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Editor discusses Fred Hilmer's current stance following the Hilmer Report, and also discusses aircraft safety problems

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Well, it's time now to look at finance with the chief editorial executive of Business Review Weekly, Robert Gottliebsen. Robert, good morning again. I thought we might have a chat about air safety this morning, but before we do, now what's happened to Fred Hilmer? Is he having a change of heart?

ROBERT GOTTLIEBSEN: Well, it's a bit like that. Fred Hilmer, of course, is the author of the Hilmer Report and he isolated, and quite correctly isolated, a large number of reforms in State and Federal governments that could reduce our costs and make the nation more efficient. And he's been very successful and those recommendations are gradually being implemented or in the process of being implemented. Now, the New South Wales Government, Bob Carr and his government, had a real problem in the Pacific Power operation. It was run by a man called Ross Bunion (?), the so-called 'Black Prince' of electricity reform, and they wanted the Pacific Power company to start to move with this tide, to rationalise its businesses more, spin-off activities, become much more active in the national power grid push. And they said: Who can we get to become chairman of the Pacific Power operation, who can take on Ross Bunion and really be a force? And they thought: There's only one man in Australia to do this - Fred Hilmer.

And Fred's a good operator; he's gone on a number of company boards and so Fred was put into the job of chairman and everyone expected that he would take on Ross Bunion and, who knows, might have won. But now it's coming out and it was in our magazine two weeks ago - our Canberra correspondent, David Foreman, set it out - but Fred is coming around to the view of Ross Bunion. He doesn't really want to make these big changes, he wants to leave Pacific Power as it is, basically; reform within the Pacific Power group. But he's become a Bunion man. And the New South Wales Government are up the tree, are really cross because they've put the best man possible to get this thing fixed up and he's been captured.

I'm a great admirer of Fred Hilmer's, actually, and I imagine he thinks that now this is the best way to fix Pacific Power, but it's not what the Government wanted and it's not the way the other States are moving and it's not the thrust of what he was talking about in the Hilmer Report.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Well, I wonder what happened to him on the road to Damascus?

ROBERT GOTTLIEBSEN: This is a very powerful man, this Ross Bunion, and he's a very persuasive man, no doubt. And Fred's an academic, you know. He probably finds it easier in the universities, but that might be a bit hard. But poor old New South Wales Treasurer, Michael Egan, is quite unhappy or seems unhappy, and I don't know how that will all turn out.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: I wonder what it means for all those plans to corporatise all those institutions around the country. I mean, I don't know about the other States, but we've certainly had some gritting of teeth here in Canberra.

ROBERT GOTTLIEBSEN: Yes, well, I think those things will continue, but the fact that Fred has fallen down at this barrier - and maybe he's right, maybe it's a barrier he should have fallen down - but certainly won't push it forward. And we'll also find out which State was right because New South Wales is staying with the Pacific Power operation and Victoria, of course, is splitting its operation into many parts.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Robert, can I turn your attention now to air safety, and I guess Australia has always prided itself on being very air-safety conscious. But I understand there are some new figures out today which suggest that perhaps we're not as safe as we'd like to think we are.

ROBERT GOTTLIEBSEN: Yes, in BRW this week, there's figures about commuter airlines. We're not talking about the Ansetts and the Qantas', we're talking about commuter airlines that nevertheless fly very big distances around the country. They generate revenue of about $450 million and they travel about 900 million passenger kilometres a year.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: These are the little cigar planes.

ROBERT GOTTLIEBSEN: Yes, but they sell 2.5 million tickets. It's a big business. And the accident rate has been rising and it's not by a huge amount but the fatality rate per hundred thousand hours flown has increased from 2.48 to 2.71. You know, that's over about five years. And there's all sorts of anecdotal evidence of crashes that shouldn't have happened and people who have lost their lives in areas that shouldn't have happened because these are not Tiger Moths, these are major planes, albeit smaller than the basic Qantas and Ansett planes. I think we've got a problem here and it's interesting that some of the former safety officers have been confidentially writing to the Government saying: You have a very big air safety problem; the reforms have not worked. And I think that if we have too many more accidents in this area, then Laurie Brereton has a tremendous amount to answer for because he's the Minister, the figures are there, he's been very clearly warned that something is wrong, and if you don't take action in these situations, then if something does in fact go wrong or this trend continues, then Laurie will be struggling to hold his job.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: So are you planning any flights anywhere, Robert?

ROBERT GOTTLIEBSEN: Oh, I just take them .. I'm flying all over the place and you just keep going. But I think we all want that air safety right and, you know, it's starting with Sydney Airport where I was flying on Friday and, once again, we're circling around and around again, back to the old stuff - it had improved before that - and, you know, it does need a bit of action and this is big .. we're a big country and we need efficient, safe commuter airlines.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Robert, thank you. We'll catch up with you again next Monday.