Unveiled: Australia’s Most Hopeless Regulator

by | Jun 11, 2019 | Comment Analysis, Government

“A million dead fish can’t be beat”, proclaimed one nomination for the inaugural Australia’s Most Hopeless Regulator (AMHR) Award. Indeed, in what is a fiercely contested field, the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) is a strong contender for the coveted title of the most hopeless regulator.

Although it did not preside over the destruction of the nation’s most precious eco-system – as was accomplished by the Murray Darling Basin Authority – the Australian Energy Regulator delivered a robust performance nonetheless.

For more than a decade now, the Australian Energy Regulator has done its best to be the most hopeless regulator in the country. On a pure dollar basis, no other regulator has done more to strip billions from ordinary working Australians – via nosebleed power bills – and plonk those billions onto the balance sheets of foreign multinational tax avoiders.

Its associate, the Australian Energy Markets Commission (AEMC), also deserves special attention as it sets the gas and electricity market rules in favour of the large foreign corporations.

Gas deal: “a massive transfer of wealth from gas customers to China and Singapore”

The Quiet Non-Achiever Award

Before we announce the winner of the Peoples’ Award for Australia’s Most Hopeless Regulator, it is worth considering the quiet non-achievers; those regulators which go about their business being hopeless with little fanfare; those who receive no public recognition for frittering away millions of taxpayer dollars contributing little or nothing.

In this regard, it is hard not to harbour a sneaking personal admiration for the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), a body which is so elusive that even its members must question whether it actually exists. The FRC is adamant however that it is doing good work. Having recently sent out a survey to its auditor members do ask them if they thought they were doing a good job, “92 per cent responded … ‘above average’ or ‘excellent'”.

That settles it. It is this kind of rigorous process, inviting people to say nice things about their own work, which has made the FRC what it is today, totally useless.

Then there’s the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC).  Yes, this really is a real organisation, we did not make it up. The OAIC is the privacy and information regulator; and there is no need for the OAIC to reassure itself that it is doing an excellent job. When it comes to complete inactivity, agonisingly slow response times and general expertise in ducking and weaving, this regulator is virtually without peer.

Special mention should also go to the Australian Skills Quality Authority – the national regulator for Australia’s vocational education and training sector – which has turned box-ticking and meaningless paperwork into an art form.

The People’s Choice

The people have spoken. There is a clear winner in the Peoples’ Choice Award for Australia’s Most Hopeless Regulator. When we announced the AMHR awards in late January, the most popular nomination, by far, was the corporate regulator, the Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC).

Presiding over systemic fraud by Australia’s largest and most profitable institutions is no mean feat. It takes a particular kind of institution to ignore that much fraud going on directly under its nose while remaining, somehow, extant.

Indeed, the Banking Royal Commissioner Kenneth Hayne singled out ASIC for its uselessness on a number of occasions last year.

Undeterred, even in the face of the damning Royal Commission findings, the Commission’s top brass were busy giving themselves performance bonuses again last year. Throughout the past decade in fact, as the banks it was regulating routinely fleeced their customers, ASIC’s top brass kept on paying themselves higher performance bonuses.

Now that is flair.

Parallel Universe: more “Performance Bonuses” for corporate watchdog

Last week, as the Australian Federal Police were spearheading Australia’s transition to a police state by raiding the ABC over a two-year old story, ASIC quietly slipped out a media release. The government has decided to backflip on its commitment to waive the world’s highest corporate search fees.

It is quite likely to have been a directive from Mathias Corman’s office, Mathias running cover for large corporations as usual. Whatever the case, this reporter requested an interview with ASIC chairman, James Shipton. What did Shipton have to say about efficient markets and information? Did he recommend the Government keep its extortionate charges?

In the interests of disclosure, it costs $40 every time this reporter pays to access the ASIC database to find, for example, a copy of Exxon’s accounts.

ExxonMobil Australia Pty Ltd

There are many questions we could put to Shipton. As he was formerly an executive with Goldman Sachs, he might have a view on why Goldman lodges financial statements with ASIC which don’t appear to comply with the Corporations Act. Or this ripper, why was ASIC paying Goldman $104k for a month of “cleaning and janitorial services”?

Many are the questions, and few are the answers. But this is one regulator which deems its challenges as stemming from image rather than performance. Take the logo imbroglio.

Central command at the Australian Securities and Investments Commission engaged creative agency Folk Pty Ltd to work on refreshing the logo of the agency. ASIC informed Folk:

“We want the public to be confident”

“We need to be respected. Not loved”

“Strong. Accountable. Firm/fair”

“Finger-on-the-pulse. Contemporary. Informed”

“Vigilant. Transparent. Responsive”

And so it was that, amid the disastrous news emerging from the banking sector, the ASIC logo was made more bold.

The cost to the taxpayer for this creative development was purported to be $43,000, excluding GST. A further $60,000 was paid to update ASIC’s logo on stationary templates, banners and the online homepage.

In August 2018, journalist Stephen Long of the ABC leaked the contents of a document revealing ASIC’s rebranding efforts. Long’s story quickly disappeared off ABC’s website for a time, as reported here.

Censored? ASIC leak vanishes from ABC website quicker than a Snickers

The story must have offended somebody in Canberra, because when it reappeared days later, some of the original content was gone or edited out.

Folk – jack of all trades

This brings us to Folk itself. This little company, based in a converted chocolate factory in Sydney inner city suburb of Annandale, has huge form on jagging work from Australia’s regulators.

According to the government contract website, Austender, Folk has managed $5.5 million in government contracts in the last eight years with 19 different entities. To say that Folk is well-loved in government department circles is probably an understatement.

Folk has had contracts with each of the following:

(1) the Asbestos Safety and Eradication Agency;

(2) Attorney-General’s Department;

(3) Australian Building and Construction Commission;

(4) Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission;

(5) Australian Federal Police; Department of Defence;

(6) Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs;

(7) Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade;

(8) Department of Health;

(9) Department of Home Affairs;

(10) Department of Infrastructure, Regional Development and Cities;

(11) Department of Social Services;

(12) Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet;

(13) Fair Work Ombudsman and Registered Organisations Commission Entity;

(14) Geoscience Australia;

(15) Infrastructure and Project Financing Agency;

(16) National Health and Medical Research Council;

(17) National Mental Health Commission;

(18) Therapeutic Goods Administration; and

(19) ASIC.

Not that there is anything wrong with a small business like Folk being paid for doing whatever government contract work it can get. But it is curious that Folk’s contract work for government departments and agencies appears to be so extensive and diverse with 34 different categories recorded on the Austender website.

Folk has apparently been responsible for delivering the following broad list of services in its government contracts:

(1) Administrative agencies services;

(2) Branding of product naming services;

(3) Business administration services;

(4) Components for information technology or broadcasting or telecommunications;

(5) Computer programmers;

(6) Computer services;

(7) Computer support parts or accessories;

(8) Data Voice or Multimedia Network Equipment or Platforms and Accessories;

(9) Earth science services;

(10) Graphic design;

(11) Human resources services;

(12) Information services;

(13) Information technology consultation services;

(14) Internet services;

(15) Layout or graphics editing services;

(16) Mailing or mail pick up or delivery services;

(17) Management advisory services;

(18) Market research;

(19) Marketing and distribution

(20) Personnel recruitment;

(21) Photographic and recording media;

(22) Photographic or filming or video equipment;

(23) Printed publications;

(24) Project management;

(25) Promotional merchandise;

(26) Promotional or advertising printing;

(27) Public relation services;

(28) Publication printing;

(29) Publishing;

(30) Research programs;

(31) Software;

(32)Software maintenance and support;

(33) Telecommunications media services; and

(34) Visual art services.

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Michael West

Michael West

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. You can follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelWestBiz.


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