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Tuesday, 8 November 2011
Page: 8534

Australia Network


Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia) (14:54): My question is also to the Minister for Broadband, Communi­cations and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. I ask the minister specifically: what information, either in the 17 October media article or in other published articles regard­ing the Australia Network tender process, contained in these leaks actually necessitated the axing of the tender process? Did this information actually advantage one of the tenderers and, if so, how? Minister, will the advice you referenced from the Solicitor-General on this matter be publicly released and tabled?


Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:54): I thank Senator Birmingham for his interest in the issue. As I was saying, the decision has not been taken lightly, but the government acted on the legal advice it had received from the Australian Government Solicitor. The government has asked the ABC to continue delivering the service until August 2012 while the govern­ment resolves the long-term contractual arrangements. The government will now undertake a fresh consideration of the Australia Network service and how best to deliver it to regions in our field of interest. We will consider the full range of options at our disposal. As I said, the government will make a decision by no later than the end of March next year.

The government received the advice that the tender had been potentially compromised and decided to act accordingly to terminate the tender process. We believe it is the right decision in the national interest and in the interests of both bidders. The tender process has been cancelled and is now the subject of an AFP investigation. I am not in a position to comment any further on that ongoing AFP investigation. I am not in a position to say more than that while the investigation is under way.

To the point that has been raised—and I think Senator Birmingham also added this in the series of questions he asked—the first reports concerning the details of the tender process contained significant inaccuracies, which did not justify a referral to the AFP for investigation. You only need to look at the story written by Mark Day, as he gleefully pointed out the inaccuracies of the earlier report, to understand that the earlier report did not— (Time expired)


Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia) (14:57): Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Was any of the leaked information that you determined warranted cancellation of the Australia Network tender officially provided to the tenderers? If not, does the minister acknowledge that the only possible source of the leaks was from within the government?


Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:57): As I have said, I am not in a position to discuss the AFP's ongoing investigation. You can cast all the aspersions you want but I am not going to be second-guessing an AFP investigation.


Senator BIRMINGHAM (South Australia) (14:57): Mr President, I have further supplementary questions. Like Senator Ludlam, I will ask some other questions and hope to get an answer on this occasion. Firstly, I again very directly ask the minister: will you release the advice from the Solicitor-General that you have referen­ced in the Senate today with regard to the cancellation of this tender? Secondly, will you now support the longstanding calls from the coalition for this farcical tender process to be investigated by the Auditor-General?


Senator CONROY (VictoriaMinister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity) (14:58): The hypocrisy of those opposite—the absolute hypocrisy of those standing over there with a straight face demanding that legal advice—

Senator Brandis: Mr President, I rise on a point of order.

Honourable senators interjecting

The PRESIDENT: Order! Senator Brandis is entitled to be heard in silence.

Senator Brandis: Mr President, my point of order is on the question of direct relevance. The minister has used the first quarter of the time available for his answer merely to ridicule the person who asked the question and to ridicule the opposition. He was asked a specific question about the tender process. He was asked a specific question about how the government proposes to proceed from here. He was asked whether or not the Solicitor-General's advice would be made public. He has not approached any of those matters and you, Mr President, should direct him to the question.

The PRESIDENT: There is no point of order. The minister has 45 seconds remain­ing. I believe the minister is addressing the question.

Senator CONROY: As I was saying, the hypocrites opposite who consistently—

The PRESIDENT: You will need to withdraw that.

Senator CONROY: I did not have to withdraw it a moment ago, but okay.

The PRESIDENT: You will withdraw it.

Senator CONROY: If you say so. If they were hypocrites before but not now, it's okay! But I withdraw unreservedly.

Senator Brandis: Mr President, I rise on a point of order.

The PRESIDENT: No. There is no point of order. Senator Conroy, you have 41 seconds remaining.

Senator CONROY: Those opposite are crying crocodile tears. For 11½ long years they never released any legal advice. I know because occasionally I might have asked, and they repeatedly said governments do not do this. So now in opposition they have decided that as usual they can just throw out the rule book—

Senator Birmingham: Mr President, I rise on a point of order. If the minister is not going to come remotely close to answering any of my questions, perhaps in the remaining 20 seconds he has left he could instead explain to the Senate where he was hiding during the carbon tax vote.

The PRESIDENT: That is not a point of order. You know that.

Senator CONROY: Government goes on and cabinet subcommittees meet. I was paired, so the conspiracy theorists opposite can settle down. To fully answer your question: no.

Senator Chris Evans: I think it is with the full support of the Senate that I move that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.