The stupendous profitability of the corporate watchdog’s database, which the government is trying to privatise, was on display at hearings in Canberra this week.

The Senate Estimates hearings were further proof, if any were required, that the world’s most expensive and profitable public information resides right here in our island nation care of the Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC).

They might not be able to reel in the big fish of white collar crime, but they surely know how to flog data back to taxpayers (who have already paid for it) at exorbitant prices.

Investigation: ASIC fees highest in world, even before data sale

ASIC bosses were up before the committee on Wednesday. They said their usurious charges for corporate data, $876 million last year, was not their fault. The government, parliament, sets the prices.

How much does it cost to operate this database?

“Our registry direct costs are in the order of about $20 million. On a fully loaded basis—which includes IT, property and other back office services provided by ASIC – we think it is in the order of about $60 million.”

Fully-loaded indeed. Buried in the notes to ASIC’s own financial statements is the line “information costs”, which was $6.047 million last year. In stock market parlance that’s a “ten-banger”.

Anybody care to own a business which makes $876 million on a cost base of $6 million? Thought so. So if it is due to rake in $900 million this year and only costs $6 million to operate, why is the government selling it?

Both ASIC and Department of Finance chiefs, who were up before the committee the day before, trotted out the sly line that the database was old and in dire need of an upgrade.

That upgrade would cost $100 million. Think about that, $100 million equates to just one-ninth of the income the thing will rip out of taxpayers this year alone. Yet, hand on heart, they claim they are selling it because they can’t afford the computer upgrade.

That’s one step from blaming it on renewable energy.

The other choice line was that charges were indexed to CPI: Senator Whish-Wilson: “Have they risen over time, especially in the last five years?”

ASIC person: “I will take that on notice and check. I am not aware that there has been anything inordinate, but a
number of the fees are indexed to the CPI.”

Indeed they are indexed to CPI but what was forgotten in the heat of the moment was the sneaky round-ups – which are akin to the cost of your morning latte rising a dollar every year.

Fee Gouge: already extreme, ASIC charges to rise

If a company extract costs $9, and that cost rises, say, 2 per cent in line with CPI, they don’t price it the next year at $9.18, they round it up to $10.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: “Perhaps the government is using it as a cash cow.”

ASIC person: “I cannot speak on behalf of government.”

It was difficult to ascertain who was the more sheepish about the sale of the database, ASIC chair Greg Medcraft and his crew or Mathias Cormann and his Finance people the day before.

For one, the prices as they are – and the impending sale – totally and hypocritically counter the government’s own data policy. “The Australian Government Public Data Policy Statement”, an initiative of the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull himself, espouses making “non-sensitive high-value data open by default”.

The costs are so high it is not open now, and if they sell it it is likely to exhibit even worse features of openness. Companies don’t buy things to charge less and make lower profits.

Sadly the gravy train is in motion. It was conceded that almost $10 million of taxpayer money had already been showered on the sale process: $3.9 million to the US merchant bank Greenhill, $3.2 million in legal advice and $2 million in accounting advice. The Big Four accounting firms and the lawyers will have wormed their way into a richly undeserved mandate yet again; this time to sell something which shouldn’t be sold.

So, the government is now “assessing the tender bids, the process is ongoing”, even though it doesn’t make economic sense and the GetUp! petition now has almost 80,000 signatures “against”.

This reeks of a deal whose announcement is best suited to the “bring out yer dead” hour in the afternoon of December 24 when nobody cares. It is a one-off slug, a sad scheme to plug a small hole in the budget deficit with an inevitably poor policy outcome.