New survey finds almost 80% support CEOs having a say, but more than half believe when they do, it is out of self-interest
Australians overwhelmingly support business leaders speaking out on social and political issues, according to a new survey that conflicts with government efforts to paint such efforts as corporate kowtowing to “noisy elites”.
However, the new survey, from the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (Ceda), also shows that when chief executives do speak out they are regarded as doing so out of self-interest.
The survey of 3,000 Australians and 59 bosses showed 78% of the general public supported corporate leaders speaking out on issues of public importance, but 52% thought that when they were did, they were talking in the interests of their own company.
The 2019 Ceda Company Pulse also reveals that big business chief executives are completely at odds with the public on where the fruits of increased productivity should go, with bosses wanting to return the spoils to shareholders while ordinary Australians think they should be distributed as higher wages and lower prices.
“Despite all this talk about declining trust in business and business being on the nose, people understand the importance of big business,” the Ceda chief executive, Melinda Cilento, said.
She said a majority of Australians wanted big business to speak out on social and environmental issues.
“It’s a healthy majority around the country – this isn’t just a healthy majority in the inner-city CBD,” she said.
“There’s a really small proportion of people in that camp that says business should only really comply with the law.
“When it comes to these issues about social and environmental performance there was support for that.”
Release of the survey on Monday follows a week of attacks by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, and his government on big business for talking about social issues and the environment.
On Thursday, Morrison’s assistant minister Ben Morton used a speech to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to launch a ferocious attackon the big end of town, saying chief executives “too often succumb or pander to similar pressures from noisy, highly orchestrated campaigns of elites typified by groups such as GetUp or activist shareholders”.
In what was seen within business circles as an attack on one of Australia’s biggest resources companies, BHP, he mocked companies for “pretending you love paying tax or that you’re building electric cars rather than mining coal”.
BHP boss Andrew Mackenzie has drawn the ire of rightwing commentators for announcing in July that the company would be taking action to reduce its carbon emissions, including those made by customers, and comparing the efforts needed to combat climate crisis to the mobilisation for the second world war.
It is understood the pushback has not changed Mackenzie’s position, which is supported by the BHP board, and the company intends to push on with its plans to link executive pay to carbon emissions.
As Guardian Australia revealed last month, the company is also considering quitting the Minerals Council over its positions on coal and climate policy.
Some in the investment community are sceptical of the push for greater engagement on social and environmental issues, with one market source saying there was a strong cohort who wanted business to stick to its knitting of making money for shareholders.
BHP’s conversion to climate crisis activism has also prompted cynicism due to the company’s role in dramatically weakening the Rudd government’s proposed mining tax.
“They privately admit the Minerals Council was the best return on investment ever given the billions they saved on the Resources Super Profits Tax,” one market source said.