7 Mar 2006

Death penalty's unlikely victim

The Standard

Globalization throws up some odd linkages. Take, for instance, the connection between these two events: a young man is executed by hanging in Changi Prison after being convicted of drug trafficking; a few hours later, an international jet lifts off from Sydney airport chock- full of passengers on a lucrative daily flight to Los Angeles.
James Rose

Monday, March 06, 2006

What's the link? Well, no one's admitting it, but a line can be traced between the execution of Australian citizen Nguyen Tuong Van - known in Australia as Van Nguyen - on December 2 last year, and the decision by the Australian government last week to thwart Singapore Airlines' attempts to get access to the Sydney-LA route.

It looks like Singapore Airlines has become another, possibly innocent, victim of the death penalty.

The major clue to this is the fairly lame reasoning offered by Australian Transport Minister Warren Truss in announcing the decision to cut SIA from access to the trans-Pacific route.

The minister explained that he wanted to give locally owned, low-cost operator Virgin Blue time to establish itself on the route.

He admitted this was some years away, but he argued Virgin's cost cutting credentials will provide better competition to Qantas and United, the only two to have access to the Pacific run.

Even a cursory glance over the issue suggests there is more to it than this.

The minister, a member of the pro- rural National Party, which is in a coalition government with the ruling Liberals, is an experienced cabinet player, having been on the front bench since 1997. He would have been well aware of the politics of his decision.

When Nguyen was put on death row in March 2004, few Australians raised an eyebrow.

However, as the hanging loomed and the Australian media ramped up its coverage, the issue captured the public's attention.

During October, November and into December, it was arguably the lead story in the Australian media.

The issue split the country down the middle. In November, 2004 a poll recorded that 47 percent of Australian agreed with the execution, while 46 percent disagreed. Australia ceased executions in 1973, with the last in 1967.

As the execution loomed, those numbers seemed to move further away from supporting the death penalty for Nguyen. Twelfth-hour entreaties by the Australian government, human rights advocates, lawyers and the man's family were met with what many Australians saw to be intransigence bordering on inhumanity by the Singaporean government. No leeway, no clemency was seen to be given.

On its own merit, therefore, the issue is red hot. But there is even more heat being applied.

The Howard government is suffering the indignity of being up to its neck in an inquiry into the AWB oil- for-food scandal.

The government was pressured to initiate the investigation following claims made in the Volcker report into kickbacks to the regime of Saddam Hussein during the oil-for-food program run by the United Nations to offset damage being done by sanctions following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s.

AWB - the former government- run wheat exporting authority which was deregulated in 1999 - was named in the report as being the largest payer of off-record payments to Saddam's cronies of all the 2600 individuals and organizations named, to secure access to Iraq's massive wheat market.

So, in the context of the SIA decision, the government has to ensure it is not entering into agreements with companies and regimes which are seen, rightly or wrongly, to be representing values somehow counter to the mainstream views of the average Australian. The politics would be too pointed.

The purchase of a majority interest in major Australian telecommunications company C&W Optus by Singtel in 2001 was met with outcry by many lobby groups and advocates.

However, the same government passed the sale, despite the fact that Optus holds the license for some 70 percent of the Australian defense force's satellite communications infrastructure.

That decision seemed a lot more weighty and carried heavier implications. Now, clearly, the stakes are higher and the politics more advanced.

Assuming the link between politics and business has been made then, notwithstanding denials from the Australian government, the question is raised: is this appropriate?

One way of looking at this is to note that it happens all the time. Australia is attempting to rescue its trade relations with post-Saddam Iraq, which has refused to deal with AWB until the inquiry is complete and appropriate measures taken. It is clearly a linking of moral foundations underlying the political superstructure and the myriad exigencies of business.

But, at a deeper level, even the widespread presence of a practice does not suggest its appropriateness. One way of looking into this further is as an extension of the stakeholder concept.

This orbits a belief in the fact that all organizations have an impact on a number of often disparate social environments and individuals. The stakeholder ideal is that large organizations are open to dialogue with such groups to ensure their impact on them, and to ensure the counter impact issue groups can have on organizations is minimized.

Under this ideal, the Australian government's decision is absolutely correct as it has deduced that broadly defined Australian values may be crossed by the entry into the local market of an organization that a substantial number of Australians consider to be owned by a demonstrably immoral government.

It has therefore protected the interests of its stakeholders and upheld the moral constitution the government is obliged to maintain.

While many Australians might be duly dubious about the Australian government's balance between protecting stakeholder interests and the bald realities of politics - past actions suggest the latter motivation has held sway - many Australians would no doubt agree with the government's apparent view that Australia just can't do new deals with Singapore in the current context.

Business has tried for centuries to remain separate from considerations of morality and values. For much of this time, it has managed do to so.

But today's world is more integrated, aware, and mobilized. Like it or not, that disconnect has a limited future. If the Singapore government is not swayed by the ethical arguments surrounding the death penalty, then perhaps the potential loss of business opportunities in the future might focus the minds of legislators to rid themselves of what many see as an ugly and ill- conceived policy, out of place in an advanced society.

It would be well-advised to remember that the death penalty creates many victims, some of them unwitting.

James Rose is an Australia-based business commentator specializing in corporate responsibility issues in Asia

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