Australians are fond of believing that our country is comparatively classless.
Granted, most of us are acutely aware of our society’s structural and persistent inequalities of wealth and power – that is, class – did not miraculously appear with the onset of the cost of living crisis.
We like to think social class is something which happens elsewhere, most notably Britain. Former prime minister John Howard mocked the idea that class defined Australian life, but without irony made much of his affinity with “working-class battlers”.
The late historian John Hirst memorably termed this Australia’s “egalitarianism of manners”, dating its genesis back to the colonial era, and regarding it as a force for good in our national life. We are, or like to think of ourselves as, social equals. Think mateship, our predilection for greeting strangers and bosses with “G’day mate”, sitting in the front seat of a cab, sardonic humour, or the national pastime of giving our PMs nicknames.
Which brings us to Qantas’s modern mateship system – the Chairman’s Club – and its, ahem, soft-power diplomacy. I don’t propose to pore over the entrails of the long-running saga that is our national carrier, but surely, it’s time to rethink the probity of Qantas doling out free Chairman’s Club memberships to politicians of all stripes (and Virgin’s similar invite-only Beyond Lounges).
If you’re a pollie keen to keep a finger on the nation’s pulse, I can’t think of an institution more out of touch with 99.99 per cent of Aussies than the Chairman’s Club. This should be Politics 101, especially for Labor MPs.
Whether arguments for such memberships are valid or not isn’t really the point; it’s the perception they cast, and the implications attached with being part of an elite club. It is, as Dennis Denuto from The Castlewould say, the vibe.
How else to respond to the results of Tuesday’s Resolve survey, reported in this masthead, which revealed that a clear majority of Australians – 70 per cent – believe it is unacceptable for our pollies to accept free Chairman’s Club memberships.
MPs cannot have their Chairman’s Lounge cake and eat it too. It is surprising that it has taken so long for such practices to produce the sort of abject public humiliation suffered by Nationals MP and federal opposition trade and tourism spokesman Kevin Hogan on Monday’s episode of ABC’s Q+A. Hogan boasted of “trying not to” fly with Qantas as a “statement” against the airline’s misconduct, but moments later revealed that he retained his Chairman’s Lounge membership.
Another Teal MP, Allegra Spender, and independent MP Andrew Wilkie on Tuesday bravely put their memberships on the line, saying Qantas was welcome to refuse them entry to the lounge. Why not just hand it back?
Meanwhile, teal independent Kylea Tink has pledged that, “A free drink and some stale peanuts will not stop me from calling them out when the behaviour is wrong.” In other words, she’ll be right, mate!
It’s not just a problem for pollies or, allegedly, their offspring. On Wednesday, the High Court revealed that every current judge is a Chairman’s member. This revelation, somewhat inconveniently for the High Court, came at the very time its learned associates handed down their judgment confirming the illegality of Qantas’s sacking of 1700 baggage handlers at the height of the pandemic.
During the recent Senate hearing which applied the blowtorch to former Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, only two of seven senators on the committee were not Chairman’s Club members. “I’m not going to comment on Chairman’s Club membership,” Joyce protested under questioning. “I’ve got privacy issues where we will not comment on who’s in, who’s been offered it, or why they’re there.” As it happened, these were the least of Joyce’s issues.
In politics, as in business, perception is everything. If the sensitivities of being a member of an elite club amid falling living standards isn’t bad enough, what about the real or perceived conflict of interest that comes with these invite-only memberships? How does a legislator make and unmake laws which govern our aviation sector when one receives hospitality from interested stakeholders?
For the High Court judges, as with our politicians, it’s not their objectivity per se, but the issue of perception and the erosion of public trust that comes with these kinds of perks.
That’s why, compelled or voluntarily, it’s time to end the free suck of the Chairman’s Lounge membership bottle … mate.