I don’t live in Australia anymore, but it wasn’t that long ago that I did. I built a decent proportion of my Twitter community there, and I still sometimes write for Australian climate and energy publications. The majority of my friends and family live there.
So it was nearly impossible to avoid the outbreak of feels that streamed across social media when Australia’s biggest airline, Qantas, commissioned a very slick new advertisement urging people to get vaccinated.
Qantas’ campaign “was a collaborative effort between creative agency Brand + Story and Qantas’ in-house content production team”, and is blatantly aimed at pre-injecting aggressive marketing and incentives to get people back onto aircraft, after one and half years of an airline industry completely decimated by COVID19 lockdowns and border closures.
The reactions to the video were emotional. So many people were really affected by it, made weepy and sometimes compelled to post photos of their tears. But it only made me angry, because it drew together some deep and serious systemic problems into a single, glossy, ethnically diverse 90 seconds.
Qantas want to make that other crisis worse
The COVID19 pandemic has not been particularly good for Qantas. They’ve done jumping jacks to keep themselves fit for the return to flight, running ridiculous ‘flights to nowhere’ to look at the Great Barrier Reef and the ‘supermoon’. But the normal operation of their business means an abnormal shift in the planet’s atmosphere.
So many people instinctively recognised how corrupt and sinister the Australian government’s gas-fired recovery was, but this jet-fuelled recovery seems to have gone entirely uncriticised.
If we include the footprint from the company’s international flights (which they don’t report to the regulator, but disclose on their website), Qantas had the 8th highest corporate emissions of all companies in Australia. That’s worse than Alcoa, Woodside, Glencore, Santos, Inpex, BHP, ExxonMobil, Peabody, Woolworths, Virgin Australia and Shell, for the 2018-19 financial year.
Qantas is up there with the fossil fuel burning and extracting big dogs – the multinationals, the ultra-rich, the gas-fired recoverees, the election-deciding revolving-door kingmakers.
Qantas aren’t alone. Australia’s worst emitters have suddenly become extremely concerned about public health, when faced with the prospect of accelerated vaccination.
“Fuel retailer Ampol has described rolling lockdowns as unsustainable and urged states to start opening up once Covid vaccination levels hit 70 per cent”, wrote The Australian, yesterday. “I think increasingly people are seeing that the lockdowns are not sustainable. In fact, there are a range of impacts on people healthwise and economically that result from lockdowns”, said its boss, Matt Halliday. Isn’t that sweet? They’re so worried about health impacts.
Like Woodside & BHP, or Santos & Oil Search, Ampol is scrambling to gobble up other fuel companies to shore up its position for a roaring post-pandemic rise in fossil fuel use.
The biggest fossil fuel players are all over this pro-vaccination push. British Petroleum (BP), who are partnering with Qantas in their pro-vaccination competition, might give you $3,650 AUD worth of free petroleum to burn in your combustion engine if you enter the Qantas vaccination prize draw. Wow, thank you British Petroleum!
All of these companies – Qantas included – have declared some form of intention to reach ‘net zero by 2050’ or similar. All use some variant of tricks to ensure that those declarations have no impact on their business operations. And all of them are cheered by the prospect of the end of COVID19, because it flings them out of the COVID dip and back to “normality”.
Qantas care a lot about advertising. They spend money on it. That’s why people are crying at a Qantas ad, but not at a BP ad. They don’t want anyone dwelling too deep about whether they actually need to take a flight. Hence: a special reward if you fly frequently. And hence, very expensive advertising campaigns that weaponise the emotional trauma of the pandemic for their direct benefit. Despite the fact that the more they benefit, the worst the health impacts of climate change are.
What should they be doing? For starters, all airlines need to stop trying to manufacture demand for their product through advertising, competitions and incentives. They need to stop growing.
A recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) modelled one pathway to net zero by 2050 in the world’s energy sector, which includes airlines, and it suggested international long-haul business and leisure travel must remain at 2019 levels. Regional flights shift to rail, and by 2050, the slow development of hydrogen and biofuel replacements for jet fuel kick in. In short: there is no getting around the fact that aviation needs to stop aggressively trying to make its bigger, if we achieve climate goals.
Qantas do not like this vision. Though they claim they’ll cap emissions at 2019 levels, they’ll do so mainly by purchasing carbon offsets as their emissions grow. As I’ve explained elsewhere, this doesn’t count as actual emissions reductions. They also promise to use ‘alternative fuels’ in their planes. This is another classic ruse: the empty promise itself is the goal, not the technology. The International Air Transport Association’s goals demonstrate this very nicely:
Greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution from normal business operation of high emitters will significantly worsen if their dreams of growth and expansion are realised. Qantas, Ampol, and Australia’s other fossil fuel companies have not suddenly become titans of public health. It should be a moment of horror that one of Australia’s worst emitters is doing a far better job of encouraging vaccination than the government. What a grim trade-off: play your part in ending one crisis and we’ll gently usher you into worsening another.
Fortress Australia doesn’t want the bridge lowered yet
At the very top of Qantas’ vaccination rewards page:
“Getting vaccinated is an important step that every Australian can take to bring us that little bit closer to life as we knew it*“
What’s the little asterisk all about? “International travel is subject to Australian government travel restrictions”. Entry and exit has been wound down to near-nil because the government decided to wind it down.
So many people have been stuck outside of Australia for a long time. They’ve been the most directly impacted by the border closures; displaced and in many cases forced into precarious positions in countries they never planned to stay in.
The ad has been met with intense derision and anger by ‘stranded aussies’. “If it wasn’t for Qatar and Singapore Airlines Australia would have been cut off from the rest of the world”, said one member of a big international group. “There are a lot of Australians that do not want us back. That could sway the vote. Assisting us could be perceived as inviting Covid”, wrote another. They are absolutely correct.
Australia has strict caps on the number of people who can arrive into the country, and only a tiny smattering of government-funded ‘repatriation flights’, meaning those who need to get back home to, say, be with a dying or sick relative, pay well into the tens of thousands of Australian dollars to do so. Those booking economy-class seats tend to be frequently cancelled, and only those with business or first class can have any confidence their flight will go ahead. During the outbreak of the Delta variant in India, Australia’s government introduced a punishment of five years in jail for any Australian citizen caught trying to return home from India. The ‘Border Force’, those charged with making decisions about exceptions to this rule, were found to be consistently granting exceptions more to white countries than to non-white countries.
Recently, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison tightened those caps, which resulted in airlines like Qantas massively inflating their already-high prices, in some cases by several orders of magnitude higher than what they already were.
Anyone familiar with the past several decades of Australian border control history won’t be surprised to learn that strict border closures are very, very popular among Australians.
In a February 2021 Essential poll, 71% of respondents agreed with the statement, “We should keep our borders closed until the pandemic is under control globally”. 73%: the number of people saying Australia’s borders should remain closed until mid-2022. 79%: the number of people responding to an ABC survey who say borders should be shut until “the pandemic is under control globally”. That’s at least 2023, if not longer.
Most Australians do not want us to come back; at least not until COVID19 is eradicated in the latter half of this decade.
Border closures are not a partisan issue. There is strong agreement. Former opposition leader Bill Shorten, for instance, welcomed the ban on travellers specifically from India (despite incoming cases from the UK’s previous wave being higher). Queensland’s Labor government blew some loud dog whistles about “non Australians” bringing disease to their lands. Victoria’s Labor Premier Daniel Andrews pleaded, ‘lock them out, don’t lock us down’.
I don’t remember white middle class professionals posting photos of their tear-soaked faces when it was revealed only a couple of weeks ago that 50 ‘stranded Australians’ have been killed by COVID19 overseas. Three of them died during the impossibly slow process of trying to return home, but many others had surely tried and given up. Quiet stories of mums and dads and brothers and sisters who died thinking only about how the home they thought they had decided to banish them instead of building a few well ventilated quarantine facilities.
Emissions went down, sure. And hey, the virus was held off for at least some time. But was it fair, or sustainable? No. It was cruel, and cold. No tears? I didn’t think so.
Australia pulled up the bridges, but failed to keep COVID19 out of the country. Most of the population is now in an extremely strict lockdown – one that seems to be having a much deeper and nastier effect on the health – physical and mental – of so many Australians, compared to previous waves.
Qantas paid good money to capitalise on the ground-down psychic state of a country that just lost everything it gained by closing its borders to the world. Qantas’ ad agency outperforms the government in understanding remorse, loss and hope. But because it’s a fucking plane company, it uses that power to its own benefit. Do they care about resolving crises and protecting our health? No: they do not.
It felt gross, to see so many expressions of emotional connection with blatant disaster capitalism, after a year and a half of broad public support for cruel border policies and an aversion to looking too closely at what that wrought. The sappy little advert is a shared junction between two intersecting crises, and it stands as a tall, proud monument to shocking and deadly failures to deal humanely and rapidly with both. No tears from me, folks. Only anger.
Update 24/08/2021: Changed emissions data to FY19, from FY20, to remove the ‘pandemic effect’ on emissions data