You can’t stop business being involved in politics, but could it get on right side of big debates?
Business has traditionally sought to influence politicians behind closed doors
Some very big companies are on the warpath in North Carolina, where they are seeking to reverse state policies that discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Meanwhile, in Britain, the corporate sector is actively trying to influence the pending referendum on continuing British membership of the European Union.
Here in Hong Kong, business leaders have become even more vocal denouncing government opponents and giving their views on the political future of the special administrative region alongside a host of other contentious issues.
So, should business be getting so deeply involved in politics? The reflex answer to this question is that business should steer well clear of politics. However business has been up to its elbows in politics since forever; indeed it is hard to think of a time when businessmen were not in the thick of political affairs.
Yet it used to be less controversial. There was, for example, only minimal criticism of business leaders influencing elections by pouring large sums of cash into political campaigns, however this is now provoking a growing backlash. And it also seemed quite all right for businesses to lobby for their own interests even though these powerful lobbies were known to cross the line between bribery and influence peddling.
What then are we to make about what’s going in North Carolina, where the state legislature has introduced discriminatory sex orientation laws and companies ranging from Deutsche Bank to PayPal to Braeburn Pharmaceuticals have said this will deter investment and may lead to withdrawal of their presence in the state.
Legislators are indignantly arguing that they have the people’s mandate for the new laws and they won’t be pushed around by big business. This is fighting talk, albeit in a dubious cause, but even the most pugnacious lawmaker cannot force companies to do business in their state nor stop them from moving jobs elsewhere.
Meanwhile many citizens applaud companies for taking a stand on equality issues and regard them in a warmer light for doing so. Indeed their stance may well turn out to be good for business.
What’s new here is big corporations going in to bat on social issues and finding themselves joining government opponents instead of the usual cosy relationship with those in power.
Traditionally business has sought to influence politicians behind closed doors, avoiding the glare of publicity with no need to worry about how their arguments go down with the wider public as the great unwashed are barely aware of what they are doing.
Times are most certainly changing because many companies have come to believe that social responsibility is a part of their mandate. They have even established departments to deal with this sort of thing. As a consequence we are starting to see fractures in the cosy relationships between business people and politicians because companies are going much further than purely pursuing their narrow corporate interests.
Generally speaking this is not a problem for governments, particularly conservative and authoritarian governments who can count on the enthusiastic and public backing of business leaders. This close connection is very much in evidence in Hong Kong where companies provide the bulk of the funding for pro-government parties and where the biggest companies traditionally participated directly in both the legislative and executive councils, thus having a seat right at the heart of policymaking.
Under the new order, an even larger number of corporate chiefs clamour to join China’s parliamentary process. Although their actual impact on policymaking is questionable, they are given face and make the kind of contacts that are very useful for business.
Big league business leaders, particularly Li Ka-shing, also make it a practice to express political views during major corporate events.
There is very little adverse local comment about any of this. However on the rare occasions when a business leader or a company expresses anti-government views or indeed supports what might be called an “alternative” cultural event, as Shell in Hong Kong did, they are castigated for being “political”.
It is pointless to say that business should get out of politics as this is much the same as saying that only honest and upright citizens should be allowed to run for public office.
Reality dictates that business and politics feed off each other. That’s all very well, but public sentiment is now turning against what is seen as unhealthy collusion between big business and government. This stems from a growing feeling that the interests of business are inimical to those of the wider public. Ironically the politician who has most successfully exploited these concerns is the business mogul Donald Trump. Go figure!
And while you’re figuring, it may be worth pondering whether there are ways in which business can get on the right side of the big debates of the day.
Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster