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Tuesday, 10 August 2004
Page: 26054

Senator SANTORO (8:05 PM) —Last week, in a contribution to a debate on a matter of public interest in this place, I set out the latest situation in the unending and unedifying saga of poor service delivery by the Beattie Labor government in Queensland. As a senator for Queensland, I am committed to doing all I can to raise wide public awareness of events and issues in my state, particularly when the federal government funds so much of the activity and service delivery—or should I say lack of service delivery—in our state. The Beattie Labor government likes to think that it is an event, and its leader is convinced that he is the main event. I am here tonight to remind that leader and his government and the Queensland Labor caucus that, while the Beattie government might have a claim to being an event in its own right, there is absolutely no doubt that poor service delivery is an issue.

Last Wednesday I stood in this place and reported that Queenslanders had learnt that their electricity supplies were not secure and that their lights might go out at any time. I also said, in the context of the huge—and obviously hugely damaging—cash raids that the Labor government in Queensland regularly inflicts on government owned corporations, that Premier Beattie should tell Queenslanders where in his policy for the last state election they can find the bit about ruining the power utilities, Ergon and Energex, and turning out the lights.

State Liberal leader Bob Quinn said last Friday that Queensland Treasurer Terry Mackenroth should come clean about exactly who advised the Beattie government to take a controversial $150 million special dividend from Energex in 2001. Mr Quinn made this sensible point after it was revealed that Energex Chairman Don Nissen had written to the state government the preceding year expressing concern over falling capital funding levels. As Mr Quinn points out, the Queensland Treasurer claims the special dividend was all Mr Nissen's idea. I suspect that this is a somewhat unlikely situation. In fact, I am sure it is an unlikely situation—unless someone first visited Mr Nissen in his Energex office and suggested that, as an alternative to being fitted for concrete boots, he should divvy up some much-needed additional revenue for the government. Mr Nissen is a businessman; he is not the tooth fairy. But this is not a joke. This is extremely serious and a matter of direct concern to the taxpayers of Australia who fund the Queensland government to the tune of $7.2 billion a year in 2004-05—

Senator SANTORO —which is the major reason that I get up in this place and make these sorts of contributions that obviously so annoy honourable senators opposite. The Energex special dividend—so special that Energex financed it by borrowing against an unrealised capital gain that arose from a revaluation of its assets—was an unwarranted call on reinvestment funds. In the United Kingdom it is against the law to make dividend payments from unrealised capital gains. In Queensland, confronted by Mr Mackenroth's thievery, the Auditor-General sought crown law advice and later described the transactions as `unusual in terms of generally accepted accountancy practices'. The crown law advice, incidentally, was that there have been no other similar cases in Australia involving the asset revaluation reserve.

I was interested to hear the Premier of Queensland today saying he will not waste time with the state opposition's daily attacks on what ABC radio news described as the government's power problem. Of course he will not—he is far too busy slipping on his hard hat and flitting out for another photo opportunity under his major crisis damage control program. There is some justice in the fact that everywhere he got himself photographed earlier this week, busy being a hands-on premier with electricity repair crews, the lights went out in his wake. Premier Beattie is also being challenged to release more than 100 pages of Energex documents which have been denied to the Queensland opposition under freedom of information rules. If he really had nothing to hide, he would release those papers. But he will not, of course. He will instead continue to focus on running away from responsibility and arguing that black is white—or, in this instance, insisting that red ink is not red ink at all.

It is also clear that, at least in the case of Energex, some things have been done that in the penurious environment of the corporation today should not have been done. It is certainly true—to take up an important point that deputy state Liberal leader Bruce Flegg has been making—that scant financial resources are better spent on maintenance than on public relations. The Energex board should explain why it approved the diversion of millions of dollars from its maintenance budget to PR. As an increasing number of Queenslanders are pointing out, Energex is hardly operating in a competitive supply market, at least at the bulk domestic customer end of the scale. It may need to promote itself as a power corporation—although I suggest it should first work on operating like one—but out there in the suburbs, where the lights are going out, customers are being disadvantaged. So much for the smart state that Premier Beattie is forever boasting about.

There are wrong priorities in Energex—that much at least is as clear as daylight—just as there are in the state government. If, as Dr Flegg says, Energex secretly reallocated $2.1 million from maintenance funding to PR in 2001-02 and increased that take-out to $4.7 million in 2002-03, someone who is in overall charge of the corporation—and that, of course, is the state Treasurer—should be saying, `Whoa!' Unfortunately Mr Mackenroth has not been pointing out that running a power utility is not something that really calls for a Marx Brothers script. He has been too busy, rescripting his own private remake of Ned Kelly.

When the power reticulation system is in such a poor state that the supply network for the Gold Coast region does not meet baseline requirements, something is very wrong indeed. The substandard nature of the supply integrity to the Gold Coast was revealed in the Somerville report into the electricity industry. It showed that the Gold Coast's 110kV network did not meet the accepted industry N-1 criteria. These criteria mean that the system has an element of spare capacity and can cope with unexpected increases in load or severe weather conditions. They mean that, if one component fails, the remaining components continue to supply consumers because there is a level of duplication built into the system. Mr Quinn, who represents the Gold Coast seat of Robina in the Queensland parliament, is somewhat understandably irate at this. He says and, I hasten to add, I agree with him:

N-1 capacity comes at a higher cost, but if it's good enough for Brisbane, why not here at the Gold Coast, or are we being treated as second-class citizens by the Beattie government again?

This is but one of the many tales of woe that come out of the Labor run state of Queensland, where spin replaces substance and the people find that legitimate and urgent public policy questions are locked away in a cupboard or swept under the carpet. There will be more to say on this and other topics in the future. I respectfully suggest that Queensland deserves better than Labor.