All around Australia, beer drinkers are busy Tweeting that they'll never drink Coopers beer again. Clubs and pubs are turning off their Coopers taps and promising to boycott the brand.

At issue is news the family-owned Adelaide beer company had teamed up with the Bible Society to produce a seven minute debate between two members of parliament over the pros and cons of gay marriage.

While the video was a debate, it wasn't hard to pick which side Coopers was on - it had been planning to release a limited-edition beer to celebrate the Bible Society's 200th anniversary.

The Bible Society video was a rational and courteous debate in which both sides displayed tolerance for the other point of view. It's the sort of political dialogue we could do with more of.


One of the politicians who took part in the debate, the Liberal Party's Tim Wilson, wants the Marriage Act to change so he can marry his long-term partner. Wilson pointed out the debate probably put the pro-marriage equality point of view in front of people who usually wouldn't be exposed to the argument, that is, Bible Society members.

It's hard to see how the debate has damaged the cause for gay marriage. If anything it arguably advanced the cause by giving opponents something to think about.

Nonetheless, reaction was swift. Coopers was forced to backtrack, eventually stating that it supported gay marriage and joining Marriage Equality Australia.

It's a good result for the marriage equality lobby, with a once conservative company now supporting the movement, but the damage to Coopers reputation will endure.

Coopers has learned the hard way that coming down on the "wrong" side of social issues can be disastrous.

Unlike New Zealand, Australia has not yet legalised gay marriage and many MPs on both sides of Parliament are running from the issue.

On the other side of the debate, big business in Australia is on a collision course with some conservative politicians.

The chief executives of 30 of the nation's largest companies including Telstra, Qantas, Holden, the Commonwealth Bank and ANZ are campaigning for the "near-term" legalisation of same sex marriage.


They argue the ban on gay marriage harms Australia's international reputation and we will have a fully inclusive society only if everyone has the same rights.

Their stance has upset the conservative Liberal Party Immigration Minister Peter Dutton who said they should stick to their day jobs.

"If people want to enter politics, then do that, but don't do it from the office overlooking the harbour on multi-million dollar fees each year. I just think it's high time these people pulled back from these moralistic stances and we'd be a better society without them," Dutton told talk radio station 2GB.

Dutton went on: "The social issues - and as you say whether it's gay marriage or anything else - leave that up to the politicians, to the leaders, to talkback hosts like yourself, to normal people who can have those discussions without the millions of dollars being thrown behind campaigns because somehow it makes the board feel better or meets their social obligation that they've got."

One of the chief arguments against companies weighing in on social issues is that they should be focussing more on returns.

Quite why Dutton thinks the bigots and halfwits who constitute many of Australia's talkback radio hosts are better placed to comment on social issues than our CEOs, most of who are well-educated, considered and intelligent, is beyond me, even if some of them do have harbour views.

Business can be a powerful voice for change, particularly on the conservative side of politics with which it is usually aligned. (Think how often government policies and laws are viewed through the prism of whether they will be good for business or the economy.)

The gay marriage stoush raises the issue of how much Australia's chief executives should weigh in on social issues. Do we want our companies to take a broader view of the society in which they reside and operate and to advocate for change where they think it's necessary?

Or should our companies just be profit engines, whose sole focus is the bottom line and returns to shareholders?

Indeed, one of the chief arguments against companies weighing in on social issues is that they should be focussing more on returns.

But this doesn't always hold true. Corporate Australia's most prominent gay marriage advocate is Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, a gay man who lives with his partner in Sydney.

For this reason, he also bears the brunt of the criticism against corporate Australia getting involved in social issues.

But the fact is that Joyce is a remarkably successful chief executive. Qantas had a doubtful future when he took over, but the airline is now in robust good health and returned record profits last year.

Taking a stance on social issues and running a profitable company don't have to be incompatible.