Qantas And Its Respect For Liberal Democracy

18 August 2023

By: John Roskam

There are consequences to Big Business bullying

On Monday in Sydney when Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce unveiled a plane with ‘Yes23’ painted on it, he said:

We know there are a range of views on this issue, including amongst our customers and employees, and we respect that.  I encourage people to find out more, to listen to First Nations voices, and to make their own decisions.

Seldom has something more meaningless and hypocritical been uttered by a CEO.  There’s only one side of the debate that Qantas is ‘respecting’.

There’s two ways Qantas could respect ‘the range of views on this issue’.  It could stay not express a view or it could support both sides equally.  But it’s not doing either of those things.  It’s saying one thing and then doing the exact opposite.  Saying ‘I respect your opinion – but I’ll ignore it’ is the height of disrespect.  Qantas isn’t just bullying its customers and employees.  It’s laughing at them.  In a world obsessed with feelings it would be interesting to know if Joyce asked himself how someone who believes all Australians should be equal regardless of their race would feel about flying in a plane adorned with Yes23 paraphernalia.

Qantas is doing more than painting it’s planes.  According to its media release – ‘In addition to adding the Yes livery to three aircraft, the Qantas Group is supporting the Yes23 campaign and the Uluru Dialogue teams with travel so they can engage with regional and remote Australians ahead of the referendum.’

Bit by bit, the respect there once was for different opinions is shrinking.  Qantas isn’t respecting it’s No-voting customers just as by donating $2 million to the Yes campaign Wesfarmers is not respecting its No-voting shareholders.  ‘The personal is political’ is more than a slogan of the modern-day left – it’s an objective.  For the left there’s no separation between the state, the family, and the individual.  Corporations now don’t only sell you things – they tell you what to say and what to think.  Once that was the preserve of the government.  Now corporations have taken it upon themselves to moral and political arbiters.

What were once ‘safe spaces’ free from politics are now suffocated by politics.  Sport being the obvious example.  And now it’s shopping.  Until a customer backlash up until a few weeks ago Big W, owned by Woolworths, was making in-store announcements for a Yes vote in the referendum.   Orwell would smile.  In Nineteen Eighty-Four Winston Smith heard Big Brother’s propaganda from the telescreen while at work at the Ministry of Truth.  Today in Australia you hear political broadcasts as you walk down the aisle of a Big W store looking for the tea towels.

Back in 2005 I wrote the entry of ‘Liberal Democracy’ in The Oxford Companion to Australian Politics in which I talked about how liberal democracy rests upon a series of assumptions about what is appropriate behaviour.  It used to be assumed that corporations would understand and respect the different political viewpoints of its customers.  That’s no longer the case.

I came to write the entry because before I worked at the Institute of Public Affairs I lectured in politics at the University of Melbourne while I was doing my as yet unfinished PhD.  My supervisor was wonderful professor, Brian Galligan who sadly died a few years ago.  In the politics department Brian was unusual.  He didn’t hate John Howard and he didn’t vote Green.  (I never asked him but I always assumed he was right-wing Labor.) He was the country’s leading authority on federalism, and the High Court, and he had the common sense and wisdom of a Queenslander born on the Darling Downs from a family of four generations of farmers.  As the editor of the  Oxford Companion he suggested that under his guidance I write 3,000 words on ‘Liberal Democracy’.

Nearly twenty years on it makes interesting reading.  I talked about how ‘Liberal Democracy’ embodies a ‘Liberal’ part (individuals have rights) with the ‘Democracy’ part (people should rule themselves) and how liberal democracies display a number of features, ‘including the holding of free and regular elections for public office, the protection of basic human rights such as freedom of speech and the right to own private property, and the operation of the rule of law.’  That’s all pretty standard.  But then further on in the entry I wrote about something Brian suggested that I include.  It was this:

The Constitution is central to liberal democracy in Australia but by itself it does not create a liberal democratic system.  The system is as much a product of deliberate decisions as it is of the country’s political culture, its political history, and the operations of its public and private institutions…

Whether a liberal democracy can operate successfully depends on the extent to which assumptions about what is appropriate political behaviour are shared.  By and large, participants in the political process in Australia have adhered to common assumptions.

Those common assumptions are beginning to break down. Liberal democracy depends on citizens being able to debate and exchange ideas free of threats and intimidation. Private institutions are now political in a way that’s unprecedented – and that goes beyond mere virture signalling. Their behaviour now verges on coercion. Department stores and airline companies now presume to tell people how to vote in a referendum.   Big business in Australia is no longer prudent or restrained in how it plays its politics.  It’s one thing for a company to donate to a political party or a social cause.  It’s something else entirely when that company is itself spruiking a cause, especially one as controversial as the Voice on which public opinion is sharply divided.  Furthermore, the Voice is now closely tied to one side of political party.  I’m not sure how big is the difference between a Qantas plane painted ‘Yes23’ and one painted ‘Vote Labor’.

(As it happens on Monday The Sydney Morning Herald reported on a new poll on the Voice of 1603 voters taken last week by Resolve Political Monitor.  It had the Yes vote down to 46% and the No vote up to 54%.  As recently as December that same polling company had Yes at 62% and No at 38%.  Interestingly the ABC has made no mention of the poll.  But the ABC was able to find space to devote a entire news segment to an attack on Senator  Jacinta Nampijinpa Price by Marcus Stewart, a Yes campaigner and a former co-chair of Victoria’s First People’s Assembly.

After Senator Price said welcome to country ceremonies were ‘divisive’ – ‘It’s not welcoming, it’s telling non-indigenous Australians, ‘This isn’t your country’ and that’s wrong.  We are all Australians and we share this great land’, Stewart told the ABC – ‘I don’t think I’ve come across anyone that hates Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander – or seems to hate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people so much.  What have we done wrong in this debate…to simply ask for a better chance at life for our most vulnerable?’  ‘Hate’ is a strong and violent word. Claiming your opponent ‘seems to hate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’ transcends the boundaries of appropriate political behaviour – yet that is to what Yes campaigners are reduced.)

Qantas though hasn’t yet banned No voters from using its services.  But in the UK banks have come close to doing something equivalent.  The ‘debanking’ scandal of NatWest and Nigel Farage has gone largely ignored by the Australian media.  Maybe it’s because local journalists agree with NatWest (a number of UK journalists certainly did).  ‘Debanking’ is another example of how the political behaviour of private institutions is undermining the accommodation of different political opinions.

A few weeks ago I wrote about NatWest and Farage in my column in The Australian Financial Review:

As revealed over the last fortnight, Coutts, a private bank owned by NatWest, and the UK’s fourth-largest bank (and following the GFC 38.6 per cent-owned by the British government) cancelled the accounts of broadcaster, former politician and bete noire of the left, Nigel Farage because, according to a 40-page dossier prepared by Coutts’ staff, his supposedly ‘xenophobic, chauvinistic and racist views’ did ‘not align with the values of the bank.

Two days ago, NatWest chief executive Rose was forced to resign after she admitted to being the source of a BBC story claiming Farage’s account was closed because of insufficient funds. This was untrue. Documents obtained by Farage from the bank under Britain’s personal information laws proved Rose had misled the BBC.

She might also have broken UK laws on data protection by publicly disclosing confidential information about a bank customer. Farage has called for the entire NatWest board to resign. As the story has developed, an ever-growing number of episodes of customers being debanked for their political opinions are coming to light.

It’s almost impossible to participate in the 21st century without a bank account. If every UK bank acted as Coutts did, Farage would be as good as cancelled from society – at the behest not of the government but of private corporations. As one Tory MP said: ’In 2023, banking services are as vital as water or electricity supplies. It is a utility.’  Following Coutts’ precedent, a power company committed to net zero might conclude that providing electricity to the home of a climate change sceptic was contrary to its values.

The final word on Qantas and the Voice should go to a fellow columnist at the AFR, Joe Aston.  This is some of what he wrote on Tuesday:

Anthony Albanese and Alan Joyce joined forces for a media spectacular on Monday. Before an adoring crowd and a medley of celebrities at Sydney Airport, the Prime Minister and the Qantas CEO unveiled three Qantas aircraft painted with the ‘Yes23’ logo in support of an Indigenous Voice to parliament.

Albanese was in full rhetorical flight. ‘There is no company in Australia that immediately says Australia like this brand of Qantas,’ he said.  So Australia is complacent, decrepit, tone deaf, immensely greedy, a bully, a welfare bludger, a horrible boss and a voracious influence trafficker?  Little wonder we all suffer from the cultural cringe.

The PM’s political antenna is clearly not functioning.  How could he possibly believe the Yes campaign might reverse its flagging popular support by aligning with Australia’s most complained about company, with a brand suffering from ‘new levels of distrust?  How could he think that holding joint campaign stops with Joyce, Australia’s most reviled business leader, is beneficial for the Voice’s prospects?

By our rudimentary grasp of it, the Voice is the pathway, preferred by First Nations leaders, to repairing entrenched Aboriginal disadvantage.  And Albo is barnstorming with Alan Joyce, who earned $24 million last year and just sold another $17 million of Qantas shares to buy his neighbour’s apartment. Knocking out the wall between his penthouse and the penthouse next door – that’s Alan’s idea of closing the gap.  As if mug punters identify with this guy or his values. You’d be forgiven for wondering if Albo is trying to lose his referendum.

Best of all, Albanese and Joyce invited a battalion of journalists but then refused to take a single question.