Peter Dutton's attack on CEOs got one thing right: people are 'bewildered' that online outrage is ramping up

Sergei SHAKHIJANIAN / AFP / Getty Images

If you’re a business, is it worse to be the target of an angry campaign by online activists, or the wrath of a government minister?

Should you be trying to navigate some complex legislation that might affect the future of your business, I’d suggest the wrath of a minister has the potential to pose you much bigger problems in the long run.

Over the weekend immigration minister Peter Dutton doubled down on his attack on corporate leaders who wrote to Malcolm Turnbull asking the prime minister to allow for a free vote on same-sex marriage.

In doing so he warned, in comments widely reported, that companies should “stick to their knitting” and not get involved in social issues like same sex marriage, and that CEOs should only really campaign on issues relevant to their businesses.

The Turnbull’s government relationship with corporate Australia is far from cosy at the moment. Ministers believe business hasn’t done enough to support the government’s plan for a gradual reduction in the company tax rate.

And the government has indeed looked pretty friendless in making its case for the tax cut — beyond the Business Council of Australia who, when it comes to warmth from the broader Australian community, sure ain’t no Salvos.

There is a broader backdrop, and it’s to do with money. You may recall Malcolm Turnbull poured almost $2 million of his own money into the party last year, a donation to help fund an election campaign that was running on financial fumes.

This was necessary because of a steady decline in donations from corporates to the Liberal Party, where senior officials see themselves as fighting with their hands tied against Labor and the funds it raises from the union movement.

Business has plenty to be unhappy about, too. Canberra hasn’t exactly been a deep well of policy reform ideas and leadership over recent years. An increasingly fractured senate combined with the tendency of jittery MPs to roll party leaders doesn’t help companies seeking to make long-term investment decisions when their returns are contingent on certain policies either being delivered or staying in place.

Take, for example, the recent revelation that the government is considering changes to the petroleum resources rent tax (PRRT). The gas industry is furious at the prospect that one of the fundamental financial pillars of its decisions to invest in and build large energy projects might now be revised. In a world of cheap gas prices, a decision to introduce some kind of floor for PRRT collection and stop the tax becoming as effective as wet lettuce leaves at raising revenue might make sense. But the signal is unhelpful to businesses: if you make giant investments in Australia, the rules applying to your money might change down the track.

In this environment, Business Insider has heard increasingly from various corporate sources that they are being pressured or warned against speaking publicly about political matters.

Add in the decision to regularly bring the CEOs of the major banks before a parliamentary committee for a grilling on interest rate levels and treatment of customers, and it’s clear there isn’t a relationship based on mutual respect and support running between the government and the top end of town. Far from it.

All of which leads us back to Peter Dutton.

Peter Dutton photographed in Canberra last year. (Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images / File)

Most of the coverage has been on Dutton’s attack on the CEOs, especially Alan Joyce of Qantas.

“I think it’s very difficult to conduct debates in this country when we have some people who are engaging in debates with the advantage of a corporate structure,” Dutton said.

“Now tens of thousands of customers and staff, who fly with a company like Qantas for example, would have strong views on an issue like gay marriage – both for and against.

“That is what makes the decision of a CEO or board to spend shareholders money, not in pursuit of a greater return on capital or a greater service for customers, but on a personal agenda, particularly galling.”

In comments that went largely unreported, Dutton said: “Qantas is an iconic Australian brand. All of us have pride in seeing the success of the company, both domestically and internationally, and Alan Joyce is an exceptional CEO. I know Alan Joyce, he is exceptional both professionally and personally and if Alan Joyce or any other CEO wants to campaign on this, or any other issue, in their own time, and on their own dime, good luck to them.”

But he added that if Joyce wanted to campaign on any issue, he shouldn’t “do it in the official capacity and with shareholders’ money. And certainly don’t use an iconic brand and the might of a multi-billion dollar business on issues best left to the judgement of individuals and elected decision makers.”

Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce. Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

We’ll get back to whether CEOs should have a say on political matters in a moment.

Dutton then went on to make some salient remarks about the nature of contemporary political debate in Australia.

He said (emphasis added):

… the other side of this coin is the reality that some companies are morally coerced into supporting campaigns in fear of being extorted by an online social media push to boycott their product and it is simply unconscionable.

This is a battle for commonsense and freedom of speech, make no mistake about it. It is part of a culture war that is raging in our country this very day and this is a battle on behalf of the vast majority right across the country including in this great state who are bewildered this conduct is ramping up.

You see it doesn’t matter whether you are for or against a particular issue, in fact it doesn’t matter the issue itself, you argue your corner and I can argue mine. But the modern phenomena is to target, generally through an online assault, one side of the argument to beat people into submission and I for one, and I think I speak for many Australians, will not tolerate such a push.

It was a bit of a clumsy intervention which left Dutton wide open to allegations of hypocrisy on free speech. In urging CEOs to stay in their box he is easily accused of doing the same thing from a podium that activists try to do from behind a keyboard.

Of course company CEOs should be entitled to share their views on various issues.

In fact, they should probably do more of it. Too many are too timid – on everything from working conditions and pay deals to taxation arrangements and education standards and curriculum mix in schools and universities.

If anything, Australia could do with CEOs being more outspoken, not less so.

But with every outburst of online rage and calls for boycotts stemming from a company wading into an issue that raises the ire of the digital armies – left or right – it becomes less likely that CEOs and other business leaders will pop their heads above the parapet.

Then again, a big part of Dutton’s commentary will resonate with a lot of people, and it’s this reality that “beating people into submission” has become a regrettably conventional tactic in contemporary Australian politics. He’s right that people are “bewildered this conduct is ramping up”.

Few sensible people would have watched the treatment of brewing company Coopers last week with any satisfaction. If we can’t agree on the limits of free speech, perhaps a good alternative is agreeing on the limits of civility.

A good roughing up by a senior government minister is arguably just as unhelpful as anonymous online attacks and knee-jerk calls for boycotts when it comes to crushing the healthy sharing of considered opinion and ideas. When people can’t be bothered sticking their necks out, only the safe ideas are likely to come forward.

The riskier, bolder visions are harder to advance and don’t really stand a chance if they’re going to be howled down, either by angry Twitter armies, or ministers of the federal government.

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