Daniel Bluzer-Fry (pictured below) is a freelance researcher and strategist. In this guest post, Bluzer-Fry argues the energy from Brands for 2017’s same-sex referendum seems to have all but vanished…
A little over three years ago, Australia was awash with some pretty colourful and lovey vibes from a large number of established businesses along with large masses of Australians parading – or marching if you’d prefer – in the streets.
Brands across the board were throwing their weight behind the ‘Yes’ campaign, speaking up amidst a groundswell of public support to end legal discrimination towards same sex partners. ‘Love is Love’ and ‘Equality’ were the big catchcries of that moment, as a variety of organisations championed Diversity and Inclusion in their marketing, CSR and/or fresh workplace D&I policies.
It shouldn’t be understated how deep Australian businesses went to engage with this issue. In March of 2017 – months before the plebiscite – chief executives from 30 of the largest brands in Australia wrote to then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull calling on parliament to pass laws supporting equality, after the Senate rejected the government’s proposed plebiscite. 8 months later, after plenty of campaigning and a postal vote, the result was a solid yes from the Australian public.
But in the wake of that outcome, there were some concerns that religious freedoms were being undermined. To satisfy opponents on team ‘No’, the PM organised a religious freedom review. This led to a recommendation for new legislation that today’s PM – Scott Morrison – took to the 2019 election.
Fast forward to the present, and over the past few weeks we’ve seen a religious discrimination bill being debated and amended as the federal government attempted to barrel it through parliament before the end of year. As of yesterday (the adjournment of parliament for the year), the bill has been shelved.
Real risks and implications for business this time around
In 2017, members of the federal government were upset about businesses and CEOs taking a position and advocating on the same sex marriage issue. Then immigration minister Peter Dutton noted “It is unacceptable that people have used companies and shareholders money to try to throw their weight around in these debates” following an address to the LNP state council in Cairns.
Yet throughout what has essentially been a dénouement of the plebiscite, it is arguable that the aspects of the proposed legislation have posed far greater consequences to businesses, their staff and organisational cultures than the plebiscite.
At one point in time during the bill’s development, one of the more contentious aspects of the legislation that was a layer that has been creatively referred to as the ‘Israel Folau’ clause. This aspect would have provided is impunity to an employer/employee telling a fellow transgender employee that their identity is against the laws of God and that they are bound for hell, or a frontline retail employee telling a gay couple shopping together that they would pray for their sins.
If these things were said today, this kind of behaviour would be considered unlawful discrimination, however the Australian Discrimination Law Experts Group have pointed out some time ago, this religious discrimination bill will trump existing legislation and afford protection to those sharing their beliefs with others.
In such instances, it’s difficult not to have some pity for the unenviable position of an HR manager or Chief Marketing Officer. Imagine having to try and justify that such behaviour has no recourse to a distressed, beloved staff member who references an organisational D&I policy and claims their co-worker has violated it, or not being able to dismiss an employee that has tarnished the brand equity of an organisation in the eye of the public … something that could undoubtedly reduce a company’s bottom line and shareholder value if it became a public flashpoint.
Reconciling the silence
There’s a great, enduring quote from Bill Bernbach, who noted ‘a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something’. In 2017, amidst a loud public discourse on gay rights and discrimination, brands didn’t really need to put any skin in game to take the ‘Yes’ position – and of all the societal debates to step into, this was a no brainer given the breadth of academic literature illuminating how diversity can drive innovation within organisations (and ultimately competitive advantage).
Which makes the lack of engagement and advocacy from the business world surrounding this legislation even more baffling. If there was ever a time to advocate for equal rights based on sexual orientation, the time would appear to be now for three key reasons:
- Advocating to prevent what might on the surface appear to be a small, yet legitimate risks to brands’ organisational cultures and bottom lines
- For the sake of the HR, marketing and CSR teams, advocating would provide a reasonable and empathetic out if the legislation was passed with elements of the afore mentioned ‘Israel Folau clause’, and a scenario that caused harm to staff or brand ensued (i.e. “we tried when it counted, we hoped this would go some way to setting organisational standards, and have no legal recourse”)
- To avoid the real time risk of appearing disingenuous about riding a CSR wave of cultural momentum in 2017 and not backing it up when the stakes appear significant and could lead to legitimately poor public health outcomes for the LGBTQIA community
We’re in a fascinating time in respect to the interplay of business and society. For a large majority of commercial organisations, there’s going to be some torrid times over coming years reconciling purpose driven beliefs and translating these into action. Whilst there will be substantial risks, there will also be remarkable opportunities, and it’s going to require some strong foresight and reimagination of ‘Business as Usual’ to excel. Doing the basics consistently is important when it comes to setting steady foundations.
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