ONE of the country’s most successful IT entrepreneurs has said Australia is increasingly seen as a “disappointment” overseas and at the “back of the pack” on social issues.
Speaking exclusively to news.com.au, founder of software company Atlassian Mike Cannon-Brookes said Australia’s lack of same-sex marriage was a “surprise” to many people he met when out of the country.
Often referred to as “accidental billionaires”, Mr Cannon-Brookes and co-founder Scott Farquhar started the IT firm in 2002 with the aim of achieving an average graduate starting salary without having to work for a big corporation. The plan worked — Mr Cannon-Brookes is now reportedly worth at least $2bn.
The company is throwing its weight behind the Yes campaign in a very visual way.
On Thursday, the company will light up its Sydney offices in rainbow colours and the building will remain lit up each evening for a week.
Mr Cannon-Brookes said Atlassian was one of the first companies to sign up to the marriage equality campaign and that support would not be dented by political pressure for firms to “stick to their knitting” and duck out of the debate.
“We’ve never been shy in taking a position. We believe in the core message that love is love and we shouldn’t discriminate,” he told news.com.au.
“It’s a highly sensitive issue but it’s important we stand up as allies to our LGBTI staff and the broader community.
“We need staff to feel the company supports them.”
Mr Cannon-Brookes, whose company has offices in San Francisco and Amsterdam as well as Sydney, said he had witnessed first-hand how Australia’s marriage laws raised eyebrows abroad.
“People say ‘oh, I thought you guys would have done that already’,” he said.
“Australia is seen as an innovative economy and not socially backward so (the lack of same-sex marriage is) has been met with surprise and also a bit of disappointment.
“The people I meet overseas assumed we were more toward the front of the pack, not the back, when it comes to social change.”
Some corporate supporters of the Yes campaign have copped criticism for their rainbow flag waving.
Last week, Westpac found itself in hot water after a company email stated voting Yes was a “no brainer” and claimed same-sex marriage would prevent thousands of suicides a year.
“We acknowledge that linking same-sex marriage and suicide may be inaccurately interpreted and we apologise for this mistake,” a company spokesman said.
Immigration Minister and same-sex marriage critic Peter Dutton chastised the bank for backing Yes, saying they should “stick to their knitting”.
Mr Cannon-Brookes said the prospect of criticism from a Government minister didn’t faze him.
“By doing this we are sticking to our knitting. I don’t know what companies are knitting if not this — companies are made of people,” he said.
However, he insisted that Atlassian employees who weren’t in favour of same-sex marriage would not be discriminated against.
“We don’t tell people how to vote or who they should vote for. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” he said.
While the Yes campaign has hundreds of big name corporate backers, actually extracting funds from them has been more difficult.
Qantas boss Alan Joyce has made a personal donation of $1m to the campaign but few companies have put their hands in their pockets. This week it was revealed the No campaign had received a $1m donation from the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.
Atlassian said its staff LGBTI group had raised around $1300 for the Yes campaign but the company had not made a donation out of its own coffers.
Mr Cannon-Brookes acknowledged the IT industry and Silicon Valley had an issue with inclusion.
In June, Uber boss Travis Kalanick resigned amid shareholder concern over the company’s so-called “toxic culture”. His resignation came after a review of practices at the firm, which exposed scandals including complaints of sexual harassment and bullying.
“The tech sector has a diversity challenge that we are very keen on continuing to attack. (Support for same-sex marriage) is a big piece of a push to become more inclusive as an industry and it’s hard to be inclusive without this sort of change,” he said.
In March, Mr Cannon-Brookes became an unexpected influence on Australia’s energy policy when he entered into a Twitter exchange with Tesla co-founder Elon Musk. Upon hearing of Tesla’s claims its batteries could solve South Australia’s power woes within 100 days, he took to Twitter with a simple tweet: “Holy s#%t.”
This was followed with another tweet asking Musk how serious Tesla was about the claims to install the batteries required to prevent the blackouts.
“Can you guarantee the 100MW in 100 days?” Mr Cannon-Brookes wrote.
Musk confidently replied that Tesla would get the system installed and working within 100 days from signing a contract or the batteries would be free.
Mr Cannon-Brookes told news.com.au it was “quite clear” Australians supported expanding renewable energy.
“What’s important is that people are listening to each other,” he said.
“They’re moving forward, change is happening and that’s really positive but we still have a long way to go to be front of the pack on energy supply and with our green credentials”.
Mr Cannon-Brookes said one of Atlassian’s main values was “open company, no bulls***”.
“We’re not saying we’re the most inclusive company but we’re trying every day and we have made huge strides and have helped the industry make its own strides.”