January 25, 2005

Equity before equality

"It's all about little people getting things done, what have the big people got to be afraid of?"

...This was the answer I received from a friend when I commented on the generosity of small business people in Australia, and the appauling lack of same from big business. When the Australian Shareholders Association hit the press with it's advice that corporations do not have a mandate to spend money helping tsunami victims, it brought into the daylight what most of us scarcely glimpsed - people with deep pockets are usually those with the least compassion.

When Tony Wheeler of Lonely Planet donated $500,000 to the tsunami appeal it was a breath-taking display of generosity. But there was a deeper symbolism at work here, for this company has made it's name and fortune on the backs of independant travel through Asia (and the rest of the world). The gesture was a public acknoweldgement of what underlies their wealth and success - it was like saying "You guys have made us what we are, so of course we are willing to help you in return in this time of need."

What I respected most about Tony's philanthropic exuberance is the recognition that big business is not an island separated from the rest of humanity.

What I distain most about the penny pinching attitudes of the Australian Shareholders Association is the attempt to distance themselves from obligations of society and community. The message we here repeated again and again is that business need pay no heed to matters of humanity. The safety of workers is a consderation only when it impacts insurance premiums. The wealth and living standards of employees is of absolutely no consequence at all, and attempts by unions to improve conditions for their members is to the detriment of profit statements across the nation.

Enhancing the profits for shareholders is no excuse for bad manners and a lack of social responsibility.

Those shareholders who are so keen to make another dollar are still part of this community - whether they like it or not. They are members of a society. They breath the same air. They have family and friends. Do they have no capacity to see the consumer as a person? Do they think the people who buy the products that make their shares so valued are not real? Would the shareholders prefer to live in a world where all these persona non-grata have been wiped clean from the earth? Would they finally realise then, and only then, that shareholder value depends soley on the community in which it grows?

So what have the big people got to be afraid of? It's really very simple, they dont want to open the door to anything resembling a social conscience. A lifetime of rationalising greed with the language of profits and finance - the sterile and sanctioned pursuit of wealth. Definitions of sucess become confused with corporate calculations. Vision becomes narrow. People live in the periphery. There is no room for equality.

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