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Monday, 18 November 2002
Page: 6600

Senator MURRAY (3:41 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Finance and Administration (Senator Minchin) to a question without notice asked by Senator Murray today relating to corporate governance.

There have been two recent events which have indicated, or should indicate, to the Senate that it needs to concern itself with both government process and government sensitivity to community views. One was the attempted appointment of Graeme Samuel as Deputy Chairman of the ACCC, and the other was the appointment of Mr John Uhrig as the leader of the government review of the corporate governance practices of Australia's regulators. Both these people are experienced and very capable, but neither of them may be right for the jobs to which they have been allocated—or in the case of Mr Samuel, to which the attempt has been made to allocate him.

The difficulty with people of high calibre but of that nature is that they come to jobs with a great deal of baggage. Mr Samuel, as chair of the National Competition Council, has exhibited a toughness bordering almost on an ignorance of the consequences of many of his decisions to small business, to country areas and to particular sectors of our society. That is a characteristic of hard economic rationalism. I will refer to another businessman's comments recently. Mr Andrew Mohl, who just took over AMP, was quoted in the newspaper as saying that he was going to slash 1,200 jobs, and was immediately afterwards quoted as saying, `It is my job to be hard.' It is okay to be getting rid of 1,200 jobs—it is okay to be hard. We know that business is difficult and that people have to make tough decisions, but that lack of sensitivity is a real problem.

With respect to the ACCC, the question is always whether the ACCC is to be primarily dedicated to the benefit of consumers or business. Ultimately, the whole philosophy which lies behind competition law is to deliver benefits to consumers. It is not to run competition law for the benefit of business. A by-product of being sensitive to genuine business needs has to be that consumers benefit. And the concern exhibited by the states and by many commentators is that, despite the extraordinary capabilities of Mr Samuel—he really is a very clever and capable person—he is a good person who was wrong for that job.

The second concern, of course, is that in accountability terms the government failed to consult correctly, and there were no guidelines in place to ensure that a proper selection process was established. I would remind the Senate—and it was something missed by the media, I might say—that the Senate passed a motion on 14 November requesting:

That the Senate—

(a) notes the rejection by a majority of the states and territories of Graeme Samuel as nominee Deputy Chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission;

(b) asks the Federal Government:

(i) to ensure that it consults fully ...

(ii) to establish criteria for the selection and appointment process that include not just selection on merit, but that any candidate should be demonstrably independent, and have a strong interest in consumer and small business needs.

I now turn to Mr Uhrig. In the ATO speech of Michael Carmody on 13 November, he indicated that they have put an extra $4 billion on the books as a result of improved compliance committees from investigating large business and high-wealth individuals, and then indicated that that $4 billion was at risk because business was contesting it in the courts. I am not drawing a line to Mr Uhrig, but I am indicating that business interests are not necessarily those you would regard as ideal for corporate governance. I would have thought that, when you are dealing with an issue where you want to review the regulators' corporate governance practices, you should attend to somebody who is not a businessman. (Time expired)

Question agreed to.