Show Hide image

John Pilger: Up, up and away — Qantas and how money power works Down Under

Qantas, the oldest continuously operating airline, was also the world’s safest . . . until it got taken out of public ownership.

One of my first jobs as a junior reporter was to meet flights bringing famous people to Australia. Growing up in a country far from everywhere (except, as my father would say, "where you come from"), I was led to believe that Australia's honour was at risk unless a well-known person from Over There said something flattering about us, preferably the moment they arrived at Sydney Airport. There was a designated list of attributes they could comment on. These were: the weather, the beaches, the harbour, the harbour bridge, the happy people, the beer. When an exhausted Elizabeth Taylor stepped off her piston-engined flight from California and faced the mandatory barrage of questions, she replied: "Where am I, for Christ's sake?"

This was understandable but ill-advised. Readers of the Australian press were warned that Taylor and her husband Mike Todd, the Hollywood producer, were problem people who did not appreciate their good fortune in being among us. Todd's "dwarf-like and grizzled" appearance and the size of the bags under his wife's eyes became the subjects of particular tabloid scorn. Their stay was brief.

Ground forced

It was the first scheduled jet flight that drew us closer to the rest of humanity. This momentous occasion gave me my first front-page story in the Sydney Daily Telegraph, which declared solemnly, "A new era in civil aviation has dawned . . ." The inaugural aircraft was a Boeing 707 of the national airline, Qantas, an acronym for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services. Founded in 1920 in the outback town of Winton, Queensland, Qantas is today the world's oldest continuously operating airline and, along with Don Bradman and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, occupies a place in the nation's affections. Most important, it is the only major international airline in the jet age never to have lost an aircraft in a fatal accident. Perhaps wary of holding such a distinction to fortune, Qantas advertising never mentions it.

In recent years, however, the safest airline has had close calls, including an Airbus A330 going into a sudden dive in 2008 and injuring up to 74 people, a Boeing 747 engine that blew up after leaving San Francisco in 2010 and a new A380 whose engine shattered over Singapore later that year. These, and a series of less serious incidents, have all happened since the airline was taken out of public ownership and handed to global banks. The largest shareholders include JPMorgan, HSBC and Citicorp, which are also among the top shareholders of Australia's major banks and largest mining companies. The national airline, like the Australian economy, is mortgaged: the product of a bipartisan political system dominated by rapacious business.

It was an article of faith that the world's only island-continent, flanked by the two greatest oceans, needed a long-haul airline - until the asset-strippers took control. What followed is a cautionary, universal tale. Last October, without warning, the Qantas chief executive, Alan Joyce, ordered the grounding of the airline's global fleet. More than 68,000 passengers were stranded in 22 countries and the entire Qantas workforce was locked out without pay. Joyce later admitted that tickets had been sold "mistakenly" for flights that Qantas management knew would never take off; the grounding had been planned well in advance.

This unprecedented action was the climax of a plan to crush the unions, Murdoch-style, and to take much of the company "offshore". A subsidiary airline based in Asia would employ fewer staff and pay them less, including pilots and engineers, in conditions once unknown to the world's safest airline. For a decade, the company has been building wholly or partly owned domestic and regional airlines on this cut-price basis while closing Qantas routes.

The fleet grounding was presented in Australia's mostly Murdoch-owned capital city press as the result of an intractable industrial dispute. In fact, the unions were negotiating, and the domestic network was not in dispute at all - yet its workforce was also locked out without pay. As if on cue, Prime Minister Julia Gillard stepped in, using powers under the Labor government's Thatcher-like industrial relations agency known as Fair Work Australia (FWA) which allow employers to lock out their employees without notice and require none of the ballots and processes forced on unions.

Taming the unions

Gillard ordered an emergency sitting of the FWA arbitration court which in effect ruled in favour of the company, cancelling the lockout yet stopping the workforce from taking action against the coming destruction of their jobs. The Transport Workers Union offered only vocal resistance. As in Britain and America, the unions have long been tamed, co-opted and policed by their own leadership. Gillard's workplace relations minister is Bill Shorten, a former union boss whose political ambitions and boasts of ties to the business elite are highlighted in cables released by WikiLeaks.

The day before he announced the grounding and lockout without pay, Joyce received a pay rise of 71 per cent, to A$5m a year. Last year, Qantas recorded a before-tax profit of A$552m, having doubled its net profits and increased its revenue. In February, the company announced that, as a result of a sharp fall in this year's profits - caused, not surprisingly, by the grounding of the fleet and the consequential loss of business - it planned to cut up to 2,500 jobs, including maintenance engineers and pilots. The catch-22 caused barely a political ripple and Qantas management was congratulated in the media for its "courageous stand". According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the loss of revenue is "a case study in Australia's ability to cope with globalisation". In a choice of words Qantas passengers might find unsettling, the paper said the airline had to "compete or die".

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible

The Alternative
Show Hide image

"I won't do this forever": meet Alternative leader, Uffe Elbæk – Denmark's Jeremy Corbyn

The Alternative party leader speaks frankly about his party's journey from being seen as a comedy sideshow to taking nine seats in the Danish elections.

In Britain, popular anti-politics sentiment has engulfed the Labour party, through Jeremy Corbyn. In Denmark's splintered, assorted political landscape, it has created a party called the Alternative. The barely two-year-old party was depicted as a comedic sideshow before June's elections. But with nine of 179 seats, they embarrassed all electoral predictions, including their own. Their rise owes to a growing European gripe with politics as usual, as well as to growing chasms within Danish politics.

"I don't want to do this forever. I want to be a pensioner, lay on a beach somewhere, write books and make money from speeches." Embracing his maverick figure, the 61-year-old witty, self-deprecating leader, Uffe Elbæk, has become one of the most resonant voices in Danish politics. As an ex-culture minister he was tarred by conflict of interest accusations leading to him to voluntarily step down as minister in 2012. He was later cleared of wrongdoing but the ridicule in the media stuck. His re-emergence in Danish politics is no longer trivial. His party has struck a match on a sentiment he claims is not European but international.

"What we see across Europe is a growing divide between politicians and their electorate. We are trying to bridge that divide and move from a representative democracy to a far more involving democracy. You see the same in the Scottish Referendum, in Syriza, in Podemos, in a way in Bernie Sanders and, of course, in Jeremy Corbyn".

In tandem with the rise of populist parties in Europe, they've capitalised on a discontent with mainstream politics, perceived spin and sound bite. In the last elections, the Alternative refused to directly persuade the electorate to vote for them, instead encouraging them to vote on their convictions.

“We are critical of the neoliberal doctrine from Thatcher and Reagan and growing inequality," explains Elbæk. "But I believe deeply in human potential and creating a more entrepreneurial, creative society based on progressive values".

The party decides its policies in what they call "political laboratories" where members and non-members are invited to share, hone, and develop policy ideas. The party is in many respects what it says on the tin. Despite flinching away from left and right political categories, they are staunchly pro-environment and pro-immigration.

"A lot of progressives do a lot of good things in the grassroots, but the reality is that few want to go into the big party machines." The Alternative has been a huge grassroots built campaign, attracting exactly those types of voters. It has gained over 6,000 members in its first two years, a remarkable feat as membership across Danish political parties steadily declines.

The party appeals to a desire, more prominent on the left of the Danish electorate, for a straight-talking, green party not overtly party political but reminiscent of conventionally Scandinavian values of tolerance and consensus. It is hawkish about whether socialist-inspired thinking is condusive to modern challenges, but similarly it believes in harnessing public support directly. They are a growing albeit slightly hippy and unconventional vehicle for political expression.

The migrant crisis has exposed chasms in Danish politics. Controversial proposals to advertise anti-refugee adverts, by integration minister Inger Støjberg, have sparked widespread concern. From across politics and from business, there has been a steady reel of expressed concern that Denmark risks creating a perception of intolerance to foreigners.

A private Danish group called People Reaching Out, published adverts in the same four Lebanese newspapers that ran the anti-refugee ads. Crowdfunding over £16,000, they replicated the original ads writing, "sorry for the hostility towards refugees expressed here. From people's to people's we wish to express our compassion and sympathy to anyone fleeing war and despair".

Michala Bendixen, who heads the campaign group, Refugee's Welcome, wrote an op-ed in The Daily Star, one of the Lebanese papers which carried the ad. She stated that, "the adverts give a completely distorted picture of the situation", clarifying that the Danish asylum process was amongst the fastest in Europe.

Støjberg's reforms to immigration and almost 50 per cent cuts to refugee benefits have made her a controversial figure but despite much criticism, topped a recent poll of ministers in the current government that voters felt were doing well. Largely on the back of a hardline position on immigration, the Danish People's Party won 21 per cent of the popular vote in this year's elections. Similarly to many countries across Europe, the migrant crisis has been emotive and polarising. On that divide, the Alternative has been categorical.

"In Denmark there is one thing happening in politics and another in the streets," says Elbæk. "There is a disgraceful lack of empathy from politicians but the reaction from the Danish people has been really touching. Suddenly we were seeing hundreds of refugees on our motorways, and it came as a reality shock to the Danish people. But they responded to it by offering shelter, food, water, and blankets."

Denmark's new government is hardening its position on immigrants and refugees. The split reaction reflects a more polarised terrain. There is a debate about what Denmark's values really are, and whether the migrant crisis betrays or protects them. Within it, the Alternative, partly motley, but with a non-trivial and rising electoral appeal, are an increasingly influential voice.