Qantas seems unsure as to what it wants the government to do.

Qantas seems unsure as to what it wants the government to do. Photo: Janie Barrett

It's by no means clear what government can or should do for a Qantas, or any corporations iconic or not, in its position. By the end of this week, it seemed that Qantas itself did not really know what it wanted or expected from government either.

It's clear the political game has changed, with Tony Abbott himself, rather than his Treasurer, Joe Hockey, now leading the charge against governments coming to the rescue of businesses in trouble.

This is projected as a virtue in its own right - in the sense of the government's being against business or middle-class welfare. But it is also marketed as part of a complementary policy - the argument that the proper role of government is only to create the circumstances in which businesses generally can flourish. The market should decide; government should not engage in picking winners, tilting playing fields, making special deals, giving special incentives or regulating the market in such a way as to hinder enterprise, initiative, inventiveness and red-blooded competition.

Any critic can point to instances - particularly historic ones - where there are contradictions between what Abbott is saying and doing now, and what he has said or done in the past. Yet the government has been fairly consistent at least since the time a few months ago when, in Abbott's words, it drew a line in the sand and decided to do nothing to further prop up Holden. So far it has maintained discipline on this, even against the pressures during the South Australian election (and to a lesser extent the Tasmanian election) to ''do something'' of a regional pump-priming nature to help the local Liberals win. That polls suggest that the state Labor administrations are past their use-by date may help stiffen their backs. It might be more difficult when it comes, as it probably will sooner or later, to an election in Victoria, where, it appears, the Napthine Coalition government is in serious trouble with voters.

On Qantas in Parliament this week, Labor's line was focused on some crude, even protectionist nationalism, pushing the idea that Qantas epitomises Australianness, and that its proposals threaten ''Australian jobs''. And not, apparently, only the 5000 or so jobs already announced as going in the latest double decimations. Also the very idea that the airline sees itself as Australian, and provides work and opportunities for Australians rather than, say, buying its staff, its maintenance and its services in lower-wage environments abroad.

Qantas has always marketed itself as some sort of Aussie - even (and with its kangaroo logo) as a symbol of Australia itself. Like Holden and Vegemite, perhaps, ignoring for the moment that both of these are the property of companies owned abroad.

Their marketing strikes a chord. In both tone and period it often reminds me of the phrase with which Mick Young's mum sent her 14-year-old into the shearing workforce in about 1950: ''Now remember son: vote Labor, bank Commonwealth [then state-owned]; join the union, and go to Mass on Sunday.''

That Labor is playing with such imagery and nostalgia is not sheer cynicism, though there's plenty of that. It was Labor which privatised Qantas in the first place.

But public fears about Qantas or Holden, or other ''iconic'' companies in trouble are not merely about dilution of ''Australianness.'' Labor is using it to tap into widespread public and personal insecurities about jobs, the state of the economy, the economic stability of local communities and fears that the little guy, even poor little Australia itself, is very vulnerable to shifting economic forces, entirely out of our control.

These are insecurities politicians on both sides of the fence, and on the margins, have manipulated for mostly cynical purposes in recent decades. They now have some life of their own, not necessarily well aligned with the present postures of politicians and parties.

Within those fears and insecurities tend to be beliefs that ''the government ought to do something'', that politicians have let us down and exposed us, and that, at the least, the

state could be doing a good deal more, actively and reactively, to help individuals, communities and regions cope with the changes. Just what, or how, or what effects could be hoped for is never, of course, entirely clear.

Those who argue that government is there only for a business-friendly environment often, unwittingly, make their case less attractive by dilating about the exhilaration of competition and the struggle for survival. Many Australians have no great appetite for life on the edge. They are cautious, conservative and don't like surprises. They worry for their jobs and futures, and are heartily sick of change, constant reorganisation and the challenges and uncertainties of doing business in the modern world.

Yet there are big problems in ransacking the ''Australianness''. Many old institutions, including Qantas, have seriously damaged their brand in recent years, perhaps because of the rip-roaring capitalist jungle in which we now are. Indeed, some of the public insecurity comes from the very way in which once familiar institutions - in business, religion, commerce, culture and recreation - have changed. The past doesn't tug on old affections when old loyalties have not been returned. In many cases, the very process of change has involved repudiation of old tribalisms, affections and mutual respect.

An RSL prostitutes the name and idea of Anzac to a beer company; sporting codes abandon followers and old tribal connections in search of TV loot; church leaders are seen to mismanage abuse allegations and are themselves implicated; union bosses are seen ripping off the money and power vested in them; judges are publicly abused by politicians and the media. Other old and comfy parts of the local landscape disappear to be replaced by disembodied voices saying ''your call is very important to us''. Wells of public appreciation, affection, nostalgia or inclination to give somebody or something the benefit of the doubt are drying up. Consumers may have old affections, but feel spurned - even insulted.

This need not mean that they want politicians to ''punish'' those who have not returned loyalties they have been given.

First, public anxiety about the collapse of institutions includes anxiety about how politicians themselves are changing. To many, they now seem more venal, less empathetic, more generally disconnected from ordinary lives, and, apparently, less effective or able to make any difference. That very few politicians on either side of politics actually do anything much to articulate worthy goals or ideals, or deal much with ideas as opposed to abuse, does not help.

Second, neither public nor politician is consistent about the role and functions of government. We are invited to resent bitterly benefits for others, even the worthy, but hardly ever see that discretions, benefits, tax deductions and so on exercised in our favour are anything other than rights and entitlements - at the very core of what good government is all about. We deplore red tape and unnecessary regulation, but are first in line to demand, in the public interest, protection from competition.

Later this month, the government plans a public relations stunt about red tape, and its supposed plans to reduce the burden of it. Someone should ask Josh Frydenberg, who is co-ordinating the spending of huge sums of public money on the affair, just what he intends to do to abolish all of the regulation that protects pharmacists from competition, say, from supermarkets. Or lawyers from a market in legal services. Or other tightly regulated and protected groups who are not only natural Coalition constituents, but are often triumphed as the quintessential ''small businessmen'' struggling under the burden of red tape.

One somehow fancies that the primary purpose of the exercise is to relieve such would-be ''natural monopolists'' of their duties to the public while leaving the public's apparent duties to them untouched.

The point is that voters are rather more sophisticated in their approach to such things than those who depend on focus groups readily see. Nor are they dumb about social, cultural and economic trends.

Holden had problems manufacturing to a domestic market that was very small in world terms. But it also miscalculated that market, and consumers were abandoning it in droves, just as they had been abandoning Ford. However cosy and comfortable Australians were with the idea of Australian car manufacture, they were increasingly buying imports. Qantas, likewise, has become quite unpopular in the marketplace, often used only through gritted teeth by people with little effective choice.

Its service (and, significantly to people of my size, its seating space) has massively declined. This is something aggravated for most passengers by the boasting of the very superior service provided to politicians, departmental secretaries and captains of industry approved by the Qantas chairman in the Chairman's Lounge, or by accounts of the petty meannesses of operations.

The Qantas board, which, until recently included General Peter Cosgrove, soon to be governor-general, has done little to protect the company's reputation or brand, least of all as words and deeds of the chief executive, Alan Joyce, have seriously damaged it. The airline has long been exporting Australian jobs abroad, modern aircraft do not have the staffing and maintenance needs of older ones, and Qantas, and its cut-price subsidiaries, operate in a very competitive market, with some passengers guided by price alone.

Meanwhile, as such matters are to be left to the market, government is preparing for a major public investment in infrastructure - an airport to deal with future demand near Sydney. Is this fundamentally different to intervening in the airlines market?

No doubt, once completed the airport will be sold, cheaply if history is any guide, with lucrative property development rights, to the private sector. The transactions will be saluted - by prime ministers and leaders of the opposition down - as a triumph of nation-building, infrastructure investment, modern capitalism, and the proper role of government in the marketplace.

Finally, there's an aspect of government in the marketplace that no one much talks about. Government departments are major consumers of goods and services, mostly bought from the private sector. My guess, for example, is that about 30 per cent of all Australian air travel is by politicians and public servants, quite properly in the course of work. The modern trend is to insist that the power of government as a big buyer is not ''abused'' or used to achieve secondary purposes (such as to prop up jobs, regions or industries). But there is no reason in principle why such a big natural player should be so neutral. In certain circumstances any number of rent seekers demand an actively consumerist government, if only to maintain continuity of work, or special favours at election time. Few ideologues, on either side of the debate, seem very active about creating a level playing field on such policy considerations.