A Different Voice to Parliament


The polls are showing the Indigenous Voice declining from easy win to likely defeat after naïve acceptance of an onslaught of misinformation and outright lies by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton and the Murdoch media. Meanwhile, the real Voice to Parliament continues quietly unimpeded.

We have had a glimpse of that in the past week. That Voice to Parliament, of course, is the Qantas Chairman’s Lounge. Every Member of Parliament is invited to be a member. The lounges are at Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and – naturally – Canberra Airports.

Formal meetings with Ministers, other Members of Parliament, and top public servants at Parliament House or in departmental offices have to be diarised: who came and what was discussed and decided? But not in the Chairman’s Lounge, where rich, powerful and influential voices can whisper into political ears, particularly in the 24 hours before and after the first and last sitting days of the parliamentary session. Yes, sure, the meetings are all purely coincidental.

Qantas even lays on a few passing celebrities – actors, media stars, sportspeople and the like – just so everyone there knows how important and influential they are.

But everyone else is excluded and rarely see people entering or leaving the unmarked, camouflaged entrances.

Membership is by invitation only, thereby leaving the invitees a little beholden to Qantas. It is clearly a benefit even if it has no assessable monetary value. That is why Members of Parliament have to declare it. That is how we know that so many MPs are members. Qantas will never tell who is or who isn’t a member.

And when aviation policy is being discussed or questioned in Parliament, wouldn’t you think that those MPs who are members of the Chairman’s Voice to Parliament might feel a tiny bit conflicted.

But surely, they would say, a few drinks and meals at an airport would not influence national aviation policy? Not so.

In a 2012 paper, Ulrike Malmendier and Klaus M. Schmidt of the University of Munich wrote: “In a series of experiments, we show that, even without incentive or informational effects, small gifts strongly influence the recipient’s behaviour in favour of the gift giver, in particular when a third party bears the cost. [Hello, Qatar Airways]. Subjects are well aware that the gift is given to influence their behaviour but reciprocate nevertheless.

“A gift triggers an obligation to repay the gift, independently of the intentions of the gift giver and the distributional consequences. The gift seems to create a special bond between the giver and the recipient, in line with a large anthropological literature documenting that gifts create obligations. Similarly, sociologists argue that many forms of social exchange are based on a universal social norm that gifts have to be reciprocated.”

Behavioural economist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman shows how easy it is for humans to make poor decisions. Because there are so many demands on our time, we have to make a lot of decisions quickly, intuitively and emotionally. We make mental shortcuts (“heuristics”) which help us make decisions efficiently.

But, as psychologist Robert Cialdini explains, these lead us into error and unethical conduct. The short-cuts produce predictable and often subconscious reactions – one of them is the need to reciprocate gifts. Reciprocation is a social norm that strongly motivates us to repay what another person has done for us.

Further, a pattern of nice gestures, particularly shared time together – meals, entertainment, travel and the like) are likely to produce a reinforcing “influence” trigger of likeability and friendship. It seems Prime Minister Anthony Albanese could not but help like former Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.

But surely, if the gift is disclosed, that ends the conflict? Not so. Indeed, it makes it worse. Behavioral ethicist Max Bazeman has found that disclosure can make decision-makers freer to act on their instinct to reciprocate. Once the legal obligation to disclose is met they feel free to revert to the urge to reciprocate.

It is so rooted in human behaviour as the right and proper thing to do, that the ethical conflict is just not seen by the people doing it.

One study reported on the University of Texas’s Ethics Unwrapped website cited a study about doctors believing that they were not influenced by pharmaceutical companies’ gifts, despite studies showing to the contrary. One showed that 64 percent of doctors believed gifts from pharmaceutical companies influenced other doctors. But, only 16 percent of doctors thought these affected their own actions.

In short, the human desire to reciprocate is so strong and feels so natural that people do not know they are doing it, let alone that it is unethical – usually to the detriment of third parties.

The bonhomie of the Chairman’s Lounge (and note the sexism in the title) makes it all too easy for Members of Parliament to be influenced by the sort of people who get invited to it – from big business and big government contractors. And they are invariably influenced in a way that short-changes the ordinary voters.

Unfortunately, though, we are not getting to vote on the Chairman’s Lounge Voice to Parliament. The details of who goes there; how much they are paid; what is said; and what is offered will not be decided by the Parliament as with the Indigenous Voice.

The secrecy which favours the rich and powerful will continue.

Given the way of human nature and the impossibility of overcoming the urge to reciprocate, mere disclosure is not enough. The funnelling of the rich, powerful and famous people into the Chairman’s Lounge where they can easily capture the MPs coming and going to Canberra should be stopped.

MPs should simply not accept gifts, disclosed or not. More particularly MPs should not be allowed to be members of the Chairman’s Lounge because, unlike other concrete gifts of chattels which can be paid for, handed back, or given to the nation, this gift is an abstract one: the gift of secret connection, power, influence, and voice.

This secret Chairman’s Lounge Voice and others like it should get a resounding No and MPs should not be allowed near it.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 12 September 2023


Crispin Hull is a former editor of The Canberra Times and regular columnist.


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