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Tuesday, 19 November 2002
Page: 6721

Senator CONROY (2:42 PM) —My question is to Senator Minchin, representing the Treasurer, and it comes in light of the minister's comments yesterday in which he said:

It is hard to think of a finer businessman in this country than John Uhrig.

Is the minister aware that while Mr Uhrig was managing director of Simpson Pope the Federal Court found that Simpson Pope had breached the Trade Practices Act? Is the minister aware also that the court fined Simpson Pope for those breaches and subsequently ordered the company to pay damages to two of the parties which it had illegally withheld supplies from? Further, is the minister aware that the board of Santos, which Mr Uhrig then chaired, awarded one million shares, worth over $6 million, to the new CEO of Santos six days prior to his appointment, thereby deliberately avoiding the need for shareholder approval? Does the minister still believe that it is appropriate for Mr Uhrig to be heading a government review which is required to assess the corporate governance arrangements for Australia's corporate regulators?

Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —The Labor Party have so dismally failed in the policy debate in this country that they are reduced in this Senate to the sad spectacle of muckraking, of trying to attack the Assistant Treasurer and now of attacking a leading Australian businessman—all this because they have failed so absolutely dismally in the policy debate; they are nowhere to be seen. They are spending all their time attacking each other and worrying about who is going to lead them to the next defeat. So what do they do? They come in here and try to attack ministers over their personal affairs and try to attack a leading Australian businessman over issues that occurred, in the case of Simpson as I understand it, 30-odd years ago. I think it is a pathetic spectacle. I am very disappointed that someone like Senator Conroy would be reduced to this silly tactic of muckraking in the way that he has.

I repeat that the government is blessed to have someone of the calibre of John Uhrig, who is over 70, has retired from public company boards and has decided to make his time available to conduct what is a very important review of the governance relating to statutory authorities and office holders of the Commonwealth. My department has had a discussion with Mr Uhrig about any matters that may affect the conduct of this review. The department and I, on the basis of the information available to us, are entirely satisfied that there is nothing in relation to Mr Uhrig and his business career or his chairmanship of any operation that will affect in any way the conduct of this particular review into the corporate governance of our statutory authorities.

As I said yesterday, it is critically important that we get the balance right between the independence of these statutory authorities and their accountability to the parliament, the government and the people of Australia. This is all about developing a set of inherent principles of corporate governance for these statutory authorities. It is then for individual ministers to decide whether those principles should be applied, and in what way, to the statutory authorities within their portfolios. I am not aware of the details in relation to the latest accusation about Santos.

Senator Conroy —There were $6 million of shares—to avoid shareholders.

Senator MINCHIN —I do not know the details of that particular transaction. I do know Mr Ellice-Flint personally and he is an outstanding CEO of a very important company in South Australia. Labor senators from South Australia would know just how important that company is to the future of South Australia and how critically important it is for that very important company to have the highest calibre CEO it can get to run it. It is a very competitive field. I do not know the details of his particular remuneration package, but Santos obviously want to get, and need to get, the best possible CEO, which they have in John Ellice-Flint. So I strongly support his position as CEO.

I will check out Senator Conroy's latest accusations as to whether there was any breach of any rules or regulations regarding the remuneration that Mr Ellice-Flint has been paid. All I can say is that it was critical for Santos to attract the best calibre person. It is a highly competitive field for CEOs. We have all had things to say about CEO remuneration. But that company has to get the best possible CEO—and in Mr Ellice-Flint they have that.

Senator CONROY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Is the minister aware that, in the Federal Court case I previously referred to, the judge said:

I find it impossible to accept the evidence of Mr Uhrig, whom I do not regard as an entirely satisfactory witness.

Isn't this review really about allowing the big end of town to nobble the ACCC and ASIC? And isn't it a case of corporate capture, not corporate governance?

Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —Senator Conroy is repeating these horrendous, horrible and outrageous slurs against Mr John Uhrig, one of the best Australian businessmen and a great leader of Australian business.

Senator Conroy —The judge said it.

Senator MINCHIN —I do not know the details of that case. I am not going to give any credence to that. You say that he said it; I will check it out afterwards. I am afraid I have got to a point where I find it very difficult to accept at face value anything that any member of the opposition says—as we all do. With respect to the Simpson matter, when John Uhrig was running Simpson, I think some 30 years ago, we will have a look at that. But I totally reject the accusation or any suggestion that this is about big business and corporate governance. We want to make sure that Australian statutory authorities do have good corporate governance, that they are accountable and that we balance against their independence their proper accountability to the people of Australia.