Picture: Getty Images

In the US, corporates are speaking up publicly on contested issues like gun control, immigration, climate change and renewable energy, and LGBTI rights.

In Australia, we saw corporate activism around the campaign for marriage equality that passed into law December 2017. Individually and collectively, businesses of all sizes, including well-known corporates and their CEOs, joined in the campaign to legalise same-sex marriage.

Some saw this as a watershed moment, ushering in a new role for business as public advocates on broader socio-political issues.

But this hasn’t eventuated. We haven’t seen corporate activism on a scale comparable to the Marriage Equality campaign.

Why is this so?

When the results from the postal vote on the same-sex marriage survey were announced this time last year, many business leaders took it as validation that their activism was justified.

But in the wake of that success, it is easy to forget how controversial their involvement was.

Corporates were criticised for abusing their power, overstepping the boundaries of their role, and told to focus on running their own business. These were issues that had nothing to do with them, according to some members of the government like then-immigration minister Peter Dutton who told them to “stick to their knitting”.

Others doubted their motives, accusing them of “jumping on the bandwagon” or virtue-signalling, supporting a cause that cost them very little.

Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest with religious leaders signing the ‘Global Freedom Network’ agreement to end modern slavery. Picture: Getty Images

Certainly, marriage equality, though contested, was a relatively ‘safe’ issue. The public were largely in favour of it and Australia lagged behind the rest of the world in legalising it. It cut across traditional party lines, with some members of both Liberal and Labor Parties supporting or opposing it.

We may not see another cause with widespread public support like marriage equality again.

But other issues may be less predictable and carry greater risks for corporates who decide to voice their public support.

Take for example the issue of asylum seekers. Because of their active role in supporting marriage equality, Qantas has been lobbied by refugee advocates to cease their involvement in the deportation of asylum seekers. Unlike some US airlines who have stepped into this deeply political fray, Qantas has so far resisted doing so, saying this was an issue for politicians.

So how do corporates decide what issues to get involved in, when and how? And is their political involvement legitimate?

There is very little research into this area as yet, so many moral and practical questions remain to be answered.

However, we do know the benefits of corporate activism aren’t equally distributed. We discovered this in our own research tracking media coverage of corporate involvement in the marriage equality campaign between 2015 and 2017.

Many business leaders and corporations were involved in publicly supporting same-sex marriage, but over time there was a ‘funnelling effect’. In the wake of the same-sex survey announcement, Alan Joyce and Qantas were hailed as leading on the issue. Indeed, this new phenomenon of corporate activism was labelled the ‘Alan Joyce effect’ in the press.

But these CEOs weren’t the first to speak up in favour of it, nor even the most prominent when it started.

Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson urged governments to protect 30 per cent of the oceans by 2030. Picture: Getty Images

Corporate activism depends on publicity for its effectiveness.

To attract and sustain media attention, something has to be novel and different. Collective support by corporates for marriage equality was something we hadn’t seen before. But if corporate activism becomes more common, it may also face the challenge of being less newsworthy.

Public reactions to corporate activism should also not be taken for granted.

A recent survey out of Stanford Business School found that people’s responses were very mixed, (with opinions varying by political affiliation and age). People were more likely to stop using a company’s products and services due to CEO activism than to start.

A majority of those surveyed supported CEOs’ activism on social, political and environmental issues if it directly impacted on their business. There was less support for corporate activism on other issues like gun control, immigration, and abortion rights.

There is certainly no shortage of political debates on broader social issues in which Australian companies could engage – climate change, asylum seekers, inequality, immigration.

But there is little evidence they are rushing to do so.

Associate Professor Susan Ainsworth and Dr Andi Pekarek will be leading a discussion on this issue with Australian business leaders at the Centre for Workplace Leadership’s Future of Work conference later this month.

Banner image: Qantas CEO Alan Joyce with Magda Subanski following the result of Australia’s marriage equality postal vote/Getty Images

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