This opinion article was co-authored by Tim Reed, president of the BCA; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the BCA and Danny Gilbert, managing partner of Gilbert+Tobin and BCA board member and was published The Australian Financial Review on Thursday, 3 August 2023.
Like most Australians, many in the business community want a respectful and civilised debate on the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the constitution through the Indigenous Voice to parliament referendum.
Many are taking a leadership position as boards or individual chief executives to express their support for the Voice. They are not telling their employees how to vote.
Business is an integral and vitally important part of Australian society. It doesn't sit on the sidelines; it actively contributes to the economic strength, resilience and social cohesiveness of our nation.
Small, family, medium and large businesses employ 12 million of the 14 million working Australians.
Business accounts for about 80 per cent of economic activity. It contributed $126 billion in company tax in 2021-22 to help fund the services we all want and need.
More than seven million Australians own shares in Australian companies, and more than $500 billion of workers' superannuation investments are in listed Australian companies.
Business is made up of its workers, customers, suppliers, mum and dad shareholders, and the communities they operate in. Indeed, for many rural and regional towns, it is the local businesses, large and small, that are the lifeblood of prosperity. They are the glue that delivers jobs, opportunities and services.
This means business has a legitimate responsibility to step up and demonstrate leadership on key social and economic matters that affect the economic and social fabric of the nation.
When it comes to the referendum on an Indigenous Voice, many businesses have strong views, and they have a legitimate voice in this debate. Many have operated in Indigenous communities for more than 100 years.
Business is working hard to lift the economic participation and advancement of Indigenous Australians; we will get better results if we are listening. Business has led and continues to lead the way on the economic integration of Indigenous Australians by working with communities to help create employment opportunities close to home.
They also help to develop avenues for Indigenous Australians to advance; provide greater access to skills, training and real career paths; build economic capability; strengthen Indigenous supply chains; and support Indigenous Australians to own and grow their own businesses. These are practical and on the-ground ways that the business community is working in partnership with Indigenous Australians on economic development and wealth creation.
The economic contribution of the Indigenous business sector to the national economy is estimated at up to $12 billion.
Business hasn't always got it right in these communities, and we all have a responsibility to do better.
Business believes that providing Indigenous Australians with a voice in shaping policy at national, regional and local levels will help accelerate the work the business community is doing to improve the economic wellbeing of these communities and change individual lives for the better.
Accordingly, business not only has a right to share this view with the broader community, but an obligation to do so.
It's why many businesses, either through their boards or at an individual chief executive level, support the Voice being enshrined in the constitution along with the longoverdue recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the First Peoples of Australia.
They understand that the Voice will facilitate ongoing dialogue and opportunity between Indigenous Australians and business. They understand how this will enhance the unlocking of potential and material economic benefit for Indigenous Australians and our nation as a whole.
Now is the time for our country to move forward together to build a more prosperous nation for all its citizens.
Constitutional recognition of the Voice will give Indigenous Australians a stronger foothold in our democracy. It will encourage participation and accountability at every level.
It is critical that, as we head into this referendum, both sides of the debate are heard with respect. We want Australia to come out the other side of this momentous period as a better country, knowing we have conducted this debate in a way that is fit for the great nation we are.