Business leaders, not political leaders, driving national reform

Many of the 20th century’s most significant social reforms – like voter equality and the development of the welfare state – were led by Australia’s political, philanthropic and religious leaders. Contrast this with today, and it’s our corporate leaders who are stepping up and driving change.

On marriage equality, while our politicians delayed for years and focused on political point scoring, it was senior figures in the business community, like Alan Joyce, who assumed public leadership and argued persuasively in the media and broader society for the social and economic benefits of change.

Regarding pay inequality, while Treasury released another white paper, Energy Australia took action of its own to sort out its internal pay gap overnight – and other big corporates like PWC are following suit.

On energy policy, while politicians continue to play the blame game, it’s corporate leader Elon Musk who is driving the push for innovative, sustainable and affordable consumer solutions.

And while state and federal government leaders fight in COAG, it’s the private sector leading the way in establishing innovative funding models for the health and social infrastructure needs of our ageing population.

With all this community leadership, it’s no wonder this year’s Edelman Trust survey found that CEO credibility recorded a significant 50 percent improvement.

What’s clear, as recently highlighted by Patrick Durkin, is that organisational ‘purpose’ is perceived as the antidote to falling trust and a key driver of the increase in the credibility of our corporate leaders.

It’s telling therefore that our politicians – who appear to have no higher ‘purpose’ than beating those who sit opposite them – continue to be held in low regard by the community. This year’s Reader’s Digest survey on the most-trusted professions, found politicians sandwiched between car salespeople and telemarketers, in the bottom three of all vocations for the fifth straight year. Whether it’s the rotating leadership door, ongoing entitlements rorts, or systemic short-termism – our elected officials appear self-serving and driven by re-election, not reform.

The low level of trust in politicians should not however, be misunderstood as political apathy. Recent Melbourne University research shows that while Australians lack confidence in their political leaders, they are more engaged – online and at the ballot box – than ever before.

So while politicians themselves are becoming less trusted by Australians, the high levels of citizen political engagement, and trust in business leaders contributing to social change, demonstrates a healthy appetite for social reform. The key question is – how will reform be achieved and who are the best people to lead it?

A lot of the evidence points to a growing role for corporate Australia. The increasing role of minor parties in elections and the pattern of small parliamentary majorities (as was seen again with the recent South Australian result) continue to make it difficult for governments to prosecute a reform agenda, take risks and look beyond election cycles.

And, though the business community is wrestling with its newfound role in contributing to social reform and balancing its obligations to shareholders, the examples listed above indicate a greater willingness to prosecute a case – and ability to get things done – than what we currently observe from government and political leaders.

The corporate leaders in these examples have a number of things in common. They all:

  • explained their purpose and reason for their involvement;
  • walked the talk and demonstrated commitment to reform through leading their own organisation’s operational change;
  • contributed to consistent long-term engagement on the issue – not ad-hoc comments for short-term interest;
  • engaged in respectful, sustained debate online and offline; and
  • used both social and traditional media to amplify their stance.

This approach from corporate Australia, coupled with hamstrung parliaments and short-sighted political leadership, means we can expect to hear and see a lot more from the business community on economic and social reform.

And if that voice is a major contributor to the delivery of actual economic or social reform, then, in my mind, it’s very welcome.

Nathan Clarke is a Senior Adviser at Six O’Clock Advisory and former political staffer.

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