Why brands are struggling to take a stance on the Voice

The Australian Aboriginal Flag
(Source: BIgstock)

The upcoming referendum on whether Australia should enshrine a constitutional Voice to Parliament is looking more and more divisive each day.

And, while businesses have thrown their full support behind such social causes in the past, such as with Australia’s marriage equality vote and the Black Lives Matter movement, on the Voice it seems that fewer retailers are weighing in, and engaging. 

Whether the vote passes or not, First Nations people’s view of many businesses in Australia will change in the coming months as both the Yes and No campaigns ramp up ahead of the October 14th referendum date. 

Ramping up

Yatu Widders Hunt, board member of the Australian Fashion Council and director of Indigenous social change agency Cox Inall Ridgeway, told Inside Retail that she expects more businesses to throw their support behind the vote either way as the date gets closer.

“We only have a few weeks left [before the vote],” she said. 

“I’d like to see more brands take an active position in supporting the Yes movement. The Uluru Statement was issued in 2017, and the current prime minister made it clear a referendum was coming when he won the election: this isn’t a surprise to anyone. It’s not a last minute thing.”

From Widders Hunt’s perspective, the fact that the campaign has been dominated by misinformation and reactionary politics is a shame, as it’s likely that – should the vote fail – there won’t be another referendum on the matter for some time.

And while there is an argument that the Federal Government, which is pushing for a Yes outcome, could have done more to combat this misinformation earlier, the business community’s role in the vote has been less defined. While certain brands have publicly announced their position, others have remained silent on the issue. 

Big W, for example, recently pulled in-store announcements voicing support for the Yes campaign, citing staff and customer feedback.

Bath-bomb brand Lush, on the other hand, has vocally voiced its support of the Yes campaign, and will host First Nations’ stories and images across its 28 Australian stores to champion the cause. Lush isn’t a stranger to pushing social causes, and is actively working to have its voice heard in the debate.

“We recognise that the referendum is by no means perfect, and plenty of progress still needs to be made,” said Lush Australia Brand representative, Ruby Lee van Hoorn. 

“But it is an important step towards greater representation, empathy and justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.”

Saying nothing says something

For every brand supporting the Yes campaign, however, there are several that are silent. While we still haven’t seen examples of big businesses advocating a No vote, staying silent could be seen as a ‘soft no’, and, indeed, already is in some circles. 

Widders Hunt noted that Indigenous Affairs have always been politically charged, and that brands failing to stand up are likely scared of backlash. 

Add to this the general lack of information on what a Yes vote could potentially mean for the country moving forward, it’s clear some brands are hesitant to put their foot down. 

Unfortunately, saying nothing does say something, according to Widders Hunt — especially for brands that already have a Reconciliation Action Plan, and have committed to improving outcomes for First Nations people, but are not speaking up ahead of the vote. 

“This is a direct invitation from First Nations people to Australians. It hasn’t gone to the prime minister, or anyone else. It’s gone directly to the people of Australia,” she said. 

“As far as I’m concerned, that invitation is on the desk of every business leader, and I don’t think you can be neutral to an invitation. It’s a yes or no.”

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