The Albanese government is preparing for the fight of its life to convince Australians an Indigenous advisory body, known as the Voice to Parliament, should receive a simple “yes” in a referendum due to take place in October 2023. But whether the Australian business community should abstain or pick a side in the campaign is a little more complex.

Some business leaders have already openly backed the Voice. CSL’s Brian McNamee called embedding Indigenous people into our Constitution for the first time nothing less than a “greater need” for the nation. Lendlease’s CEO Tony Lombardo said his company was “right behind” the Uluru Statement from the Heart and had urged his staff to think deeply about the constitutional amendment and the benefits for our First Nations peoples and the broader Australian community.

But business taking a public stance wasn’t always so. In decades prior, corporations strained to stay impartial by not weighing in on heavily politicised or social issues, seeing it as a polarising death wish amid the cohort of its customers who may err to the other side (though big political donations were a telling exception to this unofficial rule).

But the rise of social media in the era where progressive politics has assembled earth-shaking movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and the fight to stop climate change has created a corporate environment where it’s not only expected companies to weigh in on big-ticket items – it’s great for business if they do.

Nearly 80% of Australians believe big brands should use their power to make an impact for real-world change on social and workplace inequality, according to research conducted by Nine and cultural insights agency FiftyFive5 – and it can turn into big bucks for corporations.

When beloved ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s, which accounts for 3% of the worldwide market, announced in 2021 that it was stopping sales “in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT)” because it was “inconsistent with our values”, Ben & Jerry’s sales saw a 9% yearly growth (though frustrated parent company Unilever denied the two were linked).

And it seems the Albanese government is all but expecting corporate Australia to take a stance on the Voice one way or another. In 2019, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese declared to the Business Council of Australia that business should feel free to speak out on social issues that align with their values.

“The most successful businesses operate in ways that reflect the values of their employees and their customers,” the then-opposition leader said.

“You are not just takers of profit – you see yourselves as part of the community.”

Albanese’s comments followed a heated speech from Scott Morrison’s assistant minister Ben Morton declaring chief executives “too often succumb or pander to similar pressures from noisy, highly orchestrated campaigns of elites typified by groups such as GetUp or activist shareholders”, foreshadowing the Teal uprising in the May federal election.

But corporate activism doesn’t have to mean go woke or go broke – as long as a company is seen as being consistent with its long-held values, a customer base or wider community will accept a more conservative position on a social or political issue too, as Daniel Korschun and N. Craig Smith write for the Harvard Business Review.

“People are surprisingly accepting of a company’s political viewpoints as long as they believe that it is being forthright,” the pair write.

“When a company makes sudden changes to its procedures or identity, it can raise red flags, especially with consumers for whom reliability is essential.”

To this end, a corporate in Australia that openly supports the “Yes” campaign for the Voice to Parliament may first quietly seek to understand the company’s own history with Indigenous Australia to avoid damning accusations of “woke washing” from the public.

Director of The Ethics Alliance, Cris Parker suggests leaders seek the answer to questions like: how many First Nations people are employed at the organisation, and is it far less than the 3% in wider society? Has the organisation proactively supported these staff, providing a culturally sensitive environment that recognises Indigenous rights? 

“Basically, are you living the values of whatever social issue internally that you are considering speaking out about publicly?” Parker says.

For instance, when Nike released its “Dream Crazy” campaign to support Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the American national anthem to protest police brutality, some were quick to point out Nike’s own reputation for using the sweatshop labour of people of colour abroad in countries like China.

Further, hot-button issues can polarise people not only within the customer base but within the work culture. Parker suggests that a corporation may add the most value during this time by fostering an environment where people can respectfully share ideas and reflect on issues together.

“Perhaps standing on a pedestal isn’t the approach which will have the greatest impact. Perhaps the impact of corporations is to demonstrate the ability to create spaces where there can be civil and informed debate – not to provide the decision or choice but to impartially inform employees and encourage intelligent enquiry,” Parker continues.

“When organisations shift to a specific advocacy position, particularly if it’s about members of our community, they risk disempowering those members and really we should be supporting self-determination.” 

The best way to do this? Go back to the work culture, Parker suggests, and seek to use organisational values to create space for discussion, where crucially, everyone can feel included in the conversation.


Image by Matt Hrkac