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Transparency is essential

EVERY week we publish dozens of government-based contracts and tenders in our For The Record section – doing our bit for transparency by picking through the reams of available information.

It’s all very fascinating reading and we are happy to provide it. We are also very pleased that we can get it because it means we have a tool to ensure government is working.

We know that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but for some in business it is important to know who won the contract to paint the dunny at Esperance, for instance, or to learn who has the successful tender to build a major stage of a subterranean rail link.

And just why we have this transparent process has become all the more clear this past week or so as building giant BGC has started to unravel a nasty case of political interference in the tendering process.

Tom Stephens has lost his job as WA’s Housing and Works Minister over the fracas that resulted. It seems that not only had he tried to shut out BGC from competing for certain contracts under his portfolio, he had also been implicated in apparent favouring of a more union-friendly player in the construction industry.

This is just not on, and Mr Stephens has paid a price for his role, though I would suggest not high enough. He remains a minister in the Gallop Government.

The transparency of the tendering process and its fairness are important elements of good government.

Premier Geoff Gallop knows full well how bad things can get when these fundamental rules are ignored. The WA Labor Government of the late 1980s and early 1990s, of which he was a member, ignored or bent many of these rules – not just to its own peril, but to the great expense of the State.

I think Mr Stephens has got off lightly, perhaps because this problem was nipped in the bud.

Few local-based organisations, though, have the power and determination of a BGC to be able to challenge abuse of the system.

Whether or not you admire Len Buckeridge, I think it was lucky for all of us that his company decided to make the stand that it did.

Era at an end

IT’S the end of a retail era.

WA Business News observed that a number of companies among the list of liquidators appointments carry ACNs as their names. A quick search through the Australian Securities and Investments Commission website shows they are all companies from the Marlows retail group, which has been taken over by Super Cheap.

Among the discarded companies are Marlows Ltd and theride Pty Ltd.

The pitfalls of privatisation

I COULDN’T help picking up the brouhaha over gas utility Alinta raising prices for its services. The biggest concern came from the WA Council for Social Services, which was aghast at the impact on low-income earners.

I am both an Alinta share-holder and a gas consumer, so I reckon I have a foot in both camps when it comes to objective comment.

Clearly, the big issue from WACOSS’s point of view is profits and privatisation, in that Alinta’s hunger to pay its shareholders is forcing up the price of gas for people who can’t afford it.

In some ways WACOSS is right. But this is not the fault of privatisation.

A government-owned utility keeping prices down is great news for consumers but it hides the real cost of the service.

In effect, the government, as the only shareholder, accepts a lower dividend to keep the electorate happy.

But this means the government may have less to spend on programs it feels are more of a priority.

And subsidising low-income earners by keeping utility services prices low across the board is a costly business because you are also keeping prices down for people who can afford them.

It’s just difficult to pinpoint who is making what under the camouflage of bureaucracy.

In other words, low-priced utilities are not as transparent as a privatised version – under which WACOSS and the rest of us can see far more clearly how much profit is being made at what pricing levels.

If the Government thinks that low-income earners should have their power subsidised, it seems more efficient to offer that subsidy to a targeted audience rather than the whole population.

And don’t forget, the Government has already reaped the benefits of a privatisation windfall, which has effectively given it years of profit in an up-front payment to pay for other goodies or retire debt – either way the electorate should have benefited.

If it wants, it can put some of this money (or interest cost savings) into providing cheap gas for the underprivileged – that is its choice. The result of such a policy would be tested at the polls.

There are plenty of other examples of this inefficient use of resources but the market is not holding its breath for further privatisations just now.

More’s the pity.

Time well spent

ONE of the best projects I think WA Business News has embarked upon is the search for Best Employers in WA.

This has been a tough concept to turn into reality because of the sophisticated nature of the surveying required.

Before launching the program we tested the system through our own staff. We found the confidential online questionnaire did provide solid, useful feedback without compromising anyone who wanted to be honest.

We also know it took a bit of prodding to make sure enough staff members completed the form. We already have a good array of entries but the feedback is that it’s not that easy to get the necessary numbers of staff to ‘do’ the 10-minute form – especially among the State’s larger employers.

Bearing that in mind, we’ve decided that we need to give employers a bit more time to get their staff to fully participate in our survey and give them the best chance to compete to be recognised in the inaugural Best Employers in WA.

I really do recommend you visit www.bestemployers.com.au and see how easy this is.

And by getting behind this project, you’ll help us tell everyone how well West Aussie businesses manage their staff – and you might even get a gong, and all the publicity that goes with it.

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