The head of the competition watchdog, Rod Sims, is fighting union claims he broke the public service code of conduct by publicly endorsing Colin Barnett’s $11 billion power privatisation plan just four days before West Australians went to the polls this month.
Nanjing Night Net

Australian Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd has received an official complaint against Mr Sims, the chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, alleging he breached his responsibility to remain “apolitical” during the WA election.

During the final week of the WA campaign, Mr Sims’ comments in favour of the Liberal Party’s planned sell-off of Western Power were splashed across the front page of the state’s only daily newspaper, The West Australian.

“If Western Power was privatised, that would lower power prices because the new owner would be more efficient,” Mr Sims told the newspaper. “The new owner would not be allowed to just increase prices.”

Mr Sims had agreed to an interview to talk about the release of an ACCC report on airport monitoring but was posed questions on the red-hot privatisation debate, Fairfax Media has learned.

An ACCC spokeswoman said he had “paraphrased” previous comments he had made about Western Power as far back as October last year.

In its complaint, the Electrical Trades Union alleged Mr Sims had contravened rules around public servants remaining above the political fray but also revealed its annoyance that his intervention overshadowed a union-sponsored report that backed Labor leader Mark McGowan’s anti-privatisation push.

“[Mr Sims’] comments coincided with the release of economic modelling that showed that the Barnett government had overstated the budgetary benefits of the privatisation of Western Power,” ETU secretary Allen Hicks complained in his complaint letter to Mr Lloyd.

“These comments had the effect of neutralising the impact of the report’s release and ensuring that the day’s coverage favoured the incumbent coalition on a vote-changing issue only days before the state election.”

The union is comparing Mr Sims’ intervention to the complaint upheld against NBN chairman Ziggy Switkowski, who was accused of breaking caretaker conventions in a forthright opinion piece published by Fairfax Media during the last federal election, in which he defended calling in the police against leakers.

A spokeswoman for Mr Lloyd confirmed the complaint had been received.

“The Commission does not comment on the status of allegations or investigations,” she said.

Mr Sims has been locked in a rolling battle with the ETU and the Australian Services Union since January when they used audio of a speech given by Mr Sims to back the anti-privatisation case in radio advertisements.

The ads featured Mr Sims saying: “When you meet people in the street and they say I don’t want privatisation because it boosts prices and you dismiss them; no no, they’re right. Recent examples suggest they’re right.”

But he claimed to have been taken “right out of context” because he was talking about port sales, like the Port of Newcastle, not electricity assets where prices remain under the control of regulators.

“Mr Sims views on privatisation are well known and had been discussed in relation to Western Power as early as October 2016,” an ACCC spokeswoman said.

“His comments published on March 6 were made during an interview with the West Australian on another topic: an annual ACCC report on airport monitoring. Mr Sims was asked a question about his previous comments made regarding Western Power and he paraphrased what he had previously said.”

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