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Thursday, 5 May 1994
Page: 286

Senator McMULLAN (Minister for Trade) (9.51 a.m.) —We are not debating a new principle. We have been around this track several times before together with my views on the broad questions of principle involved. They are complex and Senator Campbell has referred to some of the elements in the balance. My comments are substantially on the Senate's record, and I will not take the Senate's time reiterating the broad questions of principle. I will go to the facts of the particular case before us and apply those principles as I have articulated them in the past.

  To facilitate the business of the Senate in dealing with this, I will table a letter addressed to me from the Minister for Administrative Services which, in essence, sets out his position on this matter and, in a sense, the brief on his behalf which I am arguing.

  The question is: how is it that the businesses in question—in this instance the Australian Construction Services, Asset Services and Interiors—can compete equally with the private sector, which we require them to do, and should require them to do, when they have to make information available to their competitors which their competitors do not have to provide to them? It is a step further along the track from that stage in the past where we said that the property leasing agency was at a disadvantage if it had to disclose its lease deals. That is a clearer example and that would have been the case in the earlier stages of consideration of these contracts.

  Now, essentially, although Australian Estate Management would not be happy about the details being disclosed, it has concluded its business in this matter, although it will have to do a lot of other business in Melbourne and in this building. We have gone past that now. It is now a question of the competitive advantage given to the competitors of ACS, Asset Services and Interiors. All of them are out there in the marketplace competing; all of them are finding it tough. That is the nature of the property market in Australia, particularly in Melbourne, and their competitors are finding it tough too.

  The minister continues strongly to take the view that it is contrary to the public interest to reveal commercial-in-confidence information with regard to DAS businesses, and he is strongly of the view that he should not provide such information to the Senate. He also acknowledges the legitimate interest of senators, and it is a difficult balance to strike. He has said in the letter which I will table later:

However, I can say in this particular case that the rents were determined on a market related basis without commercial incentives.

I think that is an important matter to put on the record. One of the concerns is: is there a particular incentive package? Without going into the details of what the outcome was, the answer is no, there was not on this occasion. I understand that people want to know that, and that is the answer.

  As senators will see reflected in the letter, the minister stated that if Senator Campbell would like some information on the range of rents and the average outgoings being paid by these businesses, the minister would be happy to furnish this information to him on his undertaking to respect the confidentiality of the information. The minister further states that he understands Senator Campbell's real agenda—not in any way a hidden agenda—is to look at whether the property adjustment program has been properly applied. The minister would be happy to discuss this matter with Senator Campbell as soon as Senator Campbell wants to approach him about it. The minister is open to further discussion.

  The principles have been well argued here. The Senate has to balance its legitimate desire to have information about commercial activities of government owned businesses with the legitimate desire of those businesses, the government, and the parliament to ensure that those businesses have a reasonable opportunity effectively to compete in the marketplace without being disadvantaged by more onerous disclosure requirements than are reasonable. They will always have more disclosure requirements than a private sector competitor; that will always be the case. But we have to balance how far we push that extra disclosure requirement. I believe that we are pushing it a step further than the reasonable balance would suggest.

  Therefore, we will be voting against the motion, and I hope the Senate votes against it. Whatever the outcome, we will not be dividing on this occasion. Our opposition is sufficiently clear and we do not need to reinforce it by division. I table the letter from the Minister for Administrative Services to which I have referred.