Palpable incredulity in the cockpit pulpit

The Chairman of Qantas Ltd, Mr Leigh Clifford, wrote a letter to the Australian newspaper in response to criticism from a minister of the cloth that he, Mr Clifford, and other business leaders were publicly advocating changing the definition of marriage. The existence of such criticism seemed to surprise him. Mr Clifford’s incredulity was palpable. He said “Apparently, companies have no business expressing a view on social issues” and “By this logic, should companies scrap all of their corporate social responsibility programs?” (An image of Rik Mayall in The Young Ones delivering those lines with exaggerated irony just floated across my mind.) It probably was an attempt by Mr Clifford to use irony to dismiss his critics, although I doubt it worked.

When Mr Clifford says that companies can express views, when he refers to a corporate social responsibility program, what is the ‘company’ or the ‘corporation’? It is not a person. It is not a separate physical or spiritual being. It does not have views, morals, ethics or obligations. Instead, it is merely a useful legal construct that allows people to work co-operatively together in an efficient manner to put resources to a productive purpose. Corporations don’t have responsibilities, only people do. It was Milton Friedman who said that “The discussions of the ‘social responsibilities of business’ are notable for their analytical looseness and lack of rigor.” Friedman was a straight shooter.

When the chairman of a large public corporation believes the definition of marriage should be changed, he is entitled to advocate that view. His view is no better or worse than anyone else’s view. But when he stamps his view with the authority of his corporate title, it takes on the characteristics of intimidation. He wants to exert undue influence by virtue of his position rather than by the strength of his persuasion. It can become bullying if applied within an organisation.

When I fly with Qantas, what I want from the airline is a plane that flies to schedule, where my baggage turns up promptly at the intended destination, where the staff are efficient and well-presented with a touch of laconic Australian humour, where my knees are not crunched by someone reclining the seat in front of me, the evening meal is tasty and the ticket price is fair. I’m not interested in the views of the Chairman on how to define marriage – I’d rather that he spends time checking out the experience from seat F in row 35 and thinking about how to improve it.