Almost a quarter of Qantas shareholders have supported calls for the airline to undertake a review of the way it conducts involuntary transfers of asylum seekers on behalf of the Australian government.
For the second year, the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) put forward two resolutions at the Qantas annual general meeting (AGM) on the matter of involuntary transfers.
The resolutions called for the Qantas board to commission a review of the airline group’s policies and processes relating to involuntary transportation, with the result of the review to be made public.
While both resolutions did not pass, some 23.56 per cent voted in favour of the review, according to figures Qantas posted to the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) following Friday’s AGM in Adelaide.
This represented an increase from 2018, when a similar resolution put forward by the ACCR garnered 6.43 per cent support.
What an incredible surprise. @AustCCR’s shareholder resolution calling on @qantas to conduct a human rights review re involuntary transfers just received >23%. Australian corporate history has just been made — highest vote on a human rights resolution, ever pic.twitter.com/NdPWcWqPlV
— Brynn O'Brien (@brynnobrien) October 25, 2019
ACCR human rights director Dhakshayini Sooriyakumaran told the AGM the global airline industry had taken “significant strides forward in taking a leadership position on this issue”, noting United Kingdom-based Virgin Atlantic had ceased all involuntary deportation activity on its network.
Further, Sooriyakumaran noted a number of United States carriers had a policy of not separating families at the border.
“Today, we are simply calling for the company to fulfil its commitment which it has voluntary made, as stated in the opening statements, under the UN guiding principles on business and human rights,” Sooriyakumaran told shareholders at the company’s AGM in Adelaide on Friday.
“What has been established is that the domestic refugee system is fraught. Evidence clearly points to risks of human rights abuses and non-compliance with international law.
“The truth is that we as shareholders should have a heightened vigilance in the current risk context as the government is outsourcing this risk and therefore the consequences of this risk to service providers.
“And in all honesty my concern is that my fellow shareholders have not been provided with adequate information to meaningfully vote on this resolution.”
In the Notice of Meeting for Friday’s AGM in Adelaide, Qantas directors recommended shareholders vote against the proposed resolutions, arguing they were not in the their best interests and that the review was unwarranted.
“The legislative, policy and procedural settings of Australia’s immigration policy are complex, and your board respects that they generate differing views in the community,” the Notice of Meeting said.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said there was nothing to be done that would satisfy the ACCR’s concerns.
“I don’t think there is anything that we could do in this space except declare that we are not carrying people in custody generally, which would cause other risks,” Joyce said.
“Even if this resolution is passed and these resolutions have passed, you will not stop there. It will keep on going. We can’t deliver on what you expect us to deliver and we believe we are meeting the guidelines under the UN guiding principles.”
Joyce said there were many reasons for transporting asylum seekers in Australia.
“There are people that are being deported for visa overstays, there are people that are being extradited,” Joyce said.
“There are people that are being moved for medical reasons, there are people that are being moved because of overcrowding of various centres.
“There are people being moved for reasons that everybody in the ACCR said they regard as being legitimate.
“The dilemma you get into – and we’ve done the risk assessment on ourselves and we do risk assessment very well on a whole range of other items – we did it on this one and the risk that we have of actually stopping any transportation here creates other risks for the organisation.
“Is Qantas ever going to be in a position to have more information than the government or the courts do on each of these individual cases and have a judgement call? We won’t. We can’t.”
The Australian Shareholders’ Association said it did not support the resolution, arguing it went beyond what shareholders should be able to seek of the board.
“I think it is absolutely illogical to be able to direct the board formally and also require directors exercise independence of mind,” the ASAs Bob Richie told the AGM.
“You can’t have both.”
While the airlines has been vocal on some social issues, such as recognising indigenous Australians in the constitution, gender diversity and marriage equality, Qantas chairman Richard Goyder said those positions did not mean it had to voice an opinion on the question of the involuntary transportation of asylum seekers.
“We are pleased to be part of a broader conversation on social and economic issues but it’s absurd to suggest that because a company speaks up on some issues, it is therefore duty-bound to speak up on all issues,” Goyder said.