Australia's most senior conservative politician has lambasted a campaign by the chief executives of 30 of the nation's largest companies for the "near-term" legalisation of same-sex marriage, saying they should focus on running their own businesses instead of jamming "politically correct views down our throats".
Immigration minister Peter Dutton was scathing in his response to a co-ordinated attempt by the chief executives of Telstra, Qantas, Holden, Commonwealth Bank, ANZ and others to force Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to pass laws legalising same-sex marriage, prompting Liberal defector Cory Bernardi to describe him as Australia's "emerging leader".
"If people want to enter politics, then do that, but don't do it from the office overlooking the harbour on multi-million dollar fees each year. I just think its high time these people pulled back from these moralistic stances and we'd be a better society without them," Mr Dutton told Radio 2GB.
In the biggest unified push by corporate bosses over gay marriage to date, chief executives from across every industry, super funds and major sporting bodies have written to the Prime Minister calling on parliament to pass laws supporting gay marriage.
ANZ boss Shayne Elliott is among the many business leaders who signed the joint letter which said marriage equality ...
ANZ boss Shayne Elliott is among the many business leaders who signed the joint letter which said marriage equality would be good for customers, business and the nation. Bloomberg
Business leaders say they want the Prime Minister to deal with the issue urgently so he can get on with economic reform.
The move is designed to put pressure on Mr Turnbull to address the political stalemate on gay marriage after the Senate rejected the government's proposed plebiscite on the issue.
Having spent an hour on the phone last week waiting to fix his Telstra home phone, Mr Dutton directed most of his criticism at Telstra chief executive Andy Penn.
"He's a good bloke but he needs to concentrate, and others in the CEO world who are on big dollars need to concentrate, on their businesses and frankly on the improvement in the economy, contribute to that debate
"But the social issues – and as you say whether it's gay marriage or anything else – leave that up to the politicians, to the leaders, to talkback hosts like yourself, to normal people who can have those discussions without the millions of dollars being thrown behind campaigns because somehow it makes the board feel better or meets their social obligation that they've got."
Mr Dutton was particularly incensed at the companies' chiefs straying into political social issues when - in the case of Telstra - its customers were unhappy about call centre outsourcing to the Philippines.
"Now, here's a suggestion for Telstra. Instead of getting caught up and spending your investors' money, your shareholders' money on all these political causes, what about tidying up your own backyard first and providing a proper standard of care and service to your customers – that actually would be a good starting point – and once all that's done, you've then got time on your hands to concentrate on these other fringe issues," Mr Dutton said.
This week South Australian brewer Coopers became embroiled in the debate after customers boycotted its beer over a marketing tie-up with the Bible Society to create a same-sex marriage video.
The chief executives of Apple, ANZ Banking Group, AGL Energy, Commonwealth Bank, Holden, Qantas, Telstra, Westpac and Wesfarmers were among those who signed the joint letter which said marriage equality would be good for customers, business and the nation.
The bosses of the Business Council of Australia, super funds and sporting bodies like the National Rugby League and Football Federation Australia also signed the joint letter which is backed by more than 1100 businesses. They say they have backed the campaign voluntarily in a personal capacity.
"We believe that equality is everyone's basic human right. Working in an environment where people feel comfortable to make whatever choices are right for them creates a culture of diversity and inclusion. It's cultures like these that foster creativity and often where the very best ideas are formed," Tracy Fellows, the chief executive of digital advertising firm REA Group said.
'Anything less is bad business'
Holden managing director Mark Bernhard said: "We are very proud to have been the first automotive company in Australia to support marriage equality. As a business, and as a team of diverse people, we are committed to lending our voice in support of equal rights for our community."
Todd Greenberg, the National Rugby League chief executive the NRL celebrated diversity: "Enabling loving, committed couples to be married, regardless of their sexual orientation, will help create a more inclusive Australia and as a CEO, that is something I want to support."
Tim Reed, the chief executive of MYOB said: "In a competitive global business environment, nothing is more important than having people be able to be the best that they can be - anything less is just bad business. I'm proud that MYOB supports team members regardless of their sexual orientation, and I call on politicians from all parties to do likewise."
While a growing number of high-profile chief executives such as Qantas chief Alan Joyce and Telstra boss Andy Penn have publicly backed gay marriage since former Prime Minister Tony Abbott opposed legalising the move in 2015, this is the biggest collective statement by business leaders on the issue.
The role of big business in the debate has been a contentious issue, with some chief executives privately worried there would be a backlash against their business if they spoke out. The Catholic Church last year asked some companies to drop their marriage equality campaigns.
Lobby group Australia Marriage Equality (AME) approached corporate Australia in 2015 when the Abbott government opposed legalising gay marriage. The latest campaign is being headed by AME co-chair and a former senior JP Morgan executive Janine Middleton.
"This is the first time that they have come together to support the cause. It is not just gay CEOs. Most of these people are straight," Ms Middleton, who describes herself as a "conservative, Catholic, Liberal-voter" who supports marriage equality, told The Australian Financial Review.
"The bigger version of the conservative voice is corporate Australia and we started the corporate campaign and we now have more than 1100 businesses of all shapes and sizes right across the company who signed.Canberra needs to hear the different voices.
"The letter is important because the CEOs have done so in their personal capacity, they are not singing on behalf of companies."
Brewer Coopers was embroiled in the debate this week after a marketing tie-up with the Bible Society Australia to create a video on same-sex marriage backfired, resulting in pubs boycotting the beer.
The role of big business in the gay marriage debate has been a contentious issue with some executives privately concerned speaking up on the issue could hurt their business. Telstra last year backflipped on its support for marriage equality following pressure from the Catholic Church but later rejoined the campaign.
The business leaders said they believed marriage equality was good for their employees, customers, Australia's global reputation and for their business because companies that embraced diversity performed better than others.
Mr Turnbull has backed a national plebiscite on same-sex marriage, which was opposed by many in the gay and lesbian community in favour of a free parliamentary vote. Labor and the Greens blocked legislation to conduct a plebiscite on the issue.