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Wednesday, 7 June 1989
Page: 3600


Senator WATSON(7.14) —Last week the Minister for Transport and Communications (Mr Willis) delivered two ministerial statements in the House of Representatives-the first on the waterfront and the second on government owned enterprises. The statements can be characterised by four words: too little too late. The disastrous $103 billion foreign debt figure announced last week is an indication of just how the Government not only has lost control of the economy but also has few ideas about how to regain the initiative and actually cool down our burgeoning debt.

I wish to concentrate my remarks on government-owned enterprises and draw attention to the fact that last week in this place Senator Alston asked a question of Senator Gareth Evans, the Minister representing the Minister for Transport and Communications, regarding a contract which has been let by Telecom Australia to build a corporate office complex in the central business district of Melbourne. Senator Chaney followed up Senator Alston's question by asking whether the Government was informed of Telecom's decision to build a major complex in Exhibition Street at a cost in excess of $300m. At the time the Minister seemed not to appreciate the problems with decisions of this nature which inflate an already oversupplied commercial property market glut and which, because of the huge amount of money involved, will have a specific effect on heating up the economy.

It is all very well for the Government to say that government business enterprises should operate at arm's length and be administered both efficiently and on commercial principles. However, it is ridiculous for a government-owned enterprise the board of management of which is appointed by a Minister, which operates under an Act of this Parliament and which provides an annual report to this Parliament, to undertake actions which are in direct conflict with government policy. The reality of the matter is that a government instrumentality has made a decision to undertake a $300m building development and the Minister says, `We have no say in that decision because we want it to act according to commercial principles'. In all circumstances, government economic policy should override any arm's length philosophy when the national economy is as sick as Australia's has become. It is important that these sorts of enterprises operate within the general philosophy pertaining at a point of time.

The Government's attitude in this area begs the question: what exactly are its priorities? Why does the Government continue to preside over an economic situation where ordinary Australian families trying to buy or build a home and struggling with ever-increasing interest rates are being squeezed because of decisions such as Telecom's? The Government's lame answer to this is to say, `Our hands are tied'. What an abrogation of responsibility. Ordinary home purchasers are being squeezed and are being asked to pay the price of restraint through high interest rates while at the same time government instrumentalities are allowed to build their large Taj Mahals, pushing upwards the already burgeoning and overheated economy. Therefore, I ask: Does the Government really believe that it should have no say in decisions made by Telecom, Australia Post, the Overseas Telecommunications Commission and others? If so, why did the Prices Surveillance Authority-a government agency-undertake an inquiry into foreshadowed postal charge increases by Australia Post? What double standards!

I now come back to my earlier point about the Minister's statements. The failure of the Government to involve itself in the Melbourne development by Telecom is yet another example of a government which has abrogated control over the economy. When all the technical niceties are stripped away, Telecom Australia and other government business enterprises operating with public money are accountable to the Australian taxpayer and his parliamentary representatives in this building.

I turn briefly to another point. In my view, it is vital that either the Commonwealth Auditor-General should maintain a direct audit role over all government owned enterprises or, if an enterprise engages a private sector auditor, the Auditor-General must still have a final overview of that enterprise's accounts. It may be necessary for the Auditor-General to audit the auditor. In many cases, the use of the Commonwealth Auditor-General has become the only link this Parliament has with particular government enterprises. If this link is severed, what role do we as parliamentarians have? Senator Walsh has said that the control is through the bottom line. I say that that is not good enough. It is absolutely fundamental, both to the doctrine of parliamentary accountability and to the oversight of public spending that the Auditor-General maintains an integral role in the scrutiny of revenue expenditure by each government enterprise. I was very disappointed with the two ministerial statements made last Thursday, but most particularly with the statement on government business enterprises. It is no good tinkering at the edges with issues such as the waterfront and government business enterprises. The actions of a responsible government should be a wholesale overhaul of government involvement in both areas.