Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott said the group has “tirelessly advocated” for tax reform.
“No-one could suggest that the BCA hasn’t spoken up on economic issues,” she said.
She said companies needed to make their own decisions about their public position on wider issues and were entitled to do so on a “case by case basis”.
“It is about getting the balance right,” she said. “Many people who work in companies expect their chief executives to speak up on social issues. Employees expect their CEOs to stand for something.”
The BCA will lead its annual delegation of members to Canberra this week for meetings with politicians and Ms Westacott said the relationship between business and the government was crucial to addressing the country’s economic challenges.
“This is a really important time for business and government to work closely together to make the country stronger, to make the economy stronger,” she said. “That is what we are wanting to talk to the government about.”
The CEDA survey found widespread public support for businesses to speak out on issues directly outside a firm’s direct interests.
While 91 per cent of respondents said it was acceptable for a corporate leader to speak up on an issue specific to their customers’ interests, there was almost as much support for expressing views on the nation’s environment and economic interests.
However, the public is cynical about what they might say. Ninety per cent think firms will offer an opinion only if it’s in their own interest while almost half said businesses did not speak up if it was in the national interest.
“While there has been much debate on the appropriateness of corporate leaders speaking on issues outside their core business, it is clear from these results the community consider this to be acceptable,” CEDA chief executive Melinda Cilento said.
“This acceptance of a business voice on social and environmental issues was consistent across gender, age groups and locations from rural and regional Australia to our cities.”
While open to firms speaking out on a range of issues, the survey found respondents do want big businesses to focus their attention on the work-life balance of their employees.
Other key issues in the eyes of the general public are providing high quality goods and services, ensuring ethical supply chains, investing in staff well-being including through better wages and reducing a firm’s impact on the environment.
The general public said the least important issues for business should be increasing shareholder returns and lifting market share.
Shane is a senior economics correspondent for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Mathew Dunckley is business editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Based in our Melbourne newsroom, Mathew has almost 20 years experience as a journalist and editor.