Why are some business leaders lobbying for ‘Marriage Equality’ ?

It makes no sense at all.

The letter sent to the Australian Prime Minister is published here.

It makes no sense for business leaders to use their authoritative positions as business leaders to lobby Government on overtly civil political topics, such as the definition of marriage. Yet the letter published makes it clear that the signatories are writing in their capacity as “BUSINESS LEADERS IN SUPPORT OF MARRIAGE EQUALITY”. It’s there in the headline, conveniently shouted out in capital letters. The CEOs who signed the letter are major figures in Australian business, some of them as heads of the biggest publicly listed companies in the country. One of the signatories is the CEO of the Australian Business Council. These people are heavy hitters and they know what they are doing. Which makes it all the more confusing as to why they would participate in this lobbying.

One interpretation is that the leaders believe same-sex marriage will be good for business and that is their justification. See, for example, “it is good for our business”, “helps to attract international talent” and a “high performance culture requires employees to feel comfortable in their workplace and their lives.” Another interpretations is that the issue is distracting the Government from getting on with its economic reform agenda. See, for example, “We urge you to legislate for marriage equality so the Government can get on with its core economic agenda.” That is, this distraction is preventing you making more business friendly economic conditions – get rid of the distraction. But there is enough said along lines of personal values to make these first two interpretations unlikely to be correct. See, for example, “We write this letter in our personal capacity.” What is a joint letter written in a personal capacity? How is that possible? If it were personal, wouldn’t each person write an individual letter to the PM and wouldn’t they sign off under their own names with no branding as an important business leader? “By supporting marriage equality, businesses send a powerful message to their customers that they think fairness, equality and dignity should be available to all Australians.” Also “We believe our laws should reflect these values of which we are most proud.” These sentences suggest that personal values are speaking, not just the need as CEO to generate improved profits for shareholders.

Business leaders are agents of the shareholders. The directors are obligated to act in the interests of shareholders. The directors appoint executives to carry out the day-to-day running of the business. The agents are not principals – they are agents. They are spending shareholder money here. In matters of personal political views, business leaders can think, talk, act and spend their own money according to their own wishes. However, when acting as a business leader and publicising that fact, they are acting as agents and everything they do must be towards the objective of furthering the interests of shareholders, ultimately by increasing profits.

A civil political topic such as the definition of marriage may have an effect on business performance. If it were a distraction from the economic agenda, then it would be appropriate for business to urge the Government to fix it and move on to other topics. As agents of the shareholders, the business leaders would not care in which way the topic was removed as a distraction – they would not advocate one approach over another. It may be the case that the society would change, if same-sex marriage was in place, in a way that would lead to improved business conditions. We have an established political forum, Parliament, for debating ideas and developing laws to change society. All people, regardless of whether they are a top 20 CEO or a night watchman at a building site, have the means by which they can put their views to their elected parliamentarians.

These comments will not be news to any of the CEOs that signed the letter. They will all know about duties and obligations of directors and executives and the need to separate the personal from their employment obligations. Yet their names are on the letter. It makes no sense at all.