At Essential Director Updates around the country, the most common question was: how vocal should boards be in public debate on social issues, such as the Yes and No campaigns for marriage equality? Senior directors share their views.

    At the peak of the 2017 same-sex marriage debate, more than 840 corporates lent their public support to the Yes campaign. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, a highly visible advocate, donated $1 million to the effort, while Qantas chair Leigh Clifford wrote that big companies had social responsibilities and “should not be expected to be silent on what is a basic civil rights issue”.

    In contrast, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was forced into an abrupt U-turn, admitting it had “misjudged” a decision to take a “neutral position” after it became clear this stance was opposed by its CEO and employees.

    Graham Bradley AM FAICD

    “You need to think hard about the company ethos and taking a stand. If it’s an issue that resonates deeply with the vast majority of staff, then I think there is an expectation on a company to take a position. However, on social issues such as euthanasia or the legalisation of marijuana, it’s not as clear that there would be a corporate right to have a special point of view. At EnergyAustralia, the board had no hesitation, after discussion with the CEO, endorsing the push for Indigenous recognition and hosted events in support of this. We saw it as being absolutely in line with our Reconciliation Action Plan and our commitment to Indigenous advancement.

    Boards should be reflective about which issues are germane to their business interests — or when their right to participate is different from an ordinary individual in the community — and be guarded about how they associate their brands with particular political stances.”

    Gabrielle Trainor AO FAICD, AFL commissioner

    “Taking a position on social issues is a way to demonstrate alignment with employees and customers, to show that organisations are not removed from their concerns. Deciding whether and how to do so can be complicated and there will most often not be an answer that satisfies everyone. Organisations need to respect diversity of opinion and decision-makers need to think carefully about how the voice of their organisation can best be used. The AFL position on marriage equality was driven largely by our employees. Not everyone agreed with our stance — we knew that would be the case and we respect everyone’s opinion. We believed it was right to express the wishes of our employees.”

    Wendy McCarthy AO FAICDLife, outgoing chair Circus Oz

    “In the same-sex marriage debate, we came out pronto because it’s part of our DNA. Taking it issue by issue, companies can pick an area [to address] and then it raises other companies’ ideas. Sometimes it comes from their employees. Companies lose opportunities to be considered respectfully if they don’t comment on issues that matter to their employees.

    About a year ago, in the area of arts funding, there was a shift of money from the Australia Council to another fund. It had huge impact — not so much for Circus Oz, but on the ecosystem and the independent artists who needed the grants to perform and create their work.

    We were the only arts company in the first 24 hours that went to war on this and we were very important in turning the tide. A lot of other arts organisations were fearful of losing their money.”

    Tom Snow GAICD, co-chair Australians 4 Equality

    “The reality for boards and companies is that they will struggle with their long-term growth if they’re not taking a stand on issues that are important to them, their staff and customers.

    It can’t be token. If it doesn’t go down to core values and beliefs, it won’t be meaningful. When companies do it as window dressing, people see through that — whether it’s marriage equality or Indigenous reconciliation.”

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