Boycott puts us no closer to equality

If you drink beer or follow the news you might have heard about a little story involving Coopers brewery and the Bible Society. You may also have caught the Immigration Minister Peter Dutton giving a serve to the chief executive officers of Australia’s biggest companies for calling for progress on marriage equality. Both stories raise questions about the public positions of big business on social issues.

Mr Dutton raised an interesting point that companies should not take positions on social issues because they will not accurately reflect the views of all shareholders. But what do shareholders really worry about? Are they more concerned with their company’s social stance or their dividend? And this is where we need to tread carefully with respect to consumer action on corporate morals. 

On the one hand, Coopers is a family-owned, SA-based company, supporting hundreds of charities and sponsoring many cultural and social events. For supporting a charity which provided a platform to particular view seen by some as unethical, they were threatened with boycott.

On the other hand, companies like Telstra and Holden have signed a letter to the federal government urging action on marriage equality and boast of their social awareness. The same Telstra that systematically relocated its support network offshore and the same Holden which took millions in government funds to remain local, only to cease Australian operations.

In the end Coopers caved to the weight of public pressure, releasing an apology video, renouncing associations with the Bible Society, and publicly declaring support for marriage equality. But the backflip brings us no closer to changes to the Marriage Act and only shows that consumer grandstanding is more likely an exercise in risk/reward than ethical contemplation for big business.

Using boycotts to strong-arm on particular issues means those issues are then exploited for corporate advantage. Companies like Telstra and Holden use marriage equality endorsements to mask their decisions to cease using Australian labour and market their brand. And companies like Coopers with excellent histories in local employment and social support are forced to make cringeworthy hostage videos to preserve the good work they have done for more than 150 years. The point of corporate marriage quality support is as much about the budget bottom line as it is anything.