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Wednesday, 8 April 1998
Page: 2742

Mr FAHEY (Finance and Administration) (11:09 AM) —The honourable member for Dobell (Mr Lee) has raised an issue of conflict—that is, the role that a shareholding minister in a government business enterprise might play to look after and be responsible for the operation of the business and the value of the shares held by the government on behalf of the taxpayers and how that contrasts and perhaps conflicts with a regulatory minister, frequently and almost invariably the portfolio minister, who has certain duties and obligations in respect of the regulatory regime and of course the customer service obligations.

From a practical point of view, since the government made the decision that the minister for finance should be the joint shareholding minister of all government business enterprises a year or so ago, I have found my colleagues fairly accommodating, obliging and rational in the approach to discussions that take place. But I certainly have seen reference to the fact that there is an inherent conflict between both roles, and it may well be appropriate for the roles to be separated so that each minister, on behalf of their respective responsibilities, might make vigorous, appropriate and proper arguments from the perspective that they come from. If agreement cannot be reached, then of course there is always the opportunity for such matters to be brought back to cabinet.

Those matters are the subject of some discussion at present between me and the Minister for Communications, the Information Economy and the Arts (Senator Alston). We certainly are aware of the debate. We recognise the amount of comment that there has been about this in recent times from various aspects of the industry and from various other commentators. I am confident that there will be an appropriate resolution of that matter.

In relation to the way in which the former government operated in this particular area of government business enterprises, the honourable member for Dobell would be fully aware from his former ministerial responsibilities that the portfolio minister was the shareholding minister and the regulation minister. He or she wore all hats. There was no opportunity for the roles to be separated. Now there is clearly a shareholders' representative and a company's representative in terms of the value and assets of the company. As per the decision of this government, a minister has been added—the minister for finance. The member for Dobell now suggests that it should be taken a step further; although Labor certainly did not recognise it when they were in government.

I accept that there are some arguments. I will continue to have that discussion with the relevant minister in respect of communications. I am confident that we will resolve that matter to the benefit of the industry and the community.