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Wednesday, 24 August 1994
Page: 215

Senator ALSTON —My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Transport. Why in 1990 did the minister claim that ANL `continues to perform as a profit-making, tax and dividend paying business. It is indicative of the hard-nosed, commercial approach that the Government has been promoting'? Is it not a fact that during the four years that Senator Collins was the minister for shipping and the minister for transport, ANL's performance dramatically declined? In fact, over the last two years, when he was minister for three-quarters of that period, the value of ANL declined by up to $290 million. Why was it not Senator Collins instead of Mr Brereton who had to get out and warn of the catastrophic deterioration in the shipping line, and why did he not implement the type of drastic action that the government has now been belatedly forced to take after the horse has bolted?

Senator COLLINS —If Senator Alston wants a history lesson, which he has just embarked upon, he might like to have a look at the full history of this company. In 1982 this government inherited a shipping line which had 33 decrepit ships—Senator Alston is talking about deteriorating performance—and was hopelessly bankrupt; its financial position was hopeless. This government embarked simultaneously on not simply a total restructuring of the company and a drastic downsizing and re-equipping of the fleet from the decrepit condition in which Senator Alston's predecessors left it, but a very ambitious and, I might add, successful program of both shipping and waterfront reform in which ANL played a key role.

  It has been acknowledged in this chamber by me and Senator Cook that ANL was an absolute key reform implementer in both shipping and waterfront reform over that very difficult period. Under the stewardship of this government, the company dramatically improved the position it was in, hoping that it would be well positioned in the 1990s, with a pick-up in the international economy, to profit from those radical restructurings. I might add that not only were the ships downsized but simultaneously there was a drastic reduction in the crew sizes on those ships.

  Regrettably—and this is a matter of public record in the Senate and everywhere else—because of what was an international depression in terms of the downturn in trade, one of the industries that copped it hardest, for obvious reasons, was the shipping industry. As I told the Senate yesterday, and as I have previously advised the Senate, ANL was far from being alone in this. The international liner trade provides 70 per cent of the core business of ANL. Almost every shipping company in the world far larger than ANL was copping significant losses over the same period. But those companies were in a better position to sustain those losses than was a small company like ANL.

  The facts of the company's losses are a matter of record in its audited accounts. Senator Alston has access to them. The fact that the company has been operating poorly is a matter of some regret, but it is wrong to say that nothing was done over that period—quite the reverse, as the record will show. Government announcements from 1991 until now have indicated the progressive changes that have been made to ANL by this government in the hope that the international shipping situation would have improved sufficiently for the company, restructured as it has been, to take advantage of that.

  This is a matter of public record. I was responsible for negotiating the changes to provide for a 49 per cent sell down in 1991 and we have progressively moved to the position of a 100 per cent sell down now. The scoping study that was implemented as a result of that responsible government decision has resulted in the position that we now have with the appointment of a new board and the six-month plan to restructure this company.

  That is the record. It has been one of careful and responsible stewardship by this government in an attempt to maintain a viable industry. Regrettably, not only has that situation not improved but also the assessment that has been made in the last month or so is that the prospects are not going to improve in the future. The government, in the face of that information, has taken the only responsible action that it could in the circumstances.

Senator ALSTON —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for the ancient history lecture. As I understand it, the minister is saying that ever since the Fraser years, 11 years ago, this outfit was in poor shape. Yet in 1990 the minister said that it continued to perform as a profit-making tax and dividend paying business, indicative of the hard-nosed commercial approach the government had been taking. When did he tell the public that this was a basket case instead of keeping it to himself? Why has he not been speaking up? On what basis did the government repeatedly promise in budgets from 1991-92 onwards to sell it? What figures did the minister include in the budget by way of proceeds for asset sales or, really, has it not been worth anything for 10 years back?

Senator Collins —I included?

Senator ALSTON —Senator Collins was the minister until nine months ago. Surely he has been acutely aware of what has been

going on. He could not have been doing what he did on the pay television fiasco. He must have been reading the papers on this one, surely. The minister should just tell us what he told the public rather than what he would like to pretend he told his mates in private.

Senator COLLINS —Audited public accounts are not private information. In 1990-91, the position of the company was looking optimistic. We rightly reflected that. There has been a significant downturn over the last few years and, as I correctly advised the Senate yesterday, that downturn, regrettably, has escalated significantly in the last 12 months. The majority of the serious losses that the company has suffered in the last 12 months have occurred in the last six months—$18 million of the projected $25 million loss.

  Not only were the accounts that disclose the losses of the company tabled in this parliament but I have also discussed the difficult performance of ANL in the Senate on many occasions. Regrettably, the prognosis is that not only is that performance extremely difficult at the moment, and not only has it deteriorated significantly over the last six months, but the prospects of its improving are not there. That is why the government has taken the decision that it has.