The Voice to Parliament and the role of business in advancing social change

On Saturday, October 14, 2023, people from across the lands of Australia will head to the polls. This time, to vote on whether to change the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

Our first referendum since 1999, this moment holds immense significance for a country increasingly grappling with its colonial history, and its ongoing impacts

As individuals, we are being invited to weigh in by giving just a one word answer (yes or no) to a question that carries with it the weight of decades, and the hopes of millions. Yet while it is individuals who will head to the polls in weeks to come, businesses are also recognising their role as trusted organisations with influence in driving social change. 

“Businesses have one chance and a small window of time to do all they can to support a First Nations Voice to Parliament. You don’t want to have regrets and say: ‘We should have done more!’ History will remember and respect the brave businesses that stood shoulder to shoulder with First Nations people in this Country and demonstrated their commitment to reconciliation and First Nations justice.”

— Sarah Sheridan, Co-founder and Deputy CEO, Clothing The Gaps

So, how can B Corps locate both their role and expertise in promoting and amplifying the voices of First Nations communities? And how can we walk the sometimes fine line between getting involved and getting out of the way?

Image: Sarah Richardson from Canva Pro

Listening and learning from First Nations voices

As B Lab Australia & Aotearoa New Zealand (AANZ), we believe that listening to and learning from the perspectives and wisdom of First Nations people is essential to realising a more inclusive, equitable, and regenerative economy. 

We stand by the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its call for voice, treaty, and truth. And we support a ‘Yes’ vote at the upcoming referendum to recognise the First Peoples of Australia and enshrine a First Nations Voice in the Constitution. We see this as an important step towards a more inclusive and equitable future. 

This is the position we take as B Lab AANZ — the organisation behind the B Corp movement in our region. And while many businesses from across the movement have taken a similar stance, this is not a position we take on behalf of all Certified B Corporations, who are leading their own stakeholder engagement and reconciliation journeys. As our CEO, Andrew Davies, has shared:

“B Corps are each on their own paths to reconciliation. As a movement of businesses, they are collectively advancing social justice and systemic change in ways that are most aligned to their business, purpose, and stakeholders.”

Andrew Davies, CEO, B Lab AANZ

The role of ‘better’ business in creating systemic change

Historically, and to this day, business has been responsible for driving significant environmental, policy and social change — both for the greater good and the not so good. In fact, there is hardly a problem on Earth that business has not played a role in creating or exacerbating. 

Equally, the solutions to our many global challenges will require businesses to adopt new models, designed to deliver much-needed positive impact alongside profit.

Our stakeholders increasingly expect businesses to be able to talk about matters beyond our own operations. As evidence increasingly shows, businesses are trusted more than institutions, including government. However, with this trust comes a responsibility to engage on social issues, and silence is often an untenable choice. 

Those who are willing tend to learn quickly that the pathway to gaining trust is to build models of engagement, to listen as much as speak, and to accept there are no easy answers. Brands cannot isolate themselves from the issues at play in society, if they ever could.

“Taking a stance is not without its risks, but staying neutral is not risk-free either. We have to recognise who might be harmed if we stay silent.”

— Kira Day, Policy & Advocacy Manager, B Lab AANZ

Image: Bobbi Lockyer from Canva Pro

How B Corps are engaging on the Voice

As businesses who believe in a new economy where all business is conducted as if people and place matter, it is clear that we must take meaningful steps towards closing the gap with First Nations communities. Accepting this proposition allows us to look both to the question in the Referendum, and beyond, to the ongoing work that will be needed, regardless of its outcome.

“The Uluru Statement from the Heart captures the deep pain of our nation’s history, and also outlines the hopes and aspirations of First Nations people. Constitutional recognition is an important step, but it is not the only part of the story. The Statement invites us all to walk forward together in a movement of the Australian people for a better future and a fuller expression of our nationhood.”

— Ross Piper, Chief Executive Superannuation, Australian Ethical

Already, across the B Corp movement in Australia, we have seen various businesses taking a vocal position on the Voice, in line with their values and their actions towards reconciliation, while others are actively supporting their stakeholders to listen, learn, and engage meaningfully in this national debate. 

From majority Aboriginal-owned streetwear company, Clothing The Gaps, to companies like Marque Lawyers, Australian Ethical, Intrepid Travel, Bank Australia, and many others, B Corps have been able to take public positions on the Voice as a result of significant stakeholder engagement and reflection.

“Where we landed is pretty simple. We support the Uluru Statement from the Heart and its implementation. The Voice is a really key part of that, and the moment to support the Voice is now, for us as a business, and on behalf of our customers.”

— Jane Kern, Head of Impact Management, Bank Australia

Image: Johnny Greig from Getty Images

Often located as part of a broader reconciliation journey, businesses across the region are grappling with this vital work and how to use business as a vehicle for social change.

“We’ve listened and been afforded the generosity of time and honesty from First Nations communities. But it was confronting. We heard how our political system doesn’t serve First Australians. We heard anger about the gaps…and the sorrow of communities at not being listened to when the voices exist and problems persist. And perhaps the hardest to hear was the apathy – that this change won’t make a difference to people’s everyday lives because not much has. 

“But we also heard hope. That this is an opportunity to change our political structure and make sure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a say in policies being made for them. That this is a chance for Australia to close the gaps for future generations that shouldn’t exist in our country today. And that this is an opportunity to join voice with truth-telling and treaty to reconcile all Australians.”

— Intrepid Travel on ‘Why we support the First Nations Voice to Parliament in Australia

Perspectives shared with us from across the movement show that the discourse surrounding the Voice to Parliament has both brought communities together, and highlighted tensions when stakeholders hold uncertain or conflicting views. This is the inherent challenge of adaptive leadership and authentic stakeholder engagement — it’s rarely clear-cut and often complex. 

At the same time as we have seen many B Corps take a stand, we’ve also heard from B Corps who have felt unable to take a public position given the complex outcomes of their own engagement processes.

“We encourage all Certified B Corporations to continue on their reconciliation journeys and to lean into our movement’s Declaration of Interdependence, considering the impact of this historic moment on future generations. This is a time for listening and learning, in honour of the invitation from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples expressed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart.”

— Andrew Davies, CEO, B Lab AANZ

At B Lab AANZ, we are hosting discussions with B Corps to do just that. We are continuing to coordinate a collective working group of B Corps on Reconciliation Action, and we are compiling insights and trusted resources to share with our community. 

On September 19, in collaboration with Clothing the Gaps, B Lab AANZ is hosting a roundtable discussion on the role of businesses in social change and the Voice.

“Just sharing the truth about this and helping people understand what this is, and breaking through misinformation is something that is powerful in itself.”

— Thomas Mayo, Kaurareg Aboriginal and Kalkalgal, Erubamle Torres Strait Islander man

Image: Button Pusher from Pexels

Practical resources for businesses to enable listening and learning

Ultimately, the question of whether a business goes public with a position on the Voice is one that should be connected to its own purpose, values and stakeholder engagement. 

“Ultimately as a business, we don’t get a vote but our employees do, and so our focus is on making sure our staff and broader stakeholders are listening to the voices of First Nations People and keeping those front of mind when they enter the ballot box.”

— Lydia Ho, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Future Super

Providing employees and others with reliable, high-quality and factual resources from trusted sources can assist them to make their own informed, individual decision on voting day. 

It is also critical, as businesses, that we help people take care of themselves during this period. Carefully considering the potential effects the Voice Referendum might have on various stakeholders and their sense of psychological safety. Whether that be by hosting facilitated conversations, or providing time during work hours for staff to get informed and access additional support, here are a number of useful resources for you to consider: