Is the Avalon air show doomed?

The topic of the commercial survival of an air show – even a large one such as Avalon – might at first seem a trivial topic. However, the issues affecting the future of the event say a lot about the relationships between Defence, industry and the media.

14th Mar 2011


Is the Avalon air show doomed?

The topic of the commercial survival of an air show – even a large one such as Avalon – might at first seem a trivial topic. However, the issues affecting the future of the event say a lot about the relationships between Defence, industry and the media.

By all normal measures the air show was a success, with large numbers of visitors, spectacular flying displays and leading edge technology on offer. However, behind the scenes there was a great deal of industry dissatisfaction with the lack of contact that took place with Departmental and uniformed visitors, with several large companies hinting that this Avalon might be their last.

This dissatisfaction has come about because significant numbers of ADF and Departmental personnel refused to visit company chalets in the erroneous belief that this would be contrary to a high-level directive on the topic of hospitality. The email was a generally worded caution sent to staff planning to attend the show to be responsible in their conduct. Inherently there is nothing wrong with such a message, even though it seems unnecessary. There is speculation that the directive had its origins in a relevant Minister’s office.

Despite its innocuous content, the caution had a devastating impact on visitor numbers to company chalets, with many Defence people incorrectly believing the instruction was not to accept any hospitality at all – not even a cup of coffee. The situation was made far worse by the fact that several companies had opted not to have stands in the main part of the show and instead were planning to hold all their briefings in chalets. And the reason for the decision to do it this way? The DMO itself has loudly complained about what it – and it alone – regards as the “excessive” investment of companies at major defence exhibitions. In response to this pressure some participants decided not to have stands showcasing their products, thinking they were doing the right thing. These companies then had to suffer a boycott of their briefings by precisely the people they were trying to reach.

The situation was so bad that some meetings were conducted by furtive groups of industry and Defence staff huddled together on the flight line in between helicopters and aircraft, with not a single cup of coffee in sight.

This nervousness on the part of Defence – possibly shared by their Ministers – might be traced back to an extraordinary report in the Sydney Morning Herald in late December. The normally reputable newspaper breathlessly reported that thanks to Freedom Of Information laws it had discover that over a three year period there were approximately180 cases of Defence officials accepting company invitations to dinners and even tickets to football matches. Given that a single individual accepted half of these offers, it is abundantly clear that there is in fact depressingly little informal interaction between Defence and the private sector.

Why this story was run at all is a mystery, let alone why it appeared on the front page. But the reaction of Defence industry was complete and utter silence – leaving the Department to hang out and dry. Not one single CEO, not one single industry association was prepared to write a letter to the editor explaining that not only are such practices completely normal, they are in fact a highly desirable way of building relationships between the Government and private sectors.

Given that the report went entirely uncontested by Defence industry it created the impression that something is in fact wrong with the occasional dinner or ticket to the footy. Rather than just bleat, this was finally a chance for industry to stand up and publicly defend their relationship with their customer. The failure of anyone to do so shows a remarkable amount of spinelessness.

Politicians are sensitive to what is happening in the media – for obvious reasons of electoral survival. It is also the case that in Australia that some sections of the mainstream media get away with a lot, partly because politicians lack the nerve to stand up to them – a technique pioneered by the right wing of the New South Wales ALP which then spread like a contagion across all parties in all states. Recently a minor talk back radio host had the nerve to upbraid the Prime Minister because she was 10 minutes late for an interview – making it clear in a display of pompous grandiosity that he thought his time was more important than that of the person actually running the country.

To fix the media problem, APDR suggests the following guidelines for show attendance: 1) All parties recognise that the giving and acceptance of reasonable levels of hospitality is a normal activity; 2) To believe that people can be influenced by the acceptance of such hospitality is erroneous; 3) No alcohol will be served during normal business hours; 4) No special catering arrangements will be made for guests; 5) In the interests of transparency all guests will sign a visitor’s book; 6) In the interests of fairness, guests will not stay any longer than 90 minutes with any single company.

These principles should then be defended by Ministers – and especially by industry.


 

APDR at a glance