The Australian’s outgoing media commentator Errol Simper had a glowing farewell tribute to outgoing ABC chairman Donald McDonald this morning, which also included the following about his successor, ASX chairman Maurice Newman:

Maurice Lionel Newman, 68, had joined the board in December 2000 and rapidly established himself as a capable director with a genuine interest in public broadcasting. The chairman of the ASX, he headed the board’s finance committee and, when he abruptly resigned in May 2004 (over a controversy involving boardroom confidentiality), most protagonists expressed regret. Federal Labor’s then communications spokesman, Lindsay Tanner, told this newspaper he regarded Newman as “someone of integrity and principle”. Tanner said Newman had been the one member of a by then “Coalition-stacked” board an incoming Labor administration would have reappointed. Though — in common with McDonald — personally friendly with Howard, Newman was never subject to the same level of political suspicion. Kim Beazley’s former chief of staff Michael Costello — a columnist for this journal — has described Newman as “completely non-partisan”. Thus, Newman’s path would clearly be less hazardous than that which faced McDonald.

There’s a slight problem here. Michael Costello was hired by Newman’s ASX board to be deputy chief executive of the ASX in 1997. He pocketed almost $2 million over two years in the job and achieved his purpose – keeping Federal Labor onside for the notorious demutualisation and privatisation of the ASX.

The ASX has since developed into Australia’s most lucrative government-endorsed monopoly, ripping off customers, abusing its position and failing to properly regulate the market.

Taxpayers are now spending $30 million through ASIC setting up a second market surveillance operation because the ASX has refused to spend the money or do its job properly – preferring to build on the 200-fold returns enjoyed by its original 626 stockbroker shareholders.

Putting Newman, a close mate of John Howard who turns 69 next April, into the top job at the ABC is just the latest inappropriate appointment to Aunty’s board.

The only appointment he should be making is one with ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel to discuss how its ASX monopoly pricing should be formally regulated. Why Labor has turned a blind eye to ASX rip-offs, let alone endorsed Newman as ABC chairman, remains a complete mystery, but Michael Costello’s role should not be underestimated.

Peter Fray

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