Given the recent record of the financial industry in taking the world to the brink of economic catastrophe while continuing to pay grotesquely over-inflated bonuses to senior staff, it seems pretty remarkable that an investment banker has been named 2011 Australian of the Year.

But then by all public accounts, Simon McKeon is a good bloke with a complex personal story at some remove from the lifestyle of fear and loathing in the city. As a former corporate lawyer at Blake Dawson and then a Macquarie Bank executive for almost three decades, with enough time and resources on his hands to also be a record breaking yachtsman, McKeon has presumably done all right. However, according to the Australia Council’s formal citation:

“…it’s his efforts to support multiple Australian and international charities which has earned him great admiration … A leading social entrepreneur, Simon demonstrates how business and philanthropy go hand in hand, giving tremendously of his time and energy to many organisations.”

On receiving the award, McKeon was reported as saying that he hoped to inspire others to help out the not-for-profit sector, particularly the corporate world:

“It’s there to make money, it’s there to make a profit … But there are many ways in which corporates nowadays can actually share their facilities, their expertise, their people and, of course, their people … Of course, they can do more.”

There is every reason to acknowledge and appreciate McKeon’s civic involvements — after all there are plenty of investment bankers and other high-wealth individuals in the world who do not follow his clear example.

But, in celebrating McKeon’s personal ethic of noblesse oblige, we should not swallow the wider guff being talked about corporate do-gooding.

As any corporate executive will confirm, corporations don’t do anything that is not consistent with hard-headed business strategy.  Any view to the contrary is mere wishful thinking.  By law, companies must maximise returns to shareholders, a legal obligation that is brutally reinforced by the economic reality of the ultra-competitive globalised marketplace.

A quick glance at a couple of the many causes with which McKeon is associated illustrate the point.  Consider for example, Business for Millennium Development, which was formed:

“…when a group of leading and progressive Australian companies came together at the invitation of World Vision to consider the question “How can corporate Australia do more to address global poverty?'”

The answer, of course, is that business does not do poverty alleviation, except when it occurs as the indirect consequence of some commercial activity. Indeed, the Business for Millennium Development website frankly sets out an extensive “business case” for why corporations should support global poverty alleviation, with reasons including supply chain efficiencies, new markets, staff recruitment and retention, risk management and public relations. The argument seems persuasive enough: but when a firm acts to increase profitability, it is simply engaging in good business practice, not “philanthropy” or “corporate social responsibility” or anything else.

McKeon is also heavily involved in a charity called Red Dust Role Models that has the laudable and urgent objective of seeking “to improve the health and wellbeing of disadvantaged youth living in remote communities”.  The “premier partner” and first listed “program partner” of Red Dust Role Models is Vodafone Foundation, the charitable arm of the global mobile phone giant.  The Vodafone Foundation claims to have:

“…invested over £100 million in projects since its creation in 2002 concentrating on disaster relief, helping disadvantaged children via sport and music initiatives and specific projects across Vodafone’s 23 local foundations worldwide.”

£100 million may sound like a large charitable investment — but the number is scarcely significant compared to the staggering £6 billion in tax that Vodafone escaped paying in the United Kingdom and the £1.6 billion payment it has fought to avoid in India.  The “premier partner” of Red Dust Role Models continues to be subject to rolling protests in the UK by outraged taxpayers.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with Red Dust Role Models accepting money from the Vodafone Foundation.  Rather, the critical point is that there is no inconsistency in the apparent contradiction between Vodafone giving money to charity while avoiding paying tax.  Minimising tax obligations and maximising corporate reputation are in the company’s commercial interests.

McKeon’s civic commitments may be noteworthy and admirable, but the morality of an individual has nothing to do with the role of business per se in society.  ‘Business and philanthropy may go hand in hand’, as the Australia Council claims, but only when the former has a commercial interest in grabbing on to the mitt of the latter.

*David Ritter is the author of The Native Title Market and Contesting Native Title. His weekly blog appears in the Global Policy Journal.