It is an unfortunate characteristic of many people in the upper echelons of business, the professions, academia, politics, the churches, the bureaucracy, the media and society generally to believe that they know more than they actually do and are blessed with greater wisdom than they really possess. The late American writer and commentator William F. Buckley once remarked that he would sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the 2000 faculty members of Harvard University. The former, he observed, would have more common sense.
Aided by modern communications and personal connections, people in the upper echelons of society are particularly prone to catch whatever vibe is currently permeating society, especially those vibes that can give them warm feelings of personal virtue. Causes seen to be virtuous, but with little immediate personal impact can provide an irresistible temptation to pontificate, often with all the certainty of ignorance.
Such was the case with the Voice referendum.
The power sought was no minor thing, despite all claims to the contrary. Success in the referendum would have changed the way our nation was governed by establishing a permanent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander body empowered to make representations both to parliament and executive government on all matters deemed to affect Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.
Leaders of all kinds signalled their virtue by committing the organisations they controlled to support the Voice without taking the trouble to research the issues or go through the bother of consulting their members, whose money they proceeded to spend as if it were their own. We saw this with public companies such as BHP, Wesfarmers and Qantas, all of which made substantial contributions from shareholders’ funds to the cause. Of course, it is the directors, not the shareholders, who are responsible for company management. However, contributions to the Voice were outside this purpose and could not be justified as charitable donations as the Voice campaign was a political campaign, not a charity.
Directors as individuals had every right to advocate a “Yes” vote but in authorising the allocation of funds to support the Voice it may be argued that they breached their fiduciary duties to shareholders and should be required to reimburse their companies for the costs incurred.
Wesfarmers, for example, sought to justify its $2 million donation as reflecting its longstanding commitment to reconciliation, which it associated with its role as an employer of nearly 4,000 indigenous Australians, together with its engagement with their communities and in listening to and learning from them. It saw the Voice as promoting reconciliation and supporting improved outcomes for indigenous people, which would benefit shareholders. Like many public companies, Wesfarmers made the fundamental mistake of conflating the Voice issue with their overall obligations to employees, shareholders and the community generally, which include the maximisation of shareholder value and the avoidance of racism.
Public companies should remember that they have neither mandate nor expertise to seriously research social policy. Many alleged benefits promoted by advocates for the Voice bear the hallmarks of a Melanesian-style cargo cult. Claims that the Voice would support improved outcomes for indigenous people ignored problems arising from suggested appointment processes for Voice spokesmen having questionable democratic legitimacy and the likelihood of institutional capture by race ideologues who would perpetuate rather than alleviate indigenous disadvantage.
Further, it is far from clear what “reconciliation’ means, what it entails and how we will know when that objective has been reached. It may sound good but it’s a word that can and will be used to justify claims from the rest of us to the end of time. How does it accord with the fact that many Voice advocates clearly sought power; power they would have been able to use to create division and resentment and set back the prospects for bringing people together in a united nation by many years, if not for ever?
By leaping into the political fray even before referendum terms were finalised and their consequences evaluated, public company directors may have garnered plaudits for their perceived virtue, but what this really reflected was a failure to undertake due diligence. Wesfarmers has argued that support for the Voice was linked to social responsibility, not politics. However, this argument doesn’t fly. Social responsibility becomes a political issue whenever government involvement is sought and legislative action thought necessary, which was clearly the case with the Voice referendum. By joining a campaign that sought to persuade people to vote a particular way, companies were engaging in politics.
It is important that everyone sticks to their appropriate roles. The genius of a public company structure is that it separates ownership from management, a separation that enables people with different views and backgrounds to come together for mutual benefit. For this to be sustained, just as it is normally not appropriate for government to take part in the management of a business entity, it is not appropriate for a public company to intervene in areas that are properly the role of citizens generally and their representatives.
There is little evidence that supporting the Voice benefited companies’ brands or businesses. The referendum’s results indicated that many company employees as well as shareholders and customers would have voted ‘No’ and that this may well have adversely affected their feelings of trust and loyalty towards the companies concerned. Incidentally, with racial and gender employment targets to meet the diversity-and-inclusion mantras now fashionable, many shareholders would welcome an assurance that company appointments would always be determined on merit, irrespective of race or gender.
It is to be regretted that even now leading Voice proponents fail to understand how grossly offensive to many Australians — some 60 per cent, going by the referendum result — the proposed constitutional changes actually were. We live in a society with an egalitarian ethos and any proposal to give someone permanent additional rights based on ethnicity rather than individual needs is considered wrong, even immoral. There is no way any proposed separate constitutional Voice would ever be able to overcome this fundamental deficiency. People want to be nice, so initially polls showed an overall majority supporting the Voice. However, as its implications gradually seeped through to the public, support inevitably fell away.
The Prime Minister falsely portrayed the Voice as a “modest request.” It was far from that. It was wrong right from the start and Australians have shown wisdom in rejecting the vibe and refusing to be drawn into what may be characterised as constitutional vandalism driven by emotional incontinence — and no shortage of misguided corporate cash and support.