Tasmanian senator Colbeck wants to introduce a law to prevent boycotts of companies led by environmental groups. Such a move is an extraordinary illiberal attack on consumers' rights
Originally posted on 25 September 2013 - The Guardian Australia
'I have never met anyone who personally wants to kill an orangutan...' Photograph: Barbara Walton/EPA
I have never met anyone who personally wants to kill an orangutan. Nor have I ever met anybody who prefers a complimentary side of dead dolphin with their tuna sandwich. The truth is, we want to be able to go about our ordinary business as consumers without inadvertently slaughtering wild animals or destroying their habitat.
But it seems that Tasmanian Liberal senator and parliamentary secretary to the minister for agriculture Richard Colbeck wants to deny us that choice. As has been widely reported this week, the Coalition government is considering changes to Australian law to prevent "secondary boycotts" of companies by environmental and consumer groups. This would significantly impede such groups trying to highlight bad business practice. In other words, senator Colbeck seems to want to keep Australian consumers in the dark.
Markets-based campaigns are often used by consumer and environmental groups. Such campaigns are highly effective because customers don’t generally want to buy products that unnecessarily harm the environment. But individuals do not always have the time or capacity to research every single product they buy – which is where environmental campaigners come in, providing data to inform purchasing decisions.
So for example in Australia this year, after markets pressure, virtually the entire tinned tuna industry converted to more sustainable catch methods to avoid unnecessary killing of marine wildlife. Also earlier this year, Asia Pulp and Paper – once the greatest destroyer of the orangutan and tiger rainforests in Indonesia – agreed to eliminate deforestation from its supply chains. The company then went on to publically thank Greenpeace for the exposure that led to the change being made. And the good news for Asia Pulp and Paper is that deserting consumers have flocked back once the company made credible commitments to cleaning up its supply chain.
Corporations generally don’t act out of the goodness of their hearts. Their purpose is to make a profit, and expecting them to do anything else is just wishful thinking. This analysis is neither radical nor anti-business; it is just recognising how commercial corporations are legally mandated to function. However, corporations may be prepared to change how they act when a change in information shifts the business environment. So while it may once have been “good business strategy” to buy the cheapest raw material at the expense of animals and landscapes, once the scandal is exposed the existing commercial logic is no longer sound.
But Colbeck seems to want to deny consumers information, which would ensure that unscrupulous commercial conduct continues. At this stage of course we don’t know exactly what Colbeck has in mind – except that he is intending to target environmentalists, whom he claims have an unfair advantage over business.
Given his state origins, perhaps Colbeck is upset by Tasmanian environmental groups informing international customers about the product sourcing of logging giants Gunns and Ta Ann in the course of that state’s long running dispute over state forests. Yet the provision of product information in the public interest in the Tasmanian forests dispute was entirely consistent with liberal free market principles. When environmentalists presented evidence to international companies that the timber in question was sourced from high conservation value forests, many international buyers changed their minds, preferring instead to purchase FSC certified timber.
Corporations devote vast resources to brand marketing, making extensive claims about the health and environmental credentials of their products. This shows the power of consumer demand for ethically sourced products. However, some companies have things to hide – which is why consumer and environmental groups will continue to shine a light on shoddy corporate practices.
If Colbeck was to follow through on his threat against consumer and green groups, this would constitute an extraordinary attack on the free provision of market information and thus on consumer choice.
The proposal has justly caused outrage on the political right. Yesterday Chris Berg of the Institute of Public Affairs described Colbeck’s idea as an affront to freedom of speech. Berg’s view is that, "as uncontrollable and impulsive as consumer campaigns can be, it would be entirely illiberal to try to suppress them by force of law." Will Choice magazine be legally liable for steering its readers away from a product that it considers harmful? It will be interesting to see how the new prime minister, who has vowed to restore "freedom of speech", would explain such a change to consumer groups.
There should be no doubt that a reform of this nature would reward harmful corporate activities and disempower consumers. It is completely mystifying as to why Colbeck would want to reward bad business practices. Maybe Colbeck really does just hate orangutans.