At the start of the covid-19 pandemic Transparency International Australia (TIA) raised concerns that emergency powers could be used to undermine accountability and wind back regulatory oversight.
As The Guardian recently reported, it seems that this has occurred. Use of Freedom of Information has revealed that in May, the Treasurer used emergency powers to weaken corporate disclosure rules, against the advice of the corporate regulator – ASIC.
These rules are important. They require companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange to continuously disclose any changes to business operations, market values and forecasts that could affect share price, and with it information investors need to know.
What is perhaps even more worrying is that the organisations who lobbied to have these disclosure laws watered down – the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Institute of Company Directors, are reportedly now pushing to have them made permanent as part of a campaign against future shareholder class actions.
This is exactly the sort of risk that TIA flagged at the outset of the Covid crisis – when emergency powers are used to modify regulatory oversight during a crisis – it becomes all too easy for special interest groups to be opportunistic and seize the moment to try and have temporary measures stick. When our politicians are understandably focused on delivering immediate health and economic support, lobbyists can flex their muscle.
Transparency and accountability is not only important for a healthy democracy – it’s also vital for investor confidence, as the Australian Securities and Investment Commission told the Treasury. In a post Covid recovery, attracting investment is going to be really important to create jobs and opportunities for our economic, social and environmental recovery. Undermining investor confidence through allowing opaque disclosure is not what’s needed.