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CEOs should "stick to their knitting", said Minister Dutton (Image via @EthelYarwood)

Immigration Minister Peter Dutton got himself in a bit of a tizz over business leaders’ outspoken views on marriage equality

While this demonstrates Dutton’s hamfisted approach to regressive politics, what it really reveals is how parochial and out-of-date it is with regards to the role of business in society.

The minister came out with all guns blazing in response to the CEOs of Australia’s largest corporations’ joint letter to Minister Turnbull supporting legislation for same-sex marriage. Marriage equality is none of their business he insisted, moralizing that they shouldn’t spend shareholders money to support their own political views. 

Dutton is far from original.  His comments borrow directly from the infamous position advanced by Milton Friedman in the 1960s and '70s. A University of Chicago economist, and advisor to both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Friedman famously declared that the only social responsibility of business is to increase profits.

For Friedman, spending corporate funds on socially focussed endeavours was a downright abrogation of managers’ legal responsibilities to their employers. Dutton, in his response to CEO support of marriage equality, is waving this Friedmanite flag high. But politics has come a long way since Friedman wrote Capitalism and Freedom in 1962. Dutton hasn’t.

Friedman significantly influenced the globalisation of the world economy, which erupted in the 1980s. Central to this was the vast expansion of corporate wealth and power enabled by government policies hell-bent on economic deregulation, corporate tax cuts, global market freedom, privatisation, small government and de-unionisation. Fast forward to 2017, and corporations now enjoy a level of sovereignty and political clout greater than that of many nation states. 

Dutton can’t simply turn back the clocks to Friedman’s 1962 and stamp his feet brattishly, insisting that corporations should not use

“... the might of a multi-billion dollar business on issues best left to the judgment of issues and elected decision makers."

That horse bolted a long time ago. 

It was the neoliberal policies of the conservative right, of which Dutton is a part, that opened the gate wide. That is not going to change on account of some blind dedication to an ideology that wilfully discriminates against people because of their sexuality.

The problem Dutton faces comes from what happens when you mix the oil of economic liberalism with the water of political conservatism. It’s all well and good to be a political enabler of corporate economic power, but it’s not going to do much good to complain that powerful corporations have become too big for their (political) boots.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It would be beyond naïve to assume that this is a stand-off between straight-laced conservative politics and a progressive renaissance of equality spearheaded by do-gooding CEOs. 

That Australia’s CEOs wrote to Turnbull about marriage equality sounds like a case of "brand activism" — a marketing scheme where corporations engage in high publicity political activism to enhance their brand value. The trick is to get people to think you are acting on pristine moral principles, while all the time the eye is on prize found at the bottom line.          .

As well as competing in markets for products and services, today’s corporations are entangled in a market for the socially responsible high-ground. Fighting it out in this market means engaging in actions that a corporation believes will be viewed as virtuous by its customers. 

The exploitative logic is that if customers can be duped into thinking your company is morally righteous, then they’ll buy loads of your stuff. If there is any silver lining here it is that Australian corporations are prepared to risk money on the belief that, on balance, Australians support marriage equality.  

Dutton is so patently wrong when he declares that corporations should butt out of political debates and, in his words, “stick to their knitting” of delivering shareholder returns.  In today’s world, political activism is a new way that corporations support their commercial objectives.

Corporations aren’t shy about this.

Responding to Dutton, Foxtel CEO Peter Tonagh’s spokesperson got straight to the point:

“... an open and inclusive society is more likely to be successful, including economically, and this is good for business."

Decades of neoliberal reform, globalisation and corporate expansion have got us into this entangled mess of political and economic interests. It’s a bit late now to complain about it because just because corporations have become voice against a regressive conservative political agenda that uses the law to discriminate against same sex relationships.

In one sense, it is tempting to feel sympathy with Dutton’s assertion that political issues should be “left to the judgements of individuals and elected decision-makers”.  But such sympathy is in blatant ignorance of the harsh realities of 21st century "democracy" and the role corporations play in it. This is no time for living in an imaginary past.

What next, Peter? Drain the swamp? Make Australia great again?

Carl Rhodes is Professor of Organisation Studes at the University of Technology, Sydney. You can follow Professor Rhodes on Twitter @ProfCarlRhodes.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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