Telstra Marriage Equality Backdown Shows The Real Price Corporations Put On Human Rights


OPINION: While companies like Telstra are willing to back campaigns that help them cash-in on the pink dollar, support only lasts as long as the potential profits. Telstra’s apparent turnaround is another reminder of why we need parliamentary action, not a plebiscite, writes Lucy Watson.

Yesterday, reports emerged that Telstra had withdrawn its support for marriage equality, allegedly due to pressure from the Catholic Church.

Telstra has denied withdrawing its support, maintaining its commitment to “diversity”. Today, Telstra CEO Andrew Penn said in a statement: “While Telstra continues to support Australian Marriage Equality and has not changed that position, we have made a decision not to publicly participate in the debate further. This is because the proposed plebiscite process gives everyone an opportunity to contribute and out of respect, it is important we allow them to voice their own views.”

Or, in other words, ‘we support marriage equality because almost every other corporation, including our major competitors, also supports marriage equality. However, we’re going to stop talking about it because it could be harmful to our business’.

The debacle demonstrates the unnecessary pain of a plebiscite, where votes carry a price tag. The plebiscite is a delaying tactic, an unnecessary cost that could be avoided if parliamentarians did their jobs.

When corporations signed a letter of support for marriage equality, and had their logos posted on the Australian Marriage Equality website in May last year, the Catholic Church wrote to each corporation, urging them to withdraw.

That the Catholic Church felt the need to do this indicates their belief in the power corporate support has to sway public opinion. Indeed, the role corporate backing played in Ireland’s successful ‘yes’ campaign is indicative of this.

Diversity is trendy, until it comes with a price tag. Corporations are ready to jump on board the ‘yes’ campaign, or to sponsor Mardi Gras, because it’s in line with popular public opinion, and therefore financially beneficial to them. It’s not political to preach to the converted, it’s just good business sense.

But as soon as there is some indication that support for diversity comes at a higher price than the pink dollar it generates, support is withdrawn or minimised. If the allegations that Telstra backed down due to the Catholic Church are just that, they still speak to a broader point: that corporations, who apparently hold the power to sway public opinion, will only do what benefits them financially.

Telstra may not have completely withdrawn its support, but choosing to retreat from public debate illustrates that the company has financial stakes in both sides, and is anxious not to harm its standing with either constituency.

A successful ‘yes’ vote on a plebiscite will rely, to some degree, on financial support from corporations, even if just for campaign materials and advertising. But the support from these institutions isn’t unwavering. While the Catholic Church may not hold the same power with other corporations as it does with Telstra, the fact that these corporations only put their mouth where their money is remains a frightening prospect for democracy in Australia.

The public already supports marriage equality. But the fact is, a public vote costs. When Telstra says they no longer want to “drive debate”, they’re also saying ‘we don’t want to pay for the yes campaign’. They’ve gotten everything they could get out of support for diversity, without having to pay for this campaign. How many other corporations will cotton on to the same thing?

Corporate support for marriage equality has reached a saturation point whereby the power is now back in their hands. After the Telstra debacle yesterday, Optus and Vodafone reaffirmed their support for marriage equality. But if Telstra chooses not to support the campaign financially, Optus and Vodafone can choose to do the same, without losing a customer base. We can’t threaten to take our business elsewhere, if every business is doing the same thing.

A plebiscite is supposed to give the public a voice, but in truth we’ve already spoken. We’ve already indicated we want this. We don’t need Telstra, or their wads of pink cash, to win this. We don’t need our democracy tainted by financial gain and capitalism. We need MPs to listen to their constituents, and do what we ask them: pass the damn bill.

Lucy Watson is Archer Magazine's online editor, a queer columnist for The Brag, completing a PhD in the media department at the University of Sydney, and an amateur DJ/pool player