After seven extraordinary months, round one of the Qantas takeover deal is over with nothing achieved and lots of lessons learnt. Having invested so much time and money, Airline Partners Australia must be sorely tempted to come straight back with another offer. However, in the cold light of day, this would be a mistake given the damage already inflicted on staff morale and the Qantas brand. Besides, the Howard Government appears especially keen to avoid such a scenario in an election year if the strength of comments by Peter Costello and Mark Vaile yesterday is any guide. The waters have clearly been poisoned to such a degree that board approval at $5.45 now appears highly unlikely. All it would take is a quiet comment from the PM to Qantas director James Packer, who in turn could have a quiet word in the ear of his Macquarie Bank mate Nicholas Moore, and the APA tent would be folded. This deal can’t be done without the “Australian component” comprising Macquarie Bank, which is actually 30% foreign owned, and the Allco twins. The Qantas board has clearly had enough of the reputational routing and David Coe, the man who controls Allco Finance Group, would greatly fear upsetting a board that could take its vast aircraft leasing business elsewhere. Coe and Moore should read the tea leaves and retreat with dignity. The record of private equity in the Australian market is now looking very ordinary. For all the bluff and bluster about Coles, Qantas and Orica, the biggest public company deal they’ve landed was the $450 million privatisation of car parts distributor Repco. Trade sales haven’t been a problem as the $1.8 billion Cleanaway sale and $1.4 billion Myer deal attest, but moving into the public company space is another matter altogether. Flight Centre and Qantas have both failed whilst APN News & Media looks likely to come up short at the shareholder vote in Sydney on 25 May. Attention will now turn to Qantas chair Margaret Jackson who received incoherent support from her old mate Jeff Kennett on Inside Business last night. The former Victorian Premier claimed that $5.45 was 60% more than Qantas shares had ever traded. Err, they cracked $5 way back in 1999 shortly before Virgin Blue announced its entry into the Australian market. Jackson’s attack on her shareholders’ mental capacities and admitted “devastation” if the bid failed will not be forgotten quickly. And she was the chairman who kept board solidarity behind a bid that became patently inadequate. Those pictures of Jackson cuddling CEO Geoff Dixon and APA “spokesman” Bob Mansfield at the bid announcement sit awkwardly with the appropriate role of an independent chairman representing public shareholders. There’s also a big lesson in the debacle over the weekend about corporate voting. This 19th century system needs a complete overhaul and some independent oversight. There are five discreet players in the voting chain, anachronistic manual elements, huge scope for double counting and inappropriate independent oversight. The politicians wouldn’t stand for it in their own elections so it’s time for the Australian Electoral Commissions to step forward. At the very least we should have a senate inquiry into the issue that also explores the reasons why no-one did anything about Qantas being clearly illegally foreign-controlled for a few months during the bid.
Airline Partners should walk away for good
After seven extraordinary months, round one of the Qantas takeover deal is over with nothing achieved and lots of lessons learnt.