Woolworths Group has announced it will not stock Australia Day merchandise ahead of January 26, with a spokesperson claiming there had been “a gradual decline in demand … over recent years.”
The spokesperson went on to add “[a]t the same time there’s been broader discussion about January 26 and what it means to different parts of the community.”
These two statements tell us quite a bit both about Woolworths and the broader setting of Indigenous debate, post referendum.
It is important to note straight away that Woolworths is fully entitled to choose not to sell Australia Day merchandise, especially if the products are not selling.
In fact, it’s unlikely much notice would even have been taken of Woolworths’ decision had its spokesperson not added the unnecessary comments about the date itself.
After all, it’s likely that the main motivation for the new policy is the decline in demand, rather than a decision to ‘go woke’ or a concerted attack on Australia Day.
I mean, how many people would really base their choice of grocery store on its ‘wokeness’? And even if there were droves of woke shoppers, surely they are patronising the organic fair-trade markets, not Woolworths.
Nor are Woolworths exactly known for leaving a buck on the table for the sake of principle. Ask their small suppliers or businesses who are now competing with Woolworths branded products.
Moreover, it wouldn’t even be the first time a profit-motivated decision was dressed up in social awareness clothes. Remember when you used to get free plastic shopping bags? And then suddenly, everyone was up in arms about single use plastics, and now you have to pay for bags, even paper ones.
So what should we make of the additional framing of the choice as being about the changing understanding of Australia Day?
Well one option — albeit a very cynical one — is that Woolworths is seeking to burnish its social licence in light of the government’s grocery code review, conducted by Craig Emerson.
As an aside: what is it with Labor governments and going after the big retailers? The Rudd government made a big song and dance about how it was going to hold the grocery chains to account for suspected price gouging during the last cost of living spike.
Unfortunately, by mid-2009 the government had to scrap its Grocery Choice website, with the then Minister observing that it wasn’t feasible for the government to oversee grocery prices. Interestingly, that Minister was, of course, Craig Emerson.
But the broader point is that a number of left-wing commentators have been — both cynically and erroneously — blaming retailers like Woolworths for rising inflation. Maybe the Australia Day stance is intended to blunt that criticism.
Or at least ensure the brand receives equal criticism from both sides of the ideological fence…
Perhaps Woolworths feels it can (or should) make these sorts of political interventions because it is somewhat insulated from competition by virtue of their entrenchment in the Australian market.
If so, this is a bold decision. Some major brands in the US have taken a hit to their bottom line from such forays into the culture wars (see Bud Light for example).
In a big picture sense, the fact that Woolworths chose this framing for its decision does suggest that the failure of the Voice referendum is unlikely to result in a big reset of the framing of Indigenous policy.
In recent years we have seen the emergence of a marked difference in approach to Indigenous politics from the left and the right. The left, backed by a majority of elite opinion, have marched forward with a separatist agenda based on treaties, representation and decolonisation.
Key to this agenda is the idea that modern Australia is illegitimate without a settlement with Indigenous Australians. This leads rather naturally to the campaign to delegitimise Australia Day as a day of celebration.
The referendum was a rejection of this separatism. It is clear a majority of Australians see the future for Indigenous Australia as inextricably linked to the destiny of the country as a whole.
To put it another way: Indigenous culture should be recognised, but Indigenous sovereignty was rejected. The focus needs to shift from the political to the practical.
Yet there is no evidence that the elite have taken any real notice of the referendum result. Indeed, the renewal of attacks on Australia Day suggest the same agenda will continue unabated.
Woolworths is not creating or leading this trend, but nor is it an outlier: large corporations and their leadership have gradually become more progressive over a number of years. This too is merely a reflection of a wider progressive social trend among university graduates and the broader elite.
That said, with a few key exceptions, corporations are not full of activists. Most are merely reflecting what they think people want to hear — some with more enthusiasm than others. Consequently, who they feel they must speak to often matters more than what they are saying.
This is why the additional framing around Australia Day is important. The initial justification of declining demand was explaining the decision to shareholders.
The additional framing is only necessary to justify the decision to, and curry favour with, a wider elite stakeholder network. Even at the risk of shareholder, customer and public disfavour.
Some will still interpret Woolworths’ decision through a culture-war lens as an attack on Australia Day.
However, the real concern is that corporate Australia is increasingly distancing itself from the concerns of shareholders and customers for an ephemeral network of elite and progressive stakeholders.
Business would be better off sticking to its business.
Simon Cowan is Research Director at the Centre for Independent Studies.
Photo by aboodi vesakaran