Politics Analysis

Dutton shaming Woolworths a step backward in rebuilding corporate trust

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Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has fuelled an outrage at Woolworths over the company's decision to ditch Australia Day merchandise (Screenshots via YouTube)

The decision by Woolworths to avoid stocking Australia Day merchandise has prompted Peter Dutton to cry "woke" rather than addressing serious economic issues, writes Professor Carl Rhodes.

OPPOSITION LEADER Peter Dutton's call for a customer boycott of Woolworths in response to the retailer deciding not to stock Australia Day merchandise has been blasted as an illiberal ploy, pure political positioning and a cheap headline-chasing stunt.

The hoo-ha all started when Dutton accused Australia’s biggest supermarket chain of ‘peddling woke agendas’ and ‘trying to cancel Australia Day’. For a business to take a political position is “against the national interest”, he opined. 

As far as Woolworths is concerned, it was a business decision, not a political one. “Wokeness” had nothing to do with it. Thongs in the image of the Australian flag and such are simply not popular any more, the retailer explained, adding that “there’s been broader discussion about 26 January and what it means to different parts of the community”.

Woolworths declined to respond to Dutton’s criticism directly. The company appears to be trying as hard as possible to steer completely clear of the culture wars that Dutton is accused of stoking. Deliberately avoiding political debate hardly seems like the actions of a corporation that has embraced “woke ideology” at the expense of its true profit-seeking purpose.

It is easy to see Dutton’s comments as little more than rabble-rousing — tilting at windmills, even. What is especially pernicious is not whether or not you can buy a patriotic stubby holder while shopping for your weekly groceries but how serious political debate about the role of business in Australian society is being sidelined in favour of meme-politics.

The word “woke” was originally used in African-American culture to mean being socially aware of racial discrimination, later being mainstreamed to refer to a general alignment with progressive and radical political causes. So, are Aussie corporations “woke”?

According to research by Roy Morgan, in 2023 public trust in Australian corporations fell to an all-time low. It was not “wokeness” that caused the drop in faith. Au contraire, big business was accused of being morally blind to community interests. The perceptions voiced by Australians about corporations concerned ‘excessive greed’, ‘arrogance’‘too much access to power’ and an inability to maintain integrity.

High-profile bad conduct, not woke do-gooding, led to the trust deficit. PwC found itself in hot water for selling the Government’s tax avoidance strategies it helped develop to corporations who wanted to avoid tax. Qantas hit the headlines for deceptive practices towards customers and the unlawful termination of employees.

Australian citizens faced a cost of living crisis as inflation soared, the value of the average wage fell and economic inequality widened. Not everyone was doing it tough, though. Corporate CEOs saw their pay packets swell by 15 per cent while the value of the average wage plummeted by almost 5 per cent.

In 2023, Australian corporations posted record-breaking multi-billion-dollar profits, with the banks, airlines and supermarkets leading the charge. It was so bad that the word “greedflation” – meaning inflation fuelled by increasing prices and profits – entered our everyday lexicon.

What we have here is not the woke capitalism Dutton is crying wolf about, but good old-fashioned capitalism taking advantage of free market liberalism with minimal constraint.

Late last year, a Senate Inquiry was formed to inquire into the ‘effect of market concentration and the exercise of corporate power on the price of food and groceries’. We will need to wait to see what that results in, but it has Prime Minister Albanese’s support and is much more on point than crying “woke”.

Matters that significantly affect the financial well-being of Australian citizens are important. Economic justice is important. Tilting at woke corporate windmills is not. If anything,  anti-woke bluster is a distraction from demanding that business meet its real social responsibilities.

What we need to be woke to, and what 2023 has brought to the fore, is how the Australian way of doing business creates economic inequality rather than fostering economic justice and collective good. Corporations are vital to the solution, with the political courage needed to develop policies that enable them to contribute fairly to society.

Paying taxes that fund public goods and enable fair distribution of resources is a good start. So is ensuring that all employers offer decent, meaningful and well-paid employment. Providing quality goods and services of value is essential, as is creating innovation and economic growth for long-term economic growth.

Too often, the opposite is the case with big businesses shirking social responsibility in place of engaging in aggressive tax avoidance, creating precarious employment conditions, and exploiting short-term profiteering in an economic system characterised by expanding inequality, run away executive pay and the growth of the billionaire class.

It is not some woke corporate bogeyman that we need to fear; it is the lack of political will and imagination to address economic inequality as one of our age's most pressing, divisive and damaging political issues.

Now is the time to start rebuilding trust in the ability of Australian businesses to contribute to the well-being and prosperity of the nation and all its citizens. It is also time for a political commitment to an Australia dedicated to the democratic ideals of freedom, equality and shared prosperity.

Carl Rhodes is Professor of Organisation Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney; you can follow him on Twitter @ProfCarlRhodes.

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