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Do Corporates Have a Place in Speaking on Social Issues?

21 March 2017 at 4:20 pm
Karen Mahlab AM
The days of corporates acting in isolation from their communities are over, writes Pro Bono Australia founder Karen Mahlab.

Karen Mahlab AM | 21 March 2017 at 4:20 pm


Do Corporates Have a Place in Speaking on Social Issues?
21 March 2017 at 4:20 pm

The days of corporates acting in isolation from their communities are over, writes Pro Bono Australia founder Karen Mahlab.

This week 30 corporates came out in favour of same-sex marriage citing their reasons for the move as political paralysis at a national level, good practice for supporting their employees and just plain “fairness” that reflects Australian values.

Where Australians cannot see a connection between issues they care about and action at a government level they become disengaged with the political process which ultimately undermines the power of our democracy. Last year, 380,000 of our young people aged between 18 and 24 were not registered to vote in our elections.

It is telling that corporates are stepping in to reflect and trumpet what the majority of Australians feel rather than those who have been elected to office.

In November last year I attended the launch of the influential annual Scanlon Foundation Social Cohesion Survey. The words of the report author, Professor Andrew Markus, are ringing in my ears.

“There was an expectation that following the victory of the Coalition government in 2013, there would be a significant increase in trust. However, in 2016 only 29 per cent of respondents have a high level of trust in the government, which is 19 per cent lower than in 2009,” Markus said.

“One factor influencing disengagement and a lack of trust in the system may be a disconnect between politicians and the public on key topical issues… Of those surveyed, 83 per cent of respondents support medical use of marijuana, 80 per cent support medically approved euthanasia, and 67 per cent support marriage equality. Reduced reliance on coal for electricity generation was supported by 70 per cent.”

There are 1,000 organisations – mostly corporates – that have signed up to support marriage equality with the Australian Marriage Equality organisation.

Qantas issued a statement explaining the company’s public support of same sex marriage saying: “We do so because we believe these issues are about the fundamental Australian value of fairness and we’re the national carrier.”

The rise and rise of organisations going beyond their financial mission is a move that has been happening since the 70s when the rivers of the Cuyahoga River were literally on fire with the toxic detritus of the manufacturing sector.

Simon Zadek wrote the compelling Conversations with Disbelievers in 2000 arguing the benefits of corporate social responsibility across broader issues. Since then many research papers have been delivered enumerating improved employee engagement through corporate volunteering and community engagement programs. In addition, many, many global corporate responsibility reporting frameworks have been developed and we even have the development of new corporate structures which take into account companies wanting to embed social, environmental and governance indicators into their operations.

Structures such as Benefit Corporations embed the notion that corporate responsibility goes beyond the financial. Pro Bono Australia is one of those accredited as a BCorp.

The times have changed. It’s a different conversation. These days companies that don’t have policies and programs that go beyond financial metrics are increasingly rare. For the Australian government to take companies to task for speaking out is old world thinking.

Our Good Business news service has written many articles on this issue and gives many examples of corporates engaging in issues beyond their traditional profit maximising role.

Check out the Good Business section of the website here.

About the author:  Karen Mahlab AM founded Pro Bono Australia in 2000 as a social enterprise offering media, jobs and resources for the common good. In 2016 the website was visited by more than one million unique visitors making it one of Australia’s most influential social businesses.

Karen Mahlab AM  |  Founder  |  @kmahlab

Karen Mahlab AM is the Founder and CEO of Pro Bono Australia. In 2015 she was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for her contribution to the Not for Profit sector and philanthropic initiatives.

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