WHEN shareholders in Perth-based energy utility Alinta Ltd gather to vote on the $15 billion carve-up of the company on August 13, few of them will realise the remarkable historical event they will trigger.
In accepting $4.5 billion of cash from Singapore Power for a suite of Australian electricity and gas distribution assets, Alinta shareholders will lift the total value of Australian business assets controlled by the Singapore Government to almost $30 billion.
This will exceed the value of commercial assets owned by our own Federal Government, which is surely an unprecedented situation for any First World country. How can a foreign power own more of Australia than our own government?
While ordinary Singaporeans have limited democratic rights and still don’t enjoy benefits such as Australia’s minimum wage (the world’s highest), the Singapore state has amassed an empire worth more than $200 billion — and it has now put more of it into Australia than any other country.
The investments come from two discreet vehicles. The $100 billion-plus Government Investment Corporation (GIC) invests Singapore’s foreign reserves around the world while Temasek Holdings owns the shares in government-controlled businesses such as Singapore Airlines, Singapore Power, Singtel and the giant DBS Holdings financial conglomerate.
Few people realise how much these two vehicles have ploughed into Australia since 1995, buying many sensitive and prestigious assets such as Optus, Myer Melbourne and large parts of the old State Electricity Commission of Victoria.
This compares starkly with the Howard Government, which has raised about $65 billion from privatisation — the biggest chunks coming from selling 83 per cent of Telstra ($45 billion), 50.1 per cent of the Commonwealth Bank ($5.15 billion) and the nation’s airports ($8.5 billion).
With Medibank Private also slated for sale next year, the Government is left with only Australia Post, which made a net profit of $370 million in 2005-06 and is therefore worth about $7 billion. The residual 17 per cent stake in Telstra is worth $10 billion but the Government doesn’t control it.
While other nations such as China, Singapore, Russia, Korea, Kuwait and Norway build up huge sovereign funds, Australia, with its world-beating dowry of natural assets, still has a Federal Government with a negative net worth of $10 billion in the middle of an unprecedented commodities boom.
Even including the $52 billion in the Future Fund and all land and defence assets, these assets do not exceed the $50 billion in outstanding federal debt and $111 billion in unfunded superannuation liabilities as at June 30, 2007.
The contrast with Singapore is stark indeed. This island nation of just 4.4 million people in a land mass broadly equivalent to Melbourne has amassed vast public wealth, although its private wealth is nowhere near the $8130 billion that the federal Treasury and Australian Bureau of Statistics estimate Australia’s 21 million citizens have accumulated.
So how did this happen? It all started when Singapore Airlines wanted to buy the cornerstone 25 per cent stake in Qantas offered by the Keating Government in 1993, but lost out to British Airways. It took the defeat very badly.
Its first major successful move came in 1995 when a Singapore government body, Capita Land, bought a controlling interest in Australand, the property developer that built the Commonwealth Games village. This stake is now worth $1.1 billion.
After staying out of the original $30 billion energy sector privatisation program in Victoria, Singapore Power, which is fully owned by the state, picked up the monopoly electricity transmission business Powernet for $2.1 billion in June 2000.
This was quickly followed by Singtel’s $14 billion bid for Optus in 2001. Singtel is 56 per cent government-owned, so Optus is now more publicly owned than Telstra — albeit by a foreign power. I, for one, switched my mobile phone contract from Optus to Telstra as a small consumer protest when Australian drug trafficker Van Nguyen was executed by the immovable Singapore authorities in 2005.
The next big bite was Singapore Power’s $5.1 billion acquisition of TXU’s Australian energy portfolio in April 2004, although $2.2 billion of retail and generation assets were on-sold to China Light & Power in March 2005. Late in 2005, 49 per cent of the remaining Australian power assets were floated in a vehicle called SP Ausnet, raising $1.3 billion.
This reduced the total power sector investment to $3.8 billion, but now we have the huge Alinta deal in which Singapore Power is offering $4.5 billion in cash to become the monopoly gas distributor in NSW and the largest distributor of electricity in Victoria.
It will even own 50 per cent of ActewAGL — the company that keeps the lights on at Parliament House in Canberra.
Coinciding with the Alinta deal has been a recent splurge of property investments. Frank Lowy sold to GIC a 50 per cent stake in Westfield Parramatta, Australia’s third-most valuable shopping centre, for $717 million in May.
An even more prestigious purchase last month was the Myer Melbourne complex, which is now one-third owned by GIC after it teamed up with the Myer family and the Commonwealth Bank to buy it for $600 million.
GIC already owns the Park Hyatt hotel in Melbourne, along with Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building and the Strand Arcade, and there’s been recent press speculation that it will buy into Westfield’s Doncaster Shoppingtown to help fund a $400 million redevelopment.
But it doesn’t stop there.
Even child-care behemoth ABC Learning, which receives $3 million a week from Australian taxpayers to look after 40,000 children and has former children’s minister Larry Anthony on its board, this month issued 12 per cent of its shares to Temasek for $401 million.
In some countries, child care is provided by the state, yet our Government is now funding a company which has a foreign government as its largest shareholder to deliver this service. All this must make for interesting discussions when John Howard catches up with his Singaporean counterpart, Lee Hsien Loong, or his autocratic father, Lee Kuan Yew, who is still “GIC chairman minister mentor” at the ripe old age of 83.
Peter Costello was busily showing Lee Kuan Yew around Federal Parliament a few weeks ago and, given the 2003 Free Trade Agreement, it’s fair to assume relations remain close.
The same can’t be said for Singapore and Thailand. In January 2006, Temasek bought control of Shin Corp — the family company of Thailand’s former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra — for $US1.9 billion ($A2.1 billion) in a deal that sparked widespread protests and a military coup.
The generals have since crippled Shin Corp’s telecoms and satellite business to the point where Singapore has dropped well over $1.5 billion and relations between the two countries are severely strained.
Could Singapore’s financial imperialism ever cause tensions here? The only time Singapore has faced any takeover resistance in Australia was in 2000 when Peter Costello blocked a proposed bid for Westpac by financial conglomerate DBS Holdings, which is 28 per cent owned by Temasek.
However, Singapore Airlines remains bitter about losing almost $500 million in the Ansett collapse and being denied access to the lucrative Pacific route, which might explain why it is now funding Tiger Airways’ assault on the Australian domestic market in an attempt to damage Qantas.
Planes, child-care centres, shopping centres, department stores, satellites, hotels, power lines, gas pipelines and mobile phones: the Singapore Government owns all that and more in Australia yet this is barely mentioned in public debate.
Does anybody else out there feel a little uneasy about this phenomenon, especially given the secretive, autocratic and undemocratic tendencies of the Singapore Government?
Australian companies, let alone our Government, would never be allowed to buy equivalent assets in Singapore. And all this investment didn’t even give us the leverage to save Van Nguyen from the gallows.
Stephen Mayne was founder of Crikey.com and Kennett government spin doctor responsible for privatisation from 1992-1994.