28/01/2010 - 00:00

An Australia Day role for business

28/01/2010 - 00:00


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Business should play a role in Australia Day and other occasions that shape the national character.

FOR most businesses, Australia Day is simply a day off. Outside of retail and hospitality, businesses shut down and their workers enjoy a day of rest and relaxation.

Reading about the recipients of Australia Day honours is usually the only mention of business.

This year, the Western Australian business winners were a couple of well-known veterans.

John Horgan founded Salitage Wines in 1988 with his wife, Jenny, and in the process has done a lot to put Pemberton on the wine map.

Dick Lester built Growth Equities Mutual into a nationally prominent property investment manager, before selling to Lend Lease in 1994.

He still heads the family owned investment and development company Lester Group, and among other roles has served on the board of Wesfarmers and chaired the WA Institute of Medical Research.

Like Mr Lester, many business executives devote part of their time to philanthropic activities, serving on the boards of research institutes, arts companies and so on.

Similarly, many companies set aside money every year to support community activities outside their core business.

This philanthropic activity sits under the banner of corporate social responsibility, which has become widely accepted as a mainstream aspect of running a business.

It is reflected in the voluminous sustainability reports that most blue chip companies produce every year.

These documents rival the traditional annual financial report, providing a detailed run-down of progress on sustainability and community activities.

Every company defines their commitment to ‘corporate social responsibility’ or sustainability differently.

Typically they cover at least four areas: environmental management, including carbon emissions, water and energy efficiency and waste management; employment practices, particularly the provision of a safe workplace and flexible policies; corporate governance, which covers ethical standards and the role and composition of the board of directors; and community engagement, which includes partnerships and sponsorships.

Most companies understand that they need to focus on all of these areas. Not simply because there is a mounting community expectation that they do so, but more fundamentally because it is good for the long-term prospects of their business.

What does this have to do with Australia Day? Well, Australia Day is a time when we reflect on what it means to be Australian, and on the values of our society.

Social commentators and newspaper columnists wax lyrical about the state of the nation. Occasionally politicians enter the fray in a constructive manner, elevating the debate above the usual point scoring.

One of the recurring themes in this debate is concern about the ethical or moral void that seems to have emerged in affluent, Western countries.

This partly reflects the diminished influence and respect of many of the traditional institutional bulwarks, particularly the major churches but also of government and the judiciary.

There is a risk that this trend can be exaggerated, especially when the antisocial misdeeds of the minority are characterised as typical of the community at large.

Nonetheless, the trend is real, creating an opportunity for community leaders to step forward with constructive ideas about where Australia should be heading.

This can be a high-level philosophical discussion, around issues like individual liberty and social inclusion.

It can also focus on tangible issues like population growth and migration, retail trading regulation, daylight saving, the physical development of Perth’s CBD, the protection of heritage buildings, and environmental management standards.

Some of these issues have been the subject of lively and long-running community debates in Western Australia.

They throw up all manner of social and ethical questions but also raise critical business issues, around labour supply and workforce development, the freedom of business to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities, and the capacity of business to trade profitably.

Business input to these debates is usually confined to peak industry groups, notably the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA.

But wouldn’t the debate be more interesting, and our community better informed, if an array of business leaders also contributed directly?

Not just the big end of town, but leaders in small business, entrepreneurs, innovators, who should be encouraged to speak out, as individuals if not company representatives, to foster informed discussion and debate.



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