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Tuesday, 10 December 1996
Page: 7095

Senator MARGETTS(6.50 p.m.) —The government is attempting in this bill to remove the express power for the minister to direct Telstra. Whatever the arguments are in relation to that, you have really two choices. You either have a government being a shareholder on behalf of the public in a major asset, playing by the same rules that it expects other shareholders to observe in the corporate world, or the Commonwealth retains a privileged position. If the Commonwealth wishes to retain a privileged position, I and many people would argue that it would be better that it retained Telstra as a wholly owned Commonwealth asset.

Given that the government has no intention to do so, I would also argue that the throwing away of that ability to direct is very unwise. It flies in the face of many assurances that have been given about how Telstra will operate in a post-privatised or partly privatised environment. It must be remembered that Austel will not exist in its form after next year. The functions of Austel will be divvied out amongst a number of entities and a large number of the functions of Austel will be taken over by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

My concern about the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is that, once again, there is no real control by the parliamentary process. We are actually taking much on trust and we are entering into a very different environment from what we are in now. I have mentioned the Gambotto case before and it has been mentioned by a couple of other speakers. It was a High Court decision, Gambotto v. WCP Ltd 1995.

In this case, the majority shareholder held over 90 per cent of the shares. The principle that came out from that case was that it is not possible for the majority shareholder to oppress the minority shareholder. Perhaps the government could clarify whether or not they believe it will be possible for the majority to oppress the minority. I think it is very odd indeed that, with all of the assurances by government about what will and will not happen in terms of effectiveness, efficiency, pricing and service, to a large extent they are putting almost total faith in the market to do all of these things. If the market does not, there is no comeback.

The minister and the government will be stepping back from that and saying, `This is a majority public asset, but we are not going to give ourselves the ability to intervene in any way if our blind assumptions do not turn out to be true.' I think most people's concerns are very real in relation to the actual decision making that can and cannot take place in relation to this.

With regard to the example of the AIDC, as has been mentioned, the government board member was put under a lot of pressure not to even attend meetings where issues of confidentiality were being talked about. It became very difficult for that member to provide that information. There is the ability for certain information to be provided to the government, but you still have problems under the Corporations Law.

So I would argue that the very least that we need to do to address those legitimate concerns in the community amongst workers in the industry, amongst unions, amongst customers, amongst consumer organisations—you name it—is to continue to have that ability, used or unused, for intervention in case those assurances are not met.