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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1571


Senator MURPHY (10.32 a.m.) —I am going to try to address this report, but it is very difficult. When I first saw this copy I thought, `Well, we have finally got value for money. We have finally got a balanced report'—because it had nothing in it. I hope the people and the media will read this report because they will be able to see just how biased and politically based it was. We should look at the way the report has put into context the evidence that was taken.

  I want to deal firstly with Mr Black. It seems that the majority members of the committee—certainly those from the opposition—want to champion Mr Black in supporting his evidence against that of Mr Hawke, Mr Kerin and Mr Willis; at the same time they contradict themselves by saying that Mr Black's version of events, so far as it concerns Dr Hewson's position with regard to foreign investment and foreign ownership, was not acceptable. Those opposite cannot champion someone to be a supporter of their view and then turn around and say that the version of events given by Warwick Smith and John Hewson was factual, and the version given by Mr Hawke and Mr Kerin was not. This evidence was given against the same witness; a witness who was totally and politically biased, but who has been used by the committee to the fullest extent. Unfortunately, those opposite could not get it right in the report, and that will be shown in the fullness of time.

  I think we should quote an editorial from the Age of 23 April 1994 at this stage. I refer to the paragraph that states:

. . . should come to jail threats and badgering of witnesses to divulge details of irrelevant private conversations and inter-personal dealings is absurd. It is high time for the Committee to pause and reflect that it is, after all, merely inquiring into print media, not Australia's vulnerability to nuclear attack.

That is how coalition members of the committee treated some of the witnesses. That is the sort of thing that those opposite sought to pursue; that is what they wanted to do to people; that is how they wanted to treat those witnesses.

  With respect to Senator Kernot and the Australian Democrats' view of the world, I do not know why the Democrats sought to join forces with the opposition on this matter. I have some sympathy for the views expressed by Senator Kernot; she is probably right. She said that for some time she had sought to change the operation of FIRB; but this committee was not the right place to do that.


Senator Kernot —The process made it necessary to do that.


Senator MURPHY —That makes the statement Senator Kernot made a while ago totally incorrect. Senator Kernot said that she had sought to do these things over a period. This committee was not the place to continue to seek to do that, and offers were made to Senator Kernot in an attempt to persuade her to embark on a different process. She should not say that this committee was the appropriate process because it was not.

  Opposition members claim that the Prime Minister influenced the Fairfax coverage of the last federal election. Again, the owner of Fairfax has totally denied that claim. When Conrad Black gave evidence to the committee, he made it quite clear that at no time was there any suggestion of a deal between him and the Prime Minister. In fact, as other speakers have outlined, the coverage of the federal election in 1993 by the Fairfax newspapers was totally biased towards the coalition. Nothing could be further from the truth than to say otherwise, and the headlines prove that.

  The claims made in this report have been refuted by people who gave sworn evidence before the committee. Yet the opposition members of the committee, led by the committee chairman, chose not to accept that evidence and report it. The preface to the report sets out the terms of reference. In particular, the Democrats sought to include a reference on the views expressed to Conrad Black by the then Leader of the Opposition, Dr Hewson, on foreign ownership of the print media in Australia. On this matter the opposition could be likened to someone who has just seen the light—a reborn christian. The opposition has suddenly discovered that foreign ownership is something they ought to consider very seriously.

  However, prior to the 1993 election the opposition's policy, as stated by Dr Hewson, had no reference to controls over foreign ownership—no view on whether it should be 10 per cent, 15 per cent, 25 per cent or, indeed, 50 per cent. We do not get a grip on the position of the opposition until we get to chapter 11. Even then, the first two pages of that chapter are taken up with comments on the Prime Minister—highly unusual, considering that the chapter was about `views expressed to Conrad Black by Dr Hewson'. In the first two pages of that chapter one has a job finding any mention of Dr Hewson's name. It seems to be about what the Prime Minister said about Dr Hewson to Conrad Black or, indeed, to the media—quite an unusual position. Chapter 11 states:

The committee finds that Dr Hewson's account of his conversations with Mr Black is, on the balance of probabilities, true.

The report goes on to say that this view is supported by Mr Smith. Yet with regard to Mr Kerin's position on the meetings that took place in the process of reaching a decision in 1991 on increasing the Fairfax holdings, Mr Black's position was totally vindicated. Mr Hawke and Mr Kerin could not get it right, nor could anyone else; but Mr Black got it right on that occasion. I find highly questionable the way in which the opposition has used the statements and evidence of witnesses in this report.

  When people come to read the report they should take account of the rubbish that, quite frankly, makes up the majority of it. Certainly, in the minority report we have refuted all those claims. People who read the report can refer to the evidence in Hansard and make their own judgment because, quite frankly, as senators Loosley and Carr have said, the report has been a waste of $150,000 of taxpayers' money. That amount only goes to the cost of the secretariat; it does not go to the cost of having to fly the members of the committee around this country. In fact, if we were to include our salaries, that figure would probably increase three-fold.

  I repeat that all of the documentation and the evidence in Hansard shows and proves that there is no evidence to support claims that the Prime Minister in any way influenced anybody. Senator Alston said that there has been no public refuting of those claims. Well, there has been on a number of occasions—by the Prime Minister and, before the committee, by Conrad Black. Again, this points to the clear political way in which this committee operated and what its intentions were from day one, and we can see this even from the terms of reference. This should not have been the case.

  If we had wanted to deal with FIRB, Senator Kernot, we ought to have dealt with it in a balanced and proper way, and maybe we could have got a process that would have ended up with us seeing some changes. This committee is now bogged down. There has been a reference to the privileges committee with regard to Senator Kernot's private members bill. Lord only knows when we will see an end to the cost of this committee or anything worthwhile coming out of it.