Government axed shares code

by Chris Griffith
Published 20 Oct 1996 in The Sunday Mail


my face


The Howard Government's share-crisis saga moved to Queensland yesterday, following an admission by the Borbidge Government that it had scrapped a requirement that ministers divest shares to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

In one fateful week, Prime Minister John Howard accepted the resignations of Assistant Treasurer Jim Short and Parliamentary Secretary Brian Gibson, and Industries Minister John Moore was forced to sell his 43,000 shares in Bligh Ventures Ltd.

But in Queensland, the scandal is unlikely to touch a single minister - thanks to the Borbidge Government's decision to scrap a pre-existing ministerial Code of Conduct.

The issue is not new in Queensland. Twenty-six years ago, newly-installed Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen nearly lost his party's leadership after the infamous 1970 Comalco shares deals.

It was the Goss government that moved to distance ministerial shareholdings from the decisions of government.

Under its Ministers' Code of Ethics found in the Cabinet Handbook, Goss ministers had to "divest themselves of shareholdings in any company in respect of which a conflict of interest exists or could reasonably be suspected to exist".

"Ministers will advise the Premier should they find themselves in a situation of conflict of interest.

"This advice will be tendered at Cabinet and a record made by the Cabinet Secretary that the Minister so declared his/her pecuniary interest or conflict of interest and withdrew from the Cabinet Room."

Yesterday a spokesman for Premier Rob Borbidge confirmed that the incoming government had dropped the requirement, and that the new government's ministerial handbook "doesn't deal with this issue".

"If when considering an issue, a minister sees a potential conflict, it's up to him to disclose that conflict," the spokesman said.

"At the state level, we're not dealing with the same problems that occur nationally."

While state ministerial guidelines on shareholdings do not exist, all state MPs's declare shareholdings annually in parliament's "Register of Members' Interests".

A parliamentary committee is reviewing the register and the introduction of a Code of Conduct for state politicians.

But it is ministers' rather than backbenchers' shareholdings which are highly contentious, as ministers can make spot decisions benefiting their share portfolios.

In 1970, former journalist Cedric Allen offered politicians, bureaucrats, and journalists Comalco shares at a special $2.75 price. Comalco at the time was doing business with the government.

Government ministers, Labor Opposition members, and bureaucrats, including three in the Premier's Department, were able to make a killing when the shares were floated and rocketed to $5.66 each.

Yesterday Opposition Leader Peter Beattie said an incoming Labor government would restore the Goss government's requirement for ministers to divest shareholdings.

"You can't have unwritten rules, the rules have to be clear and they've got to be enforced."

The latest Register of Members' Interests lists the following ministerial shareholdings and trusts. These trusts are listed because they could involve shareholdings:

Joan Sheldon, Treasurer, Arts: Joan M Sheldon (Physiotherapy), Sheldon Nominees P/L;

Denver Beanland, Attorney-General, Justice: Westpac Banking Corporation; National Australia Bank; Southcorp; Commonwealth Bank; GIO Australia Ltd; Amcor; David Jones;

Russell Cooper, Police, Corrective Services, Racing: ANZ; BHP; Boral; National Australia Bank; Western Australia Newspapers; Commonwealth Bank; Pacific Dunlop; Trusts: The Cooper Family Trust;

Doug Slack, Economic Development, Trade: Yetton P/L; Glenearn P/L; Dutton Downs P/L;

Howard Hobbs, Natural Resources: Nontrom P/L; Ekalar P/L;

Mick Vievers, Emergency Services, Sport: Nuigini Consultants P/L; Trusts: The L M Vievers Family Trust; David Alexander Vievers; Shane Louise Vievers;

Trevor Perrett, Primary Industries, Fisheries, Forestry. Trusts: Perrett Family Trust; Investor-Perrett Grazing Co P/L; Trevor J Perrett, Merryn Perrett & children;

Mike Horan, Health: Grainco; Commonwealth Bank;

Bob Quinn, Education: Robonna P/L Real Estate; Trusts: Quinn Family Trust;

Ray Connor, Public Works: Kilford P/L.