The Qantas publicity and lobbying machine is very skilful at enlisting people in its various campaigns.

The Australian Financial Review, the Packer Media empire, Federal Transport Minister John Anderson, not to mention commentators in and around the media and business, have been enlisted in the various campaigns over the past couple of years to attack Virgin Blue, the unions, Singapore Airlines and anyone who takes a view contrary to the prevailing Qantas view of the world.

Currently all stops are out to try and defeat Singapore Airlines’ attempts to gain a share of the lucrative Australia-US route. Domestically Qantas has nothing to worry about. That arch duopolist, Chris Corrigan, is doing his bit to reduce competitive pressures by launching a bid for control of Virgin Blue and neutralise the Virgin Blue management and its CEO, Brett Godfrey.

Now, in the Fairfax Sunday papers today, news of a new tack from Qantas to try and stop Singapore Airlines, with Qantas’ most important policy objective thrown in for good measure as a bonus.

The story fails to recognise what Qantas is on about and its true objective. The airline spent most of 2003 and early 2004 trying to get the Federal Government to relax or lift the limit of 49.9% on foreign shareholdings.

It is the one change that the Qantas board really wants because it claims it could gain much needed flexibility.

Flexibility for what given that Qantas is one of the world’s most profitable and efficient full service airlines, despite being at the bottom of the world and operating a point to point business and not a hub and spoke model with its supposed greater efficiencies.

The hand of Qantas lobbying chief, David Hawes is behind this story and the mention of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, Trade Minister Mark Vaille, Industry Ian Minister Macfarlane and Tourism Minister Fran Bailey.

The clue is in the linking of the worries about not giving Singapore enough access to the Qantas foreign shareholding limit.

The two issues are separate and not linked. Perhaps the quartet of ministers and John Anderson have forgotten this quote from Federal Treasurer Peter Costello last year on this very issue.

“Well, Qantas at the moment, ever since it was privatised from being a Government -owned airline has had a restriction on foreign shareholding. That is, it has to have a majority Australian shareholding. And Qantas wanted that restriction lifted so that it could become a foreign-owned airline. The Government had a look at that yesterday. We discussed it. We didn’t think that the case had been made out. Qantas is an Australian icon, it has always had a majority ownership from Australia. We thought it was right that that continue. And we weren’t convinced that there was an economic case that said Qantas couldn’t be a successful airline while still retaining majority Australian ownership. And that is why we decided not to change things.”

Check out the full interview transcript here.

Quite strong, and seeing the Treasurer is the key minister on these matters, especially the relevant act (as he is on all foreign investment matters) do you think there’d be a change. And would Prime Minister Howard risk trying to stick it up his Treasurer and Deputy on an issue like this when the more important issue of whether to greenlight the Xstrata bid for WMC Resources is around the corner?

Nice try Qantas, Dave Hawes and others. You’ll try anything to limit competition, from anywhere!

Peter Fray

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