The last time corporate Australia threw its weight behind a public vote, it read the zeitgeist with aplomb.
The 2017 postal survey asking Australians if they would support the legalisation of same-sex marriage delivered the “yes” side an easy victory with nearly 62 percent of the vote.
But after winning kudos for backing marriage equality, Australian brands have had far less luck reading the public mood on an upcoming constitutional referendum to create an advisory body representing the interests of Indigenous Australians.
Corporate Australia has overwhelmingly backed the proposed Voice to Parliament: 13 of the top 20 businesses listed on the Australian Securities Exchange have publicly expressed support, with the rest staying neutral.
Yet, that has done little to help the fortunes of the “yes” side, which appears to be headed for a crushing defeat when Australians cast their votes next month.
The flailing campaign has raised a question for Australia that resonates globally: Should companies get involved in social issues and politics, or just stick to serving their customers?
“People are suspicious of companies that have waded into a very polarised issue that does not directly relate to their core business, and that their brand has not been historically aligned with,” Mark Humphery-Jenner, an associate professor of business at the University of New South Wales, told Al Jazeera.
“Their support does not seem authentic and perhaps the only reason they got involved in the first place was to curry favour with the government over its pet political cause.”
Indigenous Australians, who account for 3.8 percent of the population, face severe disadvantages, including discrimination, health and education outcomes on par with developing countries, and one the highest incarceration rates in the world.
Australia’s centre-left Labor government has touted the Voice, which would provide non-binding advice to parliament on Indigenous issues, as a vehicle to deliver constitutional recognition and better socioeconomic outcomes for one of the country’s most marginalised communities.
“This is your time, your chance, your opportunity to be a part of making history,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in June in a speech announcing the referendum.
“It will be a moment of national unity, a chance to make our nation even greater – a gracious chapter in the great story of Australia.”
Australia’s “big four’” banks, the “big four” accounting firms, supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths, and mining giants BHP, Rio Tinto and Woodside are bankrolling the Yes23 campaign to the tune of up to 2 million Australian dollars ($1.2m) each.
National airline Qantas, which has been embroiled in a series of controversies related to its treatment of customers and workers, has mounted an especially high-profile campaign, painting the Yes23 logo on some of its aircraft.
Public support for the proposal, however, has plunged since campaigning got under way, amid claims by the “no” side that the body would divide Australians by race and could have uncertain constitutional and legal consequences.
Prominent “no” campaigners have specifically taken issue with corporate Australia’s involvement, with former Prime Minister John Howard blasting companies for giving “condescending advice”.
“We are just quite baffled at why corporate Australia has bought in so heavily to one side of the debate,” Paul Scarr, a senator with the centre-right Liberal opposition party and deputy chair of the “no” campaign, told Australian television last week.
In the recent poll by Redbridge, only 39 percent of voters said they would support the Voice, down from as high as 65 percent earlier this year.
In a poll by Society Advisory, 70 percent of voters said they either disagreed with or were unsure about the prominent role of corporations in the vote.
In polls carried out early in the year, more than 80 percent of Indigenous Australians said they supported the Voice.
Intifar Chowdhury, a researcher at the Australian National University who studies young people’s relationship with democracy, said the public is cynical about the involvement of corporations like Qantas, which has come under fire for illegally firing workers and allegedly selling tickets for cancelled flights.
“When a company like Qantas that doesn’t even seem to care about its own customers or workers suddenly supports a proposal like the Voice, people can clearly see it is virtue-signalling,” Chowdhury told Al Jazeera. “The companies obviously just wanted to be on the right side of history.”
Daniel Lewkovitz, director of Sydney security firm Calamity, which has won diversity awards over its hiring of disabled and disadvantaged workers, said many large companies “make a song and dance” about their support for good causes while engaging in questionable business practices.
“For example, those who yammer on about their commitment to reducing carbon emissions while sending truckloads of coal to China,” Lewkovitz told Al Jazeera.
“The ones who virtue-signal the loudest in public are often the ones doing the wrong thing when they think nobody’s looking. It’s not about actually doing good as much as being seen to do good.”
Australia’s big brands are not the first to badly misread the public mood.
In the United States, beer giant Anheuser-Busch shed about $5bn in value after a partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney earlier this year sparked outrage among conservatives.
“They thought, let’s jump on a perfectly sensible liberal cause and show the world how socially progressive and in tune with society we are,” John Roberts, a professor of marketing at the University of New South Wales, told Al Jazeera. “But they did it without thinking about the effect it would have on beer drinkers of Middle America. The financial fallout was incredible.”
Roberts said he believes Australian companies have been taken by surprise at the falling support for the Voice.
“They thought it was the right thing to associate with an honest and just cause,” he said. “But now they understand that a very large segment of the population don’t see it as giving Indigenous Australians a fair go. The ground has shifted.”
Chowdhury, the ANU researcher, said shareholders may take corporate directors to task for pouring millions of dollars into the “yes” campaign if the proposal fails, although she believes the increasingly prominent role of big business in social justice activism is here to stay.
“I think companies should get involved in politics. They have a responsibility to display some sort of community leadership and signal their values,” she said.
“They don’t have to be altruistic but I think their motivation for supporting a cause has to be consistent with the company values and practices. With the Voice, it seems the corporate sector is aimlessly pouring money into the campaigns without thinking about what it will mean for Australians if the referendum passes or fails.”
Roberts said corporate social responsibility will continue but companies may be more cautious about which causes they support in future.
“Over the past 10 years, we have seen a move towards better corporate social responsibility and my best bet is that it will continue,” Roberts said.
“Companies are spending vast amounts of money on sustainability because they want to be on the right side of history. But I think after this, they will be more cautious about politics and be more careful not to alienate their stakeholder base.”
“They will want to make sure they are on the leading edge – not on the bleeding edge,” he added.