graham-turner
Flight Centre founder Graham Turner (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

For some business leaders and lobby groups, the return to lockdown in Melbourne is intolerable. The most prominent is the Australian Industry Group (AIG).

Last week it condemned the Melbourne lockdown, saying “widespread shutdowns is a strategy that can be used just once.” The following day it called for the reopening of the NSW-Victorian border on the basis that the Melbourne lockdown — which it had opposed the previous day — had removed any threat of community transmission of COVID-19 outside Victoria.

The carefully chosen words of last week, though, were replaced by an altogether harsher view articulated by AIG head Innes Willox to The Australian over the weekend.

State premiers, Willox complained, were trying “to outdo, outbid and outrace each other to ­smother any chance of economic recovery” — a couple of days after Queensland had reopened its borders.

“Putting up artificial barriers, closing borders and turning Australians against each other is not going to get us there.”

That coincided with the head of Flight Centre, Graham “Skroo” Turner calling for Australia to “learn to live with the virus”, which would get “society and business back to a reasonable level of normality”.

After dismissing herd immunity, and the tens of thousands of deaths that would require, as “not a great option”, Turner, or his ghost-writer, suggested that Australia had embraced a “model of states, territories or governments who have no COVID-19 objectives or clear science and data-based strategies”.

Despite complaining about this alleged lack of clear objectives and strategies, it wasn’t clear what Turner’s “living with the virus” meant beyond “containment by proven health and hygiene practices, widespread testing and tracing but without hard lockdown.” Unsurprisingly for the head of a travel company, Turner wants international borders and tourism reopened as soon as possible. The Australian backed Turner in an editorial.

Turner’s “strategy” would amount to letting the virus rip, with contact tracers — let alone hospitals — rapidly overwhelmed. That’s exactly the scenario that is unfolding in places like Florida and Texas right now. Funnily enough, that’s not very good for consumer sentiment, even without hard lockdowns.

At least “Skroo” is being consistent. While the AIG agrees lockdown can be tried once, Turner thinks they should never have been tried at all. In March, he told The Australian “anyone with any brains should not be worried about the virus… people should be worried about the quarantine. The disease is not a problem.” And “Skroo” always opposed border closure, saying : “the ‘experts’ said right from the start restricting travel is not working.”

He also attacked Scott Morrison over an early decision to ban gatherings of over 500 people. “It is so ridiculous. It’s hard to believe someone with a degree of intelligence came up with something like that.”

That was while Flight Centre was charging customers $300 to cancel travel and taking three months to provide refunds — before it backed off under threat of Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) litigation and a class action.

Not that that’s Flight Centre’s only run-in with the competition regulator. After a bitterly fought legal battle that reached the High Court, in 2018 the company was forced to pay $12.5 million in fines by the ACCC over price-fixing. Last year the ACCC pinged it another quarter-million for misleading advertising. Flight Centre has also been accused of wage theft, forcing staff to engage in mark-ups and a “cult-like” culture.

Why The Australian thinks Turner is a credible commentator on the pandemic, even by its own abysmal op-ed standards, is a mystery.

Willox admittedly pays some lip service to the idea of community solidarity, although how he thinks unleashing the virus won’t turn Australians against each other isn’t clear either. How eager will people over 40 be to go to work, socialise or shop with a virus spreading through the community?

The logic of Willox and Turner’s argument is that outbreaks should be allowed to spread unchecked by either lockdown or border closures, chased by a few overworked contact tracers urging “proven health and hygiene practices”. International travel would again be allowed, presumably without the quarantine Turner dislikes so much, opening Australia to new sources of infection.

How compliant will Melburnians be with the new lockdown? So far, there seems to be a higher degree of non-compliance, prompting yet more scolding from the media and politicians, particularly of young people. There’s a similar tone in Sydney, with footage of parties and pub queues being shared on social and mainstream media alike, to the condemnation of all.

But when Willox and Turner urge policies that would be dramatically more dangerous than some kids sharing KFC, they get an editorial from the nation’s most powerful media company backing them, not condemnation.

It’s hard to maintain an “all in this together” feeling when some senior business figures and a major media company want a world in which we “learn to live” with a deadly virus.

Peter Fray

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