Flogging the nation’s company database to a monopoly private operator must be one of the zanier ideas to have been hatched in Canberra but that is precisely what is now being plotted by our elected representatives.
The plan is well advanced. Treasury is moving to the final stage of the tender process to privatise the database of the Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC). “Final bids are to be evaluated in September,” a source told michaelwest.com.au. “There are a small number of indicative bidders now”.
Already, the charges levied by ASIC for this supposedly public information are believed to be the highest of any country in the world. This question has been put to the corporate regulator and there has been no response.
What we are talking about here is annual revenue of more than $700 million in company lodgement fees and $60 million in revenue from company searches.
In many countries such as the UK and New Zealand, this public information is free. In Australia, however, a stakeholder – be that stakeholder a company employee, a local community, a creditor, the media, a non-government organisation or a university – may have to pay hundreds of dollars to find out about their company’s state of affairs. For a set of financial statements the charge is $38.
A case of onerous costs in point: when this writer was researching the affairs of coal mining giant Glencore, it took days and hundreds of dollars in search fees to establish
that Glencore Operations Australia Pty Ltd was controlled by Glencore Queensland Pty Ltd, which was in turn owned by Glencore Investment Holdings Australia Ltd, in turn owned by Glencore Investment Ltd and in turn owned by the enigmatically named GHP 104 160 689 Pty Ltd. The latter, which sits at the top of Glencore’s labyrinthine corporate structure in Australia, was owned by company domiciled in Bermuda.
Over the past three months we have endeavoured to get access to this supposedly public information about multinational companies. The question we have now posed to no less than four government agencies and ministries is: how can this information be regarded as “public” if the public cannot afford to gain access to it?
We began by asking ASIC for access in May. ASIC referred us to the Department of Finance. The Department of Finance referred us back to ASIC which then referred us to Treasury which then referred us to the Minister for Financial Services.
We are now awaiting a response from the Minister for Financial Services, Kelly O’Dwyer.
What can the government possibly hope to achieve by selling this $60 million of annual revenue it gets from company searches? Is it merely to get a one-off payment – perhaps even from a foreign multinational company – which will help repair the budget? This is $60 million which will need to be replaced somehow year after year. It is $60 million it should not be getting anyway as access to public information is what oils the wheels of democracy. It should be free. The public owns this information and indeed, in funding ASIC, has already paid for it.
How could anyone believe that, by delivering this information into the hands of a private monopoly, the public interest could possibly be served? Surely a private operator could not be expected to charge less than is presently charged.
Michael West established michaelwest.com.au to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. Formerly a journalist and editor at Fairfax newspapers and a columnist at News Corp, West was appointed Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Social and Political Sciences.