Telstra, the Church, and the ‘threatened boycott’: how it unfolded

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Photo: TK Kurikawa / Shutterstock.com
Photo: TK Kurikawa / Shutterstock.com

It’s funny when something you wrote a week ago gains new life in the days after it is published. In last week’s column, I wrote about the inappropriate use of corporate and celebrity influence to affect laws relating to the use of public bathrooms by people who identify as transgender.

In a similar way, pressure is being placed on US states which have recently enshrined religious freedoms in law following the US Supreme Court unilaterally deciding to redefine marriage for the whole country.

Mississippi is enduring financial and other consequences for permitting bakers, photographers, florists and others to decline to provide services for same-sex weddings.

The Governor of Georgia caved in to the economic pressure, vetoing a religious freedom bill after Disney, Marvel the National Football League and others threatened to remove their business from the state if he did not do so.

These are all examples of the wealthy elite using their money to overthrow a democratic government, and should be condemned by anyone who has an interest in freedom or who has a concern about the ability of those without economic influence to have their voice heard in political matters.

Unfortunately, those who so often claim to champion freedom are congratulating those making the threats (or even joining their ranks).

Last week in Australia, we had a similar problem playing out in a different way. Instead of people congratulating those who are using their cash and celebrity status to try to force politicians to make a decision without the input of the general public, we had people condemning members of the general public who dared to provide their input on current political matters.

It began with a story in The Australian newspaper which reported that a letter sent in June 2015 from the Catholic archdiocese of Sydney was the reason behind Telstra last week retreating from the public campaign pushing for the redefinition of marriage.

The article alleged that the Church “threatened a boycott” of those Australian corporations involved in the campaign. It went on to say that an unnamed person familiar with the Telstra’s decision said Telstra “did not want to risk its commercial relationship with the Church”.

A further article mentioned a meeting between former Telstra chair Catherine Livingstone and Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP which discussed the issue of marriage.

As an initial comment, there were numerous reasons to be suspicious of the report and its allegation of a threatened boycott.

Firstly, the letter about which the story spoke was sent 10 months ago, and there have been no further developments to make it newsworthy again. If Telstra was bowing to pressure, it is unlikely it would have taken 10 months for it to do so. It is also unlikely that after 10 months had passed without the archdiocese withdrawing its custom that Telstra would have perceived there was a real threat this would occur.

Secondly, Telstra was quick to deny any pressure from the Church with CEO Andrew Penn saying that the decision to not publicly participate in the debate was out of respect for everyone to have their views heard in the lead-up to the plebiscite.

Thirdly, a boycott would have made no sense. Optus, Vodafone and iiNet have also publicly lobbied for marriage redefinition, and so unless we were planning on returning to communicating with olive branches in dove’s mouths or on stone tablets, a boycott would have been an empty threat. Plus, similar letters were sent to companies like SBS and the Football Federation of Australia with which the Church has no commercial relationship.

Anyone who thought about this story for even five minutes would know that this wasn’t in any way an economic threat by the Church. (I would suggest instead that the story appearing is part of a strategic effort to have “new” news items appearing on a regular basis to give the veneer of momentum to the redefinition campaign.)

The troubling thing about this is that Telstra and the Catholic archdiocese of Sydney were actually demonstrating the type of free and open discussion which we should be having in the lead-up to the plebiscite.

There were no nasty words or threats exchanged, only polite letters. There were no attempts at financial or other coercion, just invitations to meet and discuss.

They were modelling the very behaviour which opponents of a public debate and vote on marriage tell us is not possible.

If this type of behaviour can be criticised and rejected and the celebrity and corporate endorsement lauded, we are asking to live in a society where the rich have the power.

Interestingly, the champions of “equality” have no problem with this type of influence (as evidenced by the threatened boycotts of Telstra from “equality” advocates which resulted in Telstra reversing its position after a few days).