Yes Minister, No Minister

Well, no sooner had we posted yesterday’s story asking if Kerry Stokes is indeed the prospective ‘mystery buyer’ of the iconic, heritage listed South Fremantle Power Station, and again calling upon all parties concerned, including Synergy and the Minister for Energy, Bill Johnston, to let the public know just who the conditional buyer of the site is and what the terms of the conditional sale are, when our editor received a phone call from the Minister himself.

One suspects it’s an unwritten part of a Minister’s job description to have to occasionally phone a journalist to wisen them up on things!

During a robust 45 minute conversation, Mr Johnston explained it’s not his role to interfere with this Synergy sale process or to be involving himself in it in any way – which, Yes Minister, we get.

The Minister also insisted the existing sale process is a ‘vanilla’ transaction. That is to say, a run of the mill sale of property or other commercial transaction that Synergy regularly undertakes. No Minister, we don’t buy that.

One needs to be clear here – there is a conditional agreement in place. This is not some incomplete ‘negotiation’ with a ‘preferred bidder’.

Synergy has clearly itself stated it has ‘entered into a conditional agreement with a party with respect to the sale of the South Fremantle Power Station’.

What the Shipping News has consistently asked, is for the parties to the agreement, encouraged by the Minister, to say who the conditional buyer is and make public the terms of the conditional agreement. The future development of the site is too important for these matters to remain ‘commercial in confidence’. We have no idea what those conditions are and in our view we are entitled to know.

At the end of our conversation with the Minister we invited him to provide a statement on the matter. Later we received this statement from a spokesperson for the Minister. Here it is –

“The Minister does not have any involvement in the negotiation of any commercial arrangements that Synergy enters into, until after they’ve made their final decision.

“Synergy is a Government Trading Enterprise, that does commercial contracts constantly, many worth tens of millions of dollars.

“Synergy has high-quality commercial staff that are employed for their ability to operate in a commercial manner.

“Once staff are satisfied of the commercial agreement that’s ready to be executed, they provide a recommendation to the Synergy board for approval.

“After the board is satisfied the transaction is appropriate, it will then give approval.
“The Synergy board is made up of a range of experienced senior figures, including a Treasury official, who all have significant experience in commercial transactions.

“In accordance with legislation, if the transaction meets certain criteria it’s referred to the Minister for final approval.

“In making a decision, the Minister always receives advice from Treasury and any other relevant departments and agencies, and only acts on advice.

“This advice ensures the proper interest of Western Australian taxpayers are always considered.

“It’s expected the sale of the South Fremantle Power Station will follow this exact procedure, which ensures the interests of taxpayers and the broader community is properly considered, before any sale is concluded.”

However, in our view, when a Government Trading Enterprise, even one intended to be quite free from Ministerial control, is selling an iconic, irreplaceable, State heritage site to a private business interest, we the public are entitled to know, at this stage of the sale process, just who the conditional buyer of the site is and the terms of the conditional agreement. The conditional agreement should not be shrouded in mystery or subject to the sort of leaks we reported on yesterday. If the Minister feels unable to do anything in this regard, then it is up to Synergy and the conditional buyer of the power station site to come clean on the details.

This has to be in everyone’s interests as we all want to see a brilliant restoration and viable economic use of the old South Fremantle Power Station building and adjacent site area.

* By Michael Barker, Editor, Fremantle Shipping News

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