PM wants Qantas to remain a ‘successful Australian icon’

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But Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce says removing foreign ownership restrictions on the airline in parliament would not be “realistically achievable”.

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“We don’t think it is realistically achievable in the current parliament,” he said in a statement to staff this morning.

“And the process would be prolonged, during which time Virgin Australia would be free to continue its anti-competitive strategy aimed at crippling Qantas. We simply do not have the time.”

Mr Joyce said Qantas needs more government support to reflect its status as the country’s national carrier. He said compared to other countries, Qantas receives no government concessions and no preferred access to Australian airportss.

“There are a range of policy measures that the government could consider in order to provide a more level playing field for the aviation sector in Australia.

“Qantas looks forward to discussions with the government about potential steps to level the playing field and support the national carrier.”

Earlier today, Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey described foreign ownership rules applied to Qantas more than two decades ago as “regulatory handcuffs”.

The treasurer wants a national debate on whether Australian investors should retain majority ownership of the flying kangaroo, arguing it could restrict the listed carrier’s growth in the long run.

“If Australians want to place regulatory handcuffs on Qantas then we need to accept that that will come at a cost,” Mr Hockey told reporters in Sydney on Thursday.

“Frankly, it’s not something that I am willingly prepared to do.”

Mr Hockey first made his views known about the 49 per cent foreign ownership cap at a forum in Sydney on Wednesday, prompting a more than three per cent jump in Qantas’ shares on Thursday.

As at March, foreign investment in Qantas, which has a market value of $2.6 billion, was 39.8 per cent. The majority of this share is held by two US investment groups.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said Labor believes Qantas should stay in Australian hands.

“I believe the national carrier is an important part of Australia’s national security, it’s an important part of Australia’s independence,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Mr Shorten described Mr Hockey’s elevation of the issue as a “thought-bubble”, saying such issues should be discussed in the parliament.

“I would say to the treasurer these are important matters, they are also market sensitive matters,” he added.

However, Mr Hockey said the former Labor government was fully aware of the challenges facing Qantas in a changing and increasingly competitive airline market, but didn’t do anything about it.

“Bill Shorten is more interested in crisis management than crisis aversion,” Mr Hockey said.

“We don’t want to have to come back to deal with this in 12 months or 18 months.”

Independent senator Nick Xenophon is wary of any relaxation of the foreign ownership rule, saying this could make Qantas vulnerable to a private equity or foreign takeover.

“My fear is the Qantas we know today will just become a shadow of itself,” he said.

Labor transport spokesman Anthony Albanese said Qantas made important contributions both domestically and overseas.

“Whenever national governments have needed assistance, Qantas has been there,” he told ABC radio.

The Australian and International Pilots Association (AIPA) has also called for the Qantas Sale Act to be changed.

“We are very satisfied to see the treasurer’s comments,” AIPA President Nathan Safe said.

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