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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1607

Senator ELLISON (1.30 p.m.) —In the debate on this matter this morning, I mentioned that the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) had not denied the allegation made in Conrad Black's autobiography. Indeed, he went on to say in his interview in Seattle:

So therefore, after the election I, on behalf of the government, made good a commitment to reconsider them, and took them to 25.

He was referring there to 25 per cent foreign ownership. It was astounding that the Prime Minister refused to appear before the Senate committee. In fact, the Prime Minister indicated that he would not slum it before a Senate committee. On that basis, the committee could only proceed with the evidence before it. The rules of natural justice demand that, where there is an allegation against someone, that person has a right to put forward his or her version of events. That opportunity was more than amply given to the Prime Minister but he arrogantly threw it aside.

  I note that in the dissenting report the government senators stated that the Prime Minister's remarks were light-hearted and jocular. I would like to know where they got that from, because he did not appear before the committee to tell us so. There is no evidence to back that up. I submit to the Senate that this dissenting report from the government senators is without foundation and full of presumption.

  What is so damning is that at the time in question, November 1992, the government faced the run-up to an election, which occurred in March 1993. It was in that heady atmosphere, when the government thought it was about to lose the election, that foreign ownership of the print media was discussed. We find that on 20 April, some five weeks after the election—surprise, surprise!—Treasurer Dawkins increased the limit of foreign ownership in the Fairfax empire from just under 15 per cent to 25 per cent. Those figures belie the hundreds of millions of dollars we are talking about and the magnitude of this deal.

  So the committee reported in its conclusions that Mr Keating did attempt to exert pressure on Fairfax for favourable election coverage by making a linkage between balance in election coverage and an increased ownership limit for Mr Black. What the committee said was that the Prime Minister had improperly used his office in order to exert pressure on a media baron. It did not say that there was evidence of a deal being made, as some people on the other side have suggested or as some people in the press have misunderstood. The situation is that, despite Conrad Black's evidence that there was no nudge and no wink, we are still left with that evidence from the Prime Minister's own mouth, from the book written by Conrad Black, that there was this grubby attempt at influencing the media by the Prime Minister. The second point I wish to raise concerns the Foreign Investment Review Board. In examining the first point, the committee had cause to look generally at the regulation of foreign investment in Australia. As it did so, it had to cast its attention back to events in 1991 when the Fairfax publishing empire was taken over by a foreign interest. That takeover demonstrates vividly the shortcomings of the current system. What happened was that there were two foreign contenders—Independent Newspapers and the Tourang syndicate—and at home there was the all-Australian bid by Australian Independent Newspapers. Before the two foreigners could compete with the Australian product, they had to get past the Foreign Investment Review Board and be allowed into the arena to compete.

  Of course, it was during the consideration of that that we had the minute of the Foreign Investment Review Board dated 5 December 1991, wherein one finds criticism by the author of that minute of the Australian bid. The Australian bid was criticised for having little newspaper experience and no financial backing. Of course, those points were absolutely false. The Australian bid was thoroughly competent and it was backed well financially. In fact, AIN, the Australian bid, had the highest bid in for Fairfax. What the committee found was that there was this Australian bid being judged in its absence, judged behind closed doors. On the basis of that, the foreign bidder was allowed into the arena. That is a disgraceful situation and the committee questioned that at length.

  That takes us to the third aspect of this whole inquiry—the stonewalling that the committee came up against from the Public Service. Now I do not make any criticism of the public servants involved for not giving evidence. They were between a rock and a hard place because they had been directed by the Treasurer not to say anything. They had been directed by the Treasurer not to answer our questions. There we were, elected representatives of the people of Australia, and we found that we were getting refusals as to our inquiry. The people of Australia were denied information. Democracy was suffering a severe blow that day. In fact, it is this aspect which has been referred to the privileges committee and on which that committee will report back in September 1994.

  But this is an aspect which Paddy McGuinness, in the Australian, referred to as one of the most important issues, more important than Mabo, more important that the industrial relations legislation last year—in fact, more important than anything since the war. That is the power of this Senate and its committees to inquire, on behalf of the people of Australia, into matters of national importance. If a foreign takeover of an empire worth $1.5 billion is not a matter of national importance, then I do not know what is. That is what this committee came up against. That is the third aspect of this inquiry which is most important.

  It is entirely unsatisfactory that we have a Treasurer directing the public servants involved in this matter not to answer our questions. Who wrote that damning minute? Where did it come from, and on whose advice? Why take into account an Australian bidder when the process was that you do not? In fact, we were told that when the Foreign Investment Review Board considered outsiders, it did not have regard to any domestic bidders. But here we had this minute which damned the Australian bidder in its absence—a thorough disgrace—and all this done in secret.

  I commend this report to the Senate. It makes thoroughly worthwhile recommendations into opening up the foreign investment review process, one which Treasurer Willis has agreed with. He can see that this is needed. In fact, in the dissenting report by the government senators they, too, can see it. If anyone can query the work of this committee, one just has to look at the recommendations of this report—one of the largest reports tabled in the Senate—to see that the taxpayer of Australia, the Australian citizen, has got great value for the effort, time and expense that went into this report. Any question that is raised that we should found ourselves on the American system, a system which says that it is inappropriate for a house committee to investigate the workings of the press, I find thoroughly distasteful. In fact, recently the Australian press was found to be one of the freest in the world. I believe Australia has a great system. We do not have to look to America for advice.

  Madam Acting Deputy President, I consider it a privilege and have been most grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in this historic report. I believe it is one which history will judge as having played an important role in assessing foreign investment review in this country, the workings of the press and the relationship of a government or, more importantly, a Prime Minister who tried to exert undue influence on that press. In the course of it we have touched on those most important issues of the power of the Senate and its committees. I look forward to the further report in September this year when we will get back to the issue of the power of the Senate and its committees. In the meantime, I thoroughly commend the report to the Senate.