Companies urged to take the fight to social media activists

The Australian, April 11, 2017:

Australian business must learn how to fight back against social activist groups such as GetUp and the Stop Adani coalmine groups, Menzies Institute’s ­Enterprise Policy Unit director Andrew Bragg said yesterday.

“The anti-business forces are becoming increasingly adept at creating campaign organisations,” Mr Bragg told The Australian after anti-coalmining activists disrupted Westpac’s 200th birthday celebrations in Sydney at the weekend, calling on it to rule out funding for the proposed Adani coalmine in Queensland.

“These organisations are ­capable of cutting business to shreds,” he said. “Business needs to learn how to fight back.”

Mr Bragg said anti-business groups including unions, Greenpeace, and left-wing think tanks were out-spending pro-business groups in Australia by about $120 million a year.

But he said activist groups were much more effective in ­targeting their arguments ­directly to consumers using ­social media platforms such as Facebook, while business groups were often “largely talking to themselves”.

Mr Bragg said business was “traditionally not collectivist in nature”, which made it hard for it to mobilise forces like activist groups could. “But these days anti-business groups know how to go directly to the consumer,” he said. “They are the modern equivalent of talkback radio as they are talking directly to their audience. But there is no business organisation that is able to do that.”

He estimated the budgets of left-wing think tanks, the industry superannuation movement, Greenpeace, unions, GetUp and other grass roots organisations totalled about $160m while the budget of pro-business groups ­totalled about $41m.

He said pro-business groups had about 24,500 followers on ­social media in Australia compared with 200,000 by anti-business groups — an estimate that did not include followers of social media of trade unions.

Mr Bragg said he believed that “business will eventually come to its senses” and realise the ­importance of being able to ­counter activist groups. “The question is whether business will be able to get ahead of these issues or whether it will be forced to ­address them in a recession.”

Mr Bragg said anti-business groups, which often argued for more taxes, more regulation, and less trade and investment, had a “stronger culture for creating grass roots organisations”.

His comments came after activists opposing the proposed Adani coalmine used social media to mobilise protesters to disrupt the Westpac bicentennial ball. Several activists also made it inside Sydney’s Carriageworks where more than 800 people were attending the ball.

The celebrations were suspended as police dealt with one protester from GetUp who chained himself to a metal pole on scaffolding above the stage.

Westpac chief executive Brian Hartzer said the bank had not been approached to fund the Adani mine, which activists claim will produce environmentally damaging coal.

But activists wanted Westpac to publicly rule out funding the mine, which has been done by at least one other bank. The weekend’s events also followed other anti-Adani protest action against Westpac including attempts to occupy its branch in Bendigo.

In an interview with Ticky Fullerton on Sky Business last night, Westpac chairman Lindsay Maxsted said Westpac would not change its public position on Adani. “Westpac is ranked No 1 globally for sustainability,” he said. “You don’t get that ranking unless you get these issues around environment and climate change.”

“We were one of the initial ­signatories to the Equator principles in 2003, the first bank in ­Australia with a climate change policy in 2008.”

“It is very clear how we judge these things, whether we are funding Adani or coal fossil fuels.”

Mr Maxsted said the protesters on Saturday night “know all that and they know our position that we haven’t funded Adani.”

He said protest groups such as those opposing the Adani mine wanted to “badger people to say what they would do in hypothetical situations and we don’t buy into that.”

“If they want to know what our policies are, they should read them.”