Telstra’s second backflip on marriage equality in a week shows the difficult relationship the company currently has with the Catholic Church.

A week after news that the company would step back from campaigning for marriage equality after the Archdiocese of Sydney got up in a huff about it, Telstra has again backflipped saying the company will now advocate for same-sex marriage in the lead-up to the election.

In a statement first sent to staff and then released online, CEO Andy Penn said:

“It is clear that rather than Telstra stepping back we should in fact step forward and support our view for marriage equality and so that is what we will do. By renewing our active position, we acknowledge that we are at equal risk of inflaming a new debate but it is the right thing to do. It also remains very important that we continue to recognise and respect the right of the individual to hold their own view on this issue.”

The change came after staff internally expressed their displeasure with the less-than-stellar response from Telstra, which forced the company into releasing a second statement confirming it still supported marriage equality but wouldn’t do anything about it.

The third statement from Telstra on the matter shows the company clearly misread the initial reaction, but highlights the difficult balance the company has to find between its business relationships and public sentiment on the issue.

The company’s difficult relationship with the Church stems back to 2014, when Telstra lost its contract with Church Resources, a not-for-profit organisation that works with churches, schools, and other organisations to secure lower-cost deals for its 20,000 members. It’s an arm of the Catholic Bishops Conference (the one that is before the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Tribunal over the letter supporting existing marriage laws).

Crikey understands that Telstra’s falling out of favour with that organisation, after over a decade of holding its contract, wasn’t due to a conflict of values but the almighty dollar. Telstra wasn’t willing to budge on certain rates for some organisations associated with Church Resources, but Optus was, so Optus won the contract.

This created some problems for the churches. While Optus was offering a better deal in many places, Telstra has better mobile coverage across Australia. Some of the churches didn’t want to move over to Optus for this reason, and Telstra has been negotiating directly with many of these organisations rather than going through Church Resources.

In addition to the company’s 2009 $146 million contract to build out the network for Catholic schools, negotiating all these individual contracts for Telstra is relatively low value for Australia’s largest telecommunications company, but was, in aggregate, enough to cause the company to stumble last week in its support for marriage equality. Until the backlash.

Given the reported analysis it has done into the value of siding with the right side of history, Telstra has clearly come to the view that it is worth more to the company to risk offending the Catholic Church, with all its money, than to lose value in the eyes of the community, its customers, and staff by backing away from marriage equality at a time when the campaign is at its noisiest and messiest.

Peter Fray

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