Public organisations and political advocacy

Various people like Margaret Court are stroppy that private companies like Qantas are supporting same sex marriage. I’m not too sure I can see a problem. This is largely self-interested behaviour from our corporates and the pursuit of that self-interest – sociopathic or otherwise – is mandated by securities law. Opponents to their conduct can boycott them if they wish.

However I can see a problem with public organisations supporting it. I’ve noticed a couple of public organisations in Melbourne doing so – both in the GLAM sector. ACMI and the Immigration Museum. I think this is quite clearly wrong – essentially a self-indulgent abuse of power by the employees and possibly the custodians on the boards of these institutions.

These museums are funded by us to perform a particular function. We are currently going through a public process of deliberation as to what the law should be – compromised and cockamamie though it may be. Even where I’d strongly defend people’s right to civil disobedience against odious laws, the whole point of what we’re doing is to deliberate publicly on what the law should be. That very fact requires the protection of some public space from politicisation.

In that circumstance, institutions that are funded by the public to deliver services to the public have no business having a public view on this – emblazoned on the outside of their own buildings. This undermines the ‘publicness’ – the ‘for-all-of-us-ness’ – of the public sector and in that sense is strongly antithetical to the progressive values I presume many of the protagonists of these campaigns imagine themselves to be championing.

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20 Responses to Public organisations and political advocacy

  1. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    You may not but I sure can. how do they know what their customer ,shareholders ,suppliers ( I refuse to say stakeholders) support.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Yes, it’s a fair question, but then we have boards to represent the shareholders (#EveryoneTryToKeepAStraightFace).

  3. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    Nick,

    Most would know I do not support same sex marriage. However if qantas even just took a survey of just their shareholders and then said on the basis of this we are supporting then yes qantas has a case. Instead there is a suspicion it is being guided by the CEO and his lifestyle!
    I suspect if it did it would have the basis of support given the results of almost every survey on this subject. Irony

  4. Patrick says:

    Agree strongly.

    Worst of all it increases the importance for a conservative government of replacing all these boards/ custodians with conservatives so that next time they will milite for a conservative cause.

    And we all lose.

    Or perhaps really worst of all they can be seen as digging yet deeper into their trenches of elite vs the rest with the great results that seems to be having around the world :(

    • Marks says:

      You mean that they might appoint people like Sophie Mirabella to organisations such as ASC?

      I don’t think we need to worry about conservative, or Labor, governments appointing ideologues to statutory boards. That stable door has rusted off its hinges years ago.

  5. David Walker says:

    Also agree. I’m voting yes, but this sort of endorsement is improper. The boards need to clarify why it has happened.

  6. john Walker says:

    Nicholas
    Some would say that self-indulgent abuse of power is eternal in the GLAM sector. But most of the time its not as obvious to those on the outside.

  7. Malcolm says:

    It seems to have escaped far too many people that (a) not one of these boards/CEOs etc supporting SSM have said or remotely suggested that they’re speaking for all staff, shareholders or customers – implying they have is just a grievance looking for a target on the part of the complainants; and (b) the companies/organisations in question each have clear corporate values and/or principles to which they ascribe and expect their employees to uphold. We should be congratulating these organisations for ‘walking the talk’ of their values and principles instead of leaving them as glib words in documents on a website no-one ever looks at.
    Is anyone seriously suggesting that an organisation which espouses values such as ‘ensuring everyone is treated equally’ or ‘removing discriminatory practices’ as goals shouldn’t be allowed to back this up publicly because some people with a loose connection to the company decide on this occasion it doesn’t suit them? You can’t just decide that equality is something you support some of the time when it suits you.
    You either support equality under the law or you don’t. If you don’t, and the organisation in question does, then you may want to reconsider your employment/shareholding/service provider.
    And good luck finding a job in a place where you can be comfortable knowing that equality is something that only applies when it suits you. Next time it might be you that feels discriminated against – and since treating everyone equally is clearly optional, you’ll understand if you don’t get much traction.

    • Well that settles that, we can all go home.

    • David Walker says:

      Malcolm, a couple of thoughts:

      1. This was an interesting comment that made me think harder.
      2. It seems to me there’s probably a difference between “shared and/or mandated employee/board values” and the same corporate’s statements to the rest of the world about its values. That said, I’m not sure I understand exactly what that difference is.

      I would argue that it is possible to have a strong position on a particular ethical issue and still have Nick’s position on what a government entity should say during a voting process on that issue.

      Corporations aren’t people, no matter what Mitt Romney thought, and that creates a whole bunch of issues.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      I think that argument would have more weight if said corporations actually advocated for equality, and did so consistently. Leaving aside the obvious economic inequality that they exist to perpetuate and exacerbate, I don’t see a lot from Qantas on the equality of refugees even though they’re in an excellent position to solve some of the problems (by providing discount/free refugee-specific flights from source countries to Australia, for example).

      The number of equality issues on which every corporation is silent is large. The trivial same sex marriage argument is much more an example of faux-activism done for brand enhancement. They saw a bandwagon going past and joined the parade. It’s trivial because the death rate is very low – tens to hundreds per year compared to thousands or millions of refugee deaths.

      Also, same sex marriage is not marriage equality, so the argument fails there too. “approved people can marry a person of either sex” is only slightly more equal than “approved people can marry a person of the opposite sex”, it’s “approved people” that is the problem, as well as “only two sexes”. Legally competent, adult, not married, not one of the listed relatives, I’m sure there are other restrictions.

      Whether they should have in the context of shareholder right is a question I have no idea about. It does occur to me that ideally this would lead to liability for failure to act on other issues.

  8. Chris Lloyd says:

    The Immigration Museum are clearly partisan. I visited there a few years ago and saw a display claiming that Australia could massively increase their intake since projected population was only m35 in 2050. I contacted them with the correct figures but they never changed it.

    Anyway, I do see a problem with private companies like Qantas taking positions on political issues unrelated to their core business. The problem is that I do not want to have to bundle by consumer choices with my politics. It is hard enough keeping track of which companies are exploiting their worker without having to check every single washing machine purchase against the websites of 10 manufacturers so see if their views on gay marriage, climate change, free speech and indigenous rights are the same as mine.

    Companies are people for tax purposes but not for political purposes. They cannot vote. So they should shut up. Obviously it shouldn’t be illegal though. I should organise a consumer boycott of any company that takes a public position on any political issue at all, but I don’t think I will get too many millenials signing up. It just doesn’t deliver the same sense of delicious outrage.

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      Does the immigration museum still take the position that Australia was uninhabited before white settlement? That was the bit that blew my mind.

      If you wanted an equality argument from a public institution, you could perhaps pick on that museum and ask them to revise their view on the traditional peoples of the nations that made up what is now Australia.

  9. I find it disturbing that administrative law as of 2017 still allows this.
    Fiduciary responsibility between a beneficiary and a trustee is part of our common law and the trustee can be prosecuted for using the money or property he is entrusted with to further his own ends even though not embezzling it. To invest the money in shares of a company the trustee owns is a tortious, actionable activity, even if the investment makes a good return.
    So why don’t we have a similar law for all public servants who are the guardians of public property?
    The worst instance of this general behaviour I believe was Lord Mayor Clover Moore who, along with her council, allocated $100,000 of Sydney Council funds to be given to the SSM postal vote campaign.
    Although that was so egregious I believe it bordered on embezzlement.

  10. George Gell says:

    I agree with Edward Carson. Boards of Directors have a job to do .It is to use its shareholders funds for the benefit of shareholders- not to promote their own particular views on social or any other questions unrelated to the business they control. The people in charge of Qantas are entitled to put advertisements in the newspapers PROVIDED they do so as representing their own personal warped views and pay for the advertisements from their own obscene ridiculous remuneration.
    The fact that they consider themselves entitled to use shareholders’ money to promote their own views and feel entitled to put forward their own views as those of the people they represent shows unfitness for office.

  11. Paul Frijters says:

    This is a tricky one in the case of private companies. It is not, strictly speaking, the job of boards of directors to make money for shareholders. In that sense George Gell is wrong to equate the ‘benefit of shareholders’ with a lack of social engagement. It is management’s job to further the welfare of shareholders, workers, and those the company interacts with. That is not the same and does allow some leeway to pursue social goals (not equally weighted, obviously!). We thus expect companies to sponsor charities and promote the mental health of their workforce, even though those things do not necessarily lead to shareholder monetary returns. I see no reason why private companies could not sponsor a particular side in a contentious debate, particularly if there is no obvious private rent-seeking interest served. As long as the workers and owners in majority agree, it would seem ok.

    Public entities also sponsor charities but in their case it is fair to ask them to abstain from promoting something which a sizeable fraction of the community they serve disagrees with.

    Things get trickier though when it comes to advertising. At what point should one expect a public entity to not advertise on a channel that is contentious for some reason?

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Yes Paul, it would be quite disgraceful if a private entity spent it’s shareholders money seeking to change policy where there’s “obvious private rent-seeking interest”. Oh wait …

  12. Marks says:

    You mean that they might appoint people like Sophie Mirabella to organisations such as ASC?

    I don’t think we need to worry about conservative, or Labor, governments appointing ideologues to statutory boards. That stable door has rusted off its hinges years ago.

  13. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I’m glad I stirred up this little n’est d’ornet as they (don’t) say in France.
    I like the crispness of Edward’s view, but it’s all so traduced by what goes on that it’s hard to run with it. And PR manages to cover virtually any sin you’d imagine. Qantas’s argument is – apart from that moron d’oxy ‘corporate convictions’ – that it’s good for the brand, good for business. It may well be. Then it’s in pursuit of the narrowest of fiduciary duties isn’t it.

    And then there are the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by governments advertising themselves. As they say in France, ‘Oh what a tangled web we weave ….’

    So even at a conceptual level it’s a tricky business and as far as coming up with principles by which people might be prepared to live in the real world beyond Club Pony it’s a case of Groucho’s rules. “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I’ve got others”.

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