Order of Australia: Same-sex marriage support pays off for Qantas, Joyce says

For Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, speaking up on marriage equality is personal. But the airline's public support of same-sex marriage has been good for business, too, he says  – and now has earned him the highest civilian honour in the country.

As part of the Queen's Birthday honours appointments, the 50-year old airline executive has been made a companion in the General Division of the Order of Australia.

He was awarded the honour for his "eminent service to the aviation transport industry, to the development of the national and international tourism sectors, to gender equity, inclusion and diversity, and to the community, particularly as a supporter of Indigenous education".

Joyce, who moved to Australia from Ireland in 1996 and became an Australian citizen in 2003, said he was "truly honoured by this award, which also recognises the work of thousands of people who make Qantas an institution that Australians can rightly be proud of".

It's a far cry from just three years ago, when Joyce was arguably the nation's most controversial CEO as Australia's national carrier was knocked about in financial turbulence. His high-stakes strategy to slash thousands of jobs and his (unsuccessful) calls on the government for financial assistance earned him the ire of unions and widespread criticism.

Fast forward to today, Qantas' share price has risen by almost 60 per cent since the beginning of the year, reaching a decade-high as Joyce puts the finishing touches on the airline's three-year cost-cutting drive to save $2 billion and is getting kudos from investors for the turnaround.

But it's been Joyce's move to become the corporate face for same-sex marriage that has earned him the respect of the wider community and helped prompt the Queen's Birthday accolades. 

Talking at the sidelines of an airline conference in Cancun, Mexico, last week, the openly gay businessman argued that the company's public support of marriage equality "is paying dividends in our reputation and we're pretty proud of how strong our reputation is".

"Qantas is quite active as we know, you can see it in the video of me getting a pie in the face for it," he said, referring to an incident last month where a protester at a business event in Perth shoved a lemon meringue pie in his face.

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Speaking out publicly in the heated debate over marriage equality has made the airline chief a target of traditional family model fundamentalists such as the infamous pie-thrower, since charged with assault, and former tennis great Margaret Court, who announced her boycott of Qantas because of its advocacy of same-sex marriage.

But it makes sense not just from a social and moral, but also from a business point of view, he argues. 

While the public's trust in corporations had diminished and big business was "on the nose a bit", Qantas' customer research showed the airline now had the strongest reputation and trust scores on record, Joyce said in Cancun.

"It's one of the reasons why we're very active in corporate social responsibility – people demand that of a business now and if you're not active in social issues I think your brand does take a hit." 

Talking after the pie attack, Joyce said he felt "reinvigorated" and vowed to step up his campaign and "express my views even more strongly".

The Queen's Birthday honour should give him further encouragement to speak out on social issues from gender equality and indigenous education – Joyce is a founding member of the Male Champions of Change initiative and ambassador of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation – to immigration.

"Aviation can be such a force for good because it's ultimately about connecting people, and that encourages a diversity of ideas that makes Australia the kind of place it is today," he said on receiving the award.

"The notion of a 'fair go' has to be one of the most important Australian values, and it's been a big driver behind my work promoting equality. We're lucky to live in a very accepting, open society and we need to keep championing the need for everyone to share in the same opportunities."

Australia, being a "nation of immigrants", was a meritocracy where talent and hard work were rewarded, Joyce told Fairfax Media.

"It doesn't matter where you're from, you have the same opportunity to succeed. People are judged on ability, which is how it should be."

This article Order of Australia: Same-sex marriage support pays off for Qantas, Joyce says was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

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