Australian lawmakers vote to relax Qantas rules

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CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — The Australian government took a step toward relaxing foreign ownership restrictions on Qantas Airways on Thursday by passing legislation through parliament's lower house.

But the opposition Labor Party and Greens party plan to use their majority in the Senate to keep the national carrier in Australian ownership.

Cabinet ministers decided Monday to allow more foreign ownership of Australia's largest airline to help it raise capital. Qantas last week posted a first-half loss of 235 million Australian dollars ($211 million) and announced plans to cut 5,000 jobs in a bid to slash AU$2 billion in costs.

The conservative ruling coalition's dominance of the lower chamber of Parliament ensured the legislation that would repeal limits on foreign stakes in Qantas was passed. The bill passed 83 votes to 53.

"The purpose of the bill is to remove the regulatory handcuffs that apply to Qantas but to no other Australian-based airline," Transport Minister Warren Truss said when introducing the legislation.

Foreign airlines are currently barred from holding more than 35 percent of Qantas and any single foreign investor cannot hold a stake bigger than 25 percent stake. The legislation also mandates 51 percent Australian ownership.

Opposition and Greens lawmakers argue that the loss of Australian ownership of Qantas would cost Australian jobs.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten described government lawmakers as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys of Australian jobs," borrowing a line from "The Simpsons" animated television series.

It is not immediately clear when the Senate will vote on the bill.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott blamed a former Labor government for creating the flag carrier's current financial problems when the state-owned airline was privatized with restrictive ownership rules in 1992.

"Labor was good enough to free Qantas from government ownership, now it's got to be good enough to liberate it from the restrictions under which it operates," Abbott told Parliament.

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