ASIC registry sell-off scuttled


Despite hopes to reap billions, final bids did not deliver a net financial benefit for the Commonwealth. The big question now is whether open data principles will be extended to make corporate records free to access.

A push to sell off the registry and business information arm of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission has been unceremoniously torpedoed by the Turnbull government, despite an extensive beauty pageant of prospective purchasers.

In a statement that bookended the government’s MYEFO Budget update on Monday, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann revealed the reason for abandoning the divestment was that the “final bids received did not deliver a net financial benefit for the Commonwealth.”

The decision shuts the door on a lengthy dalliance with commercialising the corporate regulator’s information holdings that commentators had speculated could deliver between $3 billion and $6 billion — amounts that raised obvious questions over how much a monopoly operator would extract from the business community in compliance costs.

The notion of selling off ASIC’s registry also encountered stiff resistance from within Coalition ranks, most notably from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who publicly opposed the move and labelled it the paywalling of public data “really regrettable” in 2014 when he was communications minister.

At the time Turnbull argued that the wider productivity and economic benefits created by an open data approach to government were much greater than charging money to access it.

Just how the government calculated the net financial benefit that the Commonwealth wouldn’t be receiving, or the amount, is likely to remain a secret given the heavy confidentiality provisions surrounding the bidding process.

“The Commonwealth does not intend to publish the information obtained in responses as part of the competitive tender process,” Finance’s update said.

Part of the initial justification for the ASIC Registry sell–off was that a private provider could modernise ASIC’s systems to both deliver better service to customers and a windfall to taxpayers.

Finance now says the tender process has “process highlighted the need to consider registry modernising functions more broadly across government.”

“The outcome of the tender process is a valuable resource for government in considering future registry modernisation options,” Finance said in an update on its website.

Those modernisation options will necessarily need to take account of the Digital Transformation Agency’s future whole of government strategy and architecture revealed last week.

Significantly, the establishment of the DTA transferred many of Finance’s technology procurement powers back to Prime Minister and Cabinet, a move that has far more closely aligned policy and strategy with purchasing controls.

The constraints of ASIC’s registry systems were also laid bare in Finance’s update.

“The Registry’s existing technology has limitations including the nature and quality of inputs, systems capability, as well as significant restrictions on the ability to provide useful outputs to users,” the Finance update said.

“The Government will consider future options for the registry functions and will make any further announcements in due course.”

Whether ASIC will ultimately provide access to its registry information and data for free — a move championed by open government advocates and fintech entrepreneurs alike — remains to be seen.

What is certain is that all eyes will be on the next budget for developments.