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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6589


Senator MURRAY (2:50 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Finance, Senator Minchin. Minister, I refer to the announcement that there will be a government review of the corporate governance practices of Australia's regulators. Is it the case that the review will be led by former Santos, Rio Tinto and Westpac chairman John Uhrig? Can the minister indicate in what respects Santos, Rio Tinto or Westpac have been leading-edge proponents of corporate governance under Mr Uhrig's chairmanship? Can the minister assure the Senate that neither Santos, Rio Tinto nor Westpac have been characterised by poor corporate governance practices, poor management of conflict of interest matters, poor auditing practices, poor executive remuneration practices and so on? Does the government realise that there is a fear that it has an agenda to subordinate our regulators to big business views? What assurances can the minister provide that that is not so?


Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —Can I say in response to Senator Murray that I acknowledge and understand his healthy scepticism about big business. That has been a trait of Senator Murray's in his time here, and I respect and understand his penchant for small business. As someone who comes from a small business family, I understand that. I would ask Senator Murray to accept the bona fides of this inquiry and not look at it through the tinted glasses of his scepticism about big business. Can I immediately suggest to him that it is unwise and indeed inappropriate to question the bona fides, integrity, capacity, capability and contribution of Mr John Uhrig. It is hard to think of a finer businessman in this country than John Uhrig. He has made an extraordinary contribution to business in this country.

I do not take it as a reflection, but I would hope that Senator Murray is not reflecting on Mr Uhrig's qualifications for this very important position. Indeed, as a fellow South Australian I am certainly proud of the fact that he has been chosen to perform this task, and I think South Australian senators on all sides of the chamber would understand what a fine businessman he is. We are fortunate that he is prepared to devote the time, resources and energy that are required to conduct this very important review.

I would also draw the Senate's attention to the fact that the undertaking of this review is actually the implementation of a government promise made at the last election. We went to the last election formally promising that we would conduct such a review if we were re-elected. We are honouring that promise with the announcement of this review and its terms of reference. I would point out to Senator Murray and others that businesses large and small are affected by the operations of the statutory authorities that come under the Commonwealth government's ambit. It is appropriate that from time to time we review the corporate governance arrangements of these very powerful institutions, which, as I say, affect the operations of businesses large and small. Indeed, the tax office is one of the institutions that are being reviewed in terms of corporate governance, in accordance with this undertaking.

In relation to the operation of government statutory authorities, it is very important that we ensure that there is a proper balance between their very important independence and, equally, the very important obligations that they have to be accountable to the whole community. It is critically important that we get that balance right and that we are all assured throughout the community—in the business community and the community generally—that there is proper accountability for these statutory authorities, which, as a function of their independence, are very powerful bodies.

I note—and I draw Senator Murray's attention to this fact—that Allan Fels, the current head of the ACCC, has welcomed this inquiry, welcomed Mr John Uhrig's appointment to chair it and looks forward to the conduct of the inquiry. As he properly says, it will flush out any concerns that business has. In terms of having selected one of Australia's most outstanding business leaders to conduct an inquiry which implements a formal government promise, I think this is a great development on the part of the government.


Senator MURRAY —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer and I thank him for his assurances, on behalf of the government, concerning the government's nominee. My supplementary question is this: with regard to ensuring transparency in terms of this oversight of the regulator, can the minister also assure the Senate that neither Santos, Rio Tinto nor Westpac have been the subject of investigation by the ATO into transfer pricing or tax avoidance, by ASIC for breaches of the Corporations Law or by the ACCC for breaches of the TPA? Will the minister undertake to also assure the Senate that, if there were such cases in the past, full disclosure would be made?


Senator MINCHIN (Minister for Finance and Administration) —Obviously, I do not know whether any of those inquiries have been undertaken. I presume you are talking about when Mr Uhrig was chairman of those companies. I am prepared to have a look into that matter and to give you any relevant information. I can only repeat that these are great Australian companies employing thousands of Australians and making a great contribution to the nation, and that John Uhrig, as their chairman, again demonstrated what a very good business leader he is in this country. But I will take note of what you have raised and see whether I can get you some information.