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Opinion: ‘Dialogue deflates the drumbeats of conflict’ — What we can learn from an Australian airline CEO

Private support for international relations boosts global communication

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An airplane takes flight from Australia with the Qantas logo and name on it. The TSA list of prohibited and allowed items has a few strange entries.

A Qantas Airlines plane takes off. Qantas Airlines is an Australian airline whose former CEO is John Menadue.

Rick Rycroft, Associated Press

In the course of completing research on the economic integration of Australia with Asia, as viewed through the prism of commercial aviation, I had the chance to interview one of the enduring champions of the convergence of the two regions, former CEO of Qantas Airlines (1986-1989), John Menadue. His public service and subsequent advocacy for greater substantive collaboration in the Indo-Pacific offers a model that in some ways aligns with steps Utah has taken to engage with the ascendancy of the region.  

Menadue was born in the state of South Australia, where he subsequently attended university in the capital, Adelaide, before beginning a distinguished career in public service. While at the university, he was matched with Malaysian roommates, a circumstance that forever changed his outlook on his native country.  

After serving in the Gough Whitlam government in the 1960s, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser appointed Menadue ambassador to Japan, a post he carried out with distinction between 1977 and 1980. While there he saw tremendous potential for greater engagement with a country that since 1967 had become Australia’s leading trading partner.  

Perhaps of greatest importance, Menadue served as head of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. It was during that tenure that he made his greatest contribution to the defense of human rights. During the Indo-Chinese refugee crisis in the early 1980s, Menadue helped to relocate up to 250,000 individuals and their families, an accomplishment he considered to be a boon to the idea of Australia as a multicultural nation.  

These encounters with Asia, stretching from East to Southeast Asia, prepared him to transform Qantas Airlines into a more regionally integrated company in the late 1980s. He made Qantas profitable by boosting the number of flights between Australia and Japan from four to over 20 flights per week. He also tried to break Singapore’s stranglehold on traffic between Australia and England by establishing Bangkok as an alternative hub for the airline.  

What makes Menadue’s Asian-oriented career relevant to Utah is what he did to boost Asian language skills at Qantas. He sponsored university scholarships for Australians to study Asian languages. More ambitiously, he established the Qantas Cadetship, wherein a handful of Australian university students were chosen to travel to an Asian country, study the local language and spend time with local families.  

While we often rely on government to promote language skills through investments in public education, Menadue’s creative initiatives added commercial impetus to a foundational element of international relations between any global regions.  

When Menadue’s tenure with Qantas ended (leaving the airline profitable, largely because of the pivot to Asian rather than European routes), he turned to a life of cultural consulting and public policy advocacy for moderation in relations between Asia and the West through his on-line journal, Pearls and Irritations

If Menadue’s efforts in Australia seem far removed from the contemporary context, they reminded me that global engagement begins with clear communication between peoples of differing backgrounds and viewpoints. Utah has been at the forefront of sponsoring immersive language education ever since I moved to the state.  

While the rhetoric between nations in the West and Asia only escalates, it is vital to remember that dialogue deflates the drumbeats of conflict, and, as in the case of Qantas, reveals innovative ways to stimulate economic development with educational initiatives that harness human capital, such as growing languages skills among Utah’s youth.  

Another point that might be considered is the avenue through which the private sector, including Utah’s leading businesses, might support educational initiatives that bolster the state’s competitiveness. This need not be confined to financial means. Continued support for intellectual development among employees, including in the field of language acquisition, would highlight the ways in which Utah leads out among the nation’s growth leaders. 

Evan Ward is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses on world history and researches the history of travel and tourism.