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Thursday, 27 May 1999
Page: 5650

Senator MARK BISHOP (8:58 PM) —I think the answer to the concern you raise, Senator Margetts, is that you have to find an answer that balances the competing considerations. The first position of all the carriers was not a public interest test. Their first position—and their second and third positions—was to say, `Telstra is a public corporation. It is using market power to lock out new competitors. Both the opposition and the current government have mandated a deregulatory regime. They seek to achieve lower prices via competition. We are being prevented from engaging in effective competition by the government's own agency, Telstra. There should be no restrictions. Documents that are put out that impose a cost on us for partial delivery of the USO should be out in the public domain. Everyone should have access to them. We should be able to have that without any restrictions.' That was their first, second and third position. Only when we said to them, `Listen, that is unreasonable. Telstra does have legitimate commercial-in-confidence matters that it needs to consider,' did we resolve around a test of `in the public interest'.

`In the public interest' may not be perfect but we are of the view that it is better than the current regime; that it allows some independent or impartial assessment; that it allows figures amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars to be at least challenged and subject to accounting and financial assessment. Many administrative/judicial entities act in the public interest. There is no doubt in my mind that the Federal Court or the High Court over time have litigated the meaning of `public interest' and there is a clear meaning out there in the law reports. A number of tribunals I have worked before over the years have had as part of their charter to act in the public interest. In our view, the test of public interest allows independent assessment by the government body, having regard to a range of considerations, one of which is commercial-in-confidence but not the sole consideration. We regard that in a competitive market as a significant improvement—albeit not perfect—on the current regime.