09/07/2008 - 22:00

Masters of spin and deflection

09/07/2008 - 22:00

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Are we living in a state of secrecy? I've always taken the optimistic view that governments in Western Australia generally want to be open and transparent.

Are we living in a state of secrecy?

I've always taken the optimistic view that governments in Western Australia generally want to be open and transparent.

That is what every hue of government has said it wants to be. Pessimists point to the army of public relations people employed by the state as an example of the opposite, that these are people there to spin the government's line.

That may be the case but, in my past experience, these people are also there to field questions in a professional manner. It's all in the understanding that everyone's just doing their job. It's a democracy after all, isn't it?

But perhaps my optimism is not well founded.

Of late, I have had cause to wonder if the state has simply given up providing answers on subjects it finds distasteful.

For instance, the gas crisis has been a particularly frustrating issue for me to cover. Getting answers out of relevant state institutions has been difficult.

Messages left at the state's Office of Energy, the agency that is taking a lead role in the situation, have gone unanswered.

Treasury has deflected my questions to other agencies.

Naturally, I was seeking answers to questions that were relevant to the business community, such as the economic impact of this event and how gas was being allocated.

To date, I can't recall a response on anything formal like that from any government agency I've contacted. Has the crisis hit their ability to function, or is the pre-election lock-down already in place?

More recently, I've sought some answers to why the government stopped the mutualisation of the former Government Employees Superannuation Board, now known as GESB, the day before the $9 billion fund manager's transition was due to take place.

It has been tough getting anything more than sparse information on this subject. Treasurer Eric Ripper has confirmed he acted on advice from Under-Treasurer Tim Marney, and that one of the concerns was around the treatment of surpluses, which I understand could amount to $345 million. That information came on the day the mutualisation was halted, and it has been hard to glean anything since.

Below is the set of questions (with responses) I asked the treasurer's office on Tuesday when news of the decision to stop the mutualisation process was revealed. I was asked to submit questions by email, a practice I find restrictive and annoying. What I got was answers by email, which you can see in the following Q&A.

MP: Was the government and/or all government agencies other than GESB ready for the transition?

Treasurer's office: No. GESB and the Department of Treasury and Finance have worked very hard at making the transition happen. Unfortunately, a number of financial and structural issues were unable to be resolved to the necessary extent to ensure the transition was in the interest of all members and the public interest more broadly.

MP: Was there any concern from the govt or treasury about the transition?

Treasurer's office: Yes.

MP: Is this delay linked to a looming election?

Treasurer's office: It is in no way impacted by the electoral cycle but is based on independent advice to the Government.

MP: Has the govt or treasury had any representations from members, or their representatives (namely the unions) opposing the mutualisation or concerned about any aspects of it?

Treasurer's office: We have received correspondence from the CPSU.

MP: I wrote in March that there were concerns about surpluses of the Gold State Super fund being transferred over to the mutualised group (when Gold State was not going to be)...has this been raised as a specific objection in terms of the amount of money involved?

Treasurer's office: That was one of a number of issues that were unable to be satisfactorily resolved.

MP: Did Treasury or the govt make a decision to stop the transition on June 30 (or even this morning)?

Treasurer's office: The Under Treasurer advised the Treasurer on 30 June 2008 not to execute the legal documentation to effect the transition. The Treasurer accepted that advice.

We published this Q&A online on Thursday last week after waiting two days for answers to follow-up questions seeking much further detail on this subject - after all, about 300,000 Western Australians are members of GESB managed funds and speculation is that hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake in this pseudo-privatisation.

After that went online, the treasurer's office asked me to resubmit my questions, again via email. These were the questions I asked.

- Why was the proposed transfer to GESB of GSS surpluses (or any similar monies) an issue raised in the decision to halt the mutualisation?

- Was the proposed transfer to GESB of GSS surpluses (or any similar monies) a significant issue in the decision to halt the mutualisation? If it was a significant issue, is it the principal issue?

- How much money is involved? -What was its intended use? Was it partly being used to fund the transition to mutual status?

- What alternative arrangements are there to resolve this? ie will the funds stay with the govt, if so how much?

- Also, what other concerns have impacted on the decision to halt the mutualisation (how many, what were they)?

- If the above was not the principal issue, what was?

- Why did these issues emerge so late in the process?

- What advice has the treasurer received on this matter? Can it be made public?

Below is the answer I received.

"Ultimate financial arrangements between the Government and the new GESB Mutual have yet to be finalised. These include service agreements and the precise distribution GESB's reserves.

"These arrangements must be completed and reflected in any necessary legal documents before I can sign off on the mutualisation.

"These are administrative and corporate issues and do not affect members' benefits or their investment returns.

"As I have already said, I am disappointed that there has been a further postponement of the GESB reform package.

"However, both the Government and GESB believe the interests' of members are paramount and we will continue to act prudently to protect those interests."

I think I could safely argue that that answered none of the questions above. Even more galling is the fact that Treasury has not answered my questions and GESB is referring all queries to the treasurer's office.

I am becoming increasingly pessimistic about the ability of journalists to do their job if this is the kind of barriers we hit.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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