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Tuesday, 10 May 1994
Page: 511

Senator McMULLAN (Minister for Trade) (4.18 p.m.) —The one thing I agree with Senator Campbell about in his contribution is that this is a debate about conflicting principles and a difficult balance of principles that we have had several times before. I do not agree with what he said about the previous occasions but he has outlined the previous occasions on which we have had it.

  There is one other thing that we also need to note which is that in recent times the Senate has taken to distributing censure motions rather like confetti. There was a time when they were very important, weighty matters which needed to be taken with extreme concern, because this was a product of the due deliberation of the majority of the Senate.

  As Senator Campbell correctly said, this has always been a political chamber and there have always been political decisions, but I think in recent years the decisions have got more frequent, less relevant and more political. We now really have a process where, overlying a legitimate disagreement of principle, about which I wish to give my principal concern, we have a body of people making its political way by pursuing these issues here in the Senate in a very resolute and divisive way, and not accepting any reasonable alternative proposal that is put forward and continually raising these sorts of issues in the way that Senator Campbell does.

  I think he entirely misrepresents Mr Walker's intention in this matter, and I want to deal with that in the main. For ministers representing other ministers it is always a difficult situation to be required to present things which are not in their possession and then to be censured for not presenting them when they do not have them. I am not seeking to distance myself one iota from Mr Walker, and I will not. I am simply saying that we have a rather bizarre element to all this which needs to be taken into account. In the past when these matters came up they related to me in my capacity as minister directly, so that extra complication did not arise.

  We have here a delicate question for the Senate to consider—not for the first time requiring a balance of judgment about conflicting worthy motives. There is no question that the issue of the Senate's and the parliament's right to receive information about the expenditure of public money is important. I have never challenged that. I think all the indications on the public record of things I have said and things I have sought to do would confirm that I regard that issue of accountability for expenditure of taxpayers' money to be an issue of great importance. But here we have a situation not where we are requiring to keep the information confidential from interested senators—the minister has said, `If you want to come and look at this information I will make it available'—but where we are trying to keep it confidential from the competitors of these businesses.

  There is no Chinese wall that says, `We can make this information available publicly but not to the competitors of the businesses to whom it relates.' That is not possible. The public is comprised of, amongst others, the people who are the competitors of these businesses. So we cannot say, `It is all right, we will make it available only to the Senate,' because if it is made available in the normal way it becomes public and becomes available to the competitors of these businesses.

  We have a lot of talk in this place about competitive neutrality and about creating a circumstance in which there is no special advantage to public sector organisations now that we have required them to get out there and compete. I support sending them out there to compete. I have advocated it, and I have done a substantial amount about it. I accept that there is an inherent disadvantage—which Senator Campbell does not accept—on public sector enterprises because they have a greater obligation of disclosure and of accountability, and it costs them money to comply with that. It means that some of their results are published in a way that their competitors' results are not, and information about their operations is available in a way that information about their competitors is not. I accept that. But that does not mean that everything that gives them a disadvantage, every bit of lead that we can put in their saddlebags, should be placed there. We have to exercise a balance.

  I think most senators, and certainly the government, the minor parties and Senator Harradine, accept the legitimate role of public sector enterprises in our economy. I have heard them speak about it in different circumstances—not about these particular enterprises, but conceptually about the legitimate role of publicly-owned enterprises. Some senators have been passionate in their advocacy—as was implicit, for example, in the question from Senator Spindler today—and some of them at least are defending the right of public sector enterprises to exist and compete effectively.

  We cannot have it both ways. If we say, `We stand as people who, in a mixed economy, defend the legitimate right of the public sector' it does not mean that everything that is ever in public ownership has to stay there. If it did, we would still have government-owned butcher shops and hotels like we did in the 1920s, when they were needed. But there are enterprises operating in a particularly difficult context, which is within a departmental structure and not as separate corporate entities, where some of the accountability questions are still difficult—I instance the Telecoms and the statutory corporations—but where, nevertheless, the framework is more clearly established. Certainly, some of these enterprises—particularly Interiors, which is one of those in question—are very small enterprises. It is hard to envisage that the Commonwealth would spin off a public sector corporation of the size of a little outfit like Interiors, which is an interior decorating and design business. Some senators would be aware of it because one of the things it does, in competition with the private sector, is the layout of many senators' and members' offices. Such enterprises operate within a departmental framework and so have extra burdens of accountability and of disclosure.

  But here we are saying, `You have entered into a contract that is a significant part of the cost of running your business. All the business you get you have to get by tender. You have to get it by putting in competitive bids. But everybody who is going to bid against you already knows the wage rates of your staff because that is public.' That is a disadvantage these enterprises have. The competitors already know that. They know the numbers of their staff because that is disclosed and that is a disadvantage they have compared to the others because that is all published.

Senator Spindler —A much larger one.

Senator McMULLAN —Not necessarily. Then we say, `Now they are going to know essentially the last key element of your cost structure, which is the cost of the property in which you house yourself.' For a body like Interiors, that is essentially what it costs to run the business—the cost of employing people and the cost of renting the space for them. There really are not any other costs. There is probably a little bit of technology. If one wanted to check, one could probably find what that cost, too, but it is a tiny amount for an organisation like that. We say, `Everybody knows your cost structure on which you are tendering, but you do not know anything about that of your competitors.' On the one hand, we say, `We are advocates of your cause. We think the public sector enterprise has a legitimate right to participate out there competitively in a difficult, competitive environment, but you have to have this extra element of lead in your saddlebags.'

  That does not mean that such enterprises are entitled to commit some sort of fraud upon the public or default on the taxpayers' money or whatever, but none of that is in question; it is not even alleged. Of course, all of these public enterprises are audited by the audit office every year. They are also entitled to have a legitimate review about how they are managing the taxpayers' money, how the people who own the property they are renting and they are managing the taxpayers' money; but that is all disclosed. The return that those companies make is reported every year; it goes to an estimates committee every year. They are asked, `Did you make a profit? Did you make a loss?' All that is known. The balance of all their activities is reflected in the report that Interiors or ACS or Assets might make.

  I think the obligation of the executive, when it is in conflict with the legislature about the provision of information—where we say that this is not an appropriate occasion for the exercise of the legislature's powers of seeking information—is to seek to make as much of the information as possible available in an alternative way. We are not in the business of covering up.

  Mr Walker has sought to do that. He wrote, effectively, to the Senate. He wrote a letter to me which, as all honourable senators know, I tabled in the Senate. That obviously was not sufficient because the Senate still carried a resolution, so he wrote another letter to Senator Campbell. It is true that he has not written any more—he has written only twice—but I think that is because those letters constitute, in effect, with the comments I made last time, the outline of the government's case. We could reiterate it as often as those opposite would prefer, but that remains the essence of our position.

  We are in a difficult position. The executive is saying to interested members of the legislature, interested senators, but applying to members of the House of Representatives if they chose to exercise it, `We will seek to make as much of this information available to you as possible, provided we can do it in a way that does not also make it available to all the competitors of these enterprises.' If those opposite want to put forward an alternative proposal about the way in which they would like this information made available so that they can have access to it and check whether some unreasonable course of action is being undertaken, but in a manner that does not make the information available to the competitors of those businesses, I am sure Mr Walker will take it up.

  There has not been such a proposal and I have not discussed with Mr Walker what it might be because I cannot think of one that goes beyond that which we have already offered to Senator Campbell and which is implicitly available to all honourable senators. We made it explicitly available to Senator Campbell because he is the one who has asked, but it is obviously equally available to others. So that is the balance. We are trying in good faith to say that we do have a dilemma; we are seeking a way to resolve that dilemma by saying we will make the information available to any interested member of the Senate or the House of Representatives.

Senator Campbell —It is not the offer that has been made.

Senator McMULLAN —I am simply saying that, if those opposite can think of an alternative form of making the information available that will not lead to disclosure to competitors, they should come forward with it, ask Mr Walker about it and see what can be done.

  I think Mr Walker feels very strongly that we need to defend the legitimate interests of the people who manage and work in these enterprises. In the case of Interiors we are talking about a very small number, but in the case of the three enterprises altogether we are talking more than 1,000 Australian people out there trying to compete in a tough environment where at least one territory government refuses to allow them to tender on the grounds of sheer prejudice. It jeopardises the employment opportunities of all those workers because that government is prejudiced against them because they work for the Commonwealth government. They are fighting in a difficult environment and we are trying to defend their interests but in a way that we can go as far as we can in meeting the legitimate requests and desires of the Senate and senators. We will go as far as we can in seeking to do that.

  In the course of this debate or subsequently, if somebody wishes to raise with Mr Walker alternative proposals, I cannot answer for him because they have not been put to him. I do not know his views on the particulars until we hear what they are; but I can say that I know that we would be open to a suggestion. Both of us—him directly, me indirectly through him—are being put in an extremely difficult position because we have both been involved with the political process. Mr Walker has been involved in the parliamentary process for a very long time, both in government and in opposition. We both respect the legitimate rights of the parliament in a democracy and we do not want to be seen to be in conflict with that. But we do have the interests of 1,000 and more Commonwealth employees to protect and we intend to do that to the best of our ability.

  That is the reason we have not provided the documents. It is the reason we find ourselves in a difficult position. I hope the Senate, in considering that, will not choose to pass this censure motion but will, rather, choose to defeat that and seek an alternative, more reasonable way of balancing these conflicting pressures.