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Thursday, 22 June 2000
Page: 15432

Senator MARK BISHOP (9:57 AM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the report of the Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee.

I want to make a few remarks going to the issue of commercial-in-confidence. At the Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts Legislation Committee estimates hearings, Telstra, an agency of the Commonwealth and still 51 per cent owned by the Commonwealth, were asked to provide details of contracts, specifically the nature, duration and value of contracts between Telstra and Leightons Holdings and any subsidiaries of Leightons Holdings. They were initially asked that question in early May at supplementary additional estimates and they took it on notice.

About an hour before the more recent estimates commenced, Telstra provided a written response to the committee in response to questions asked by me saying that they would not provide the information as requested on the basis that it was commercial-in-confidence. They would be willing to provide that information to the committee on the condition that it was received on that basis. That means that there are some implications for senators accepting that commission. When the Telstra Corporation came in later in the afternoon, we had a rather lengthy and robust discussion with them as to their right to refuse to provide to senators and members of parliament details of contracts between them and subsidiary and alternative companies. It should be noted that we were not seeking details of past contracts; we simply wanted current contracts between Telstra and Leightons Holdings. That is a matter of public interest because Mr Besley, who is chairing the current inquiry into service levels and the adequacy of service levels of Telstra around Australia, has had some interest and involvement through various corporate entities that he is involved in with the Telstra Corporation over the years.

The reason I raise this now is that the reference to that issue in the chair's draft is relatively minor and may not draw the attention it warrants. Accordingly, Labor senators were of the view that it was and is appropriate to take the somewhat unusual step of attaching a dissenting or minority report to the chair's draft going to that issue of commercial-in-confidence and increasing reliance by government agencies and departments and a series of public officials on the words `commercial-in-confidence'. Every time they are asked to provide information to senators in hearings, their reply is that the information so requested is commercial-in-confidence and cannot be provided. ยท

`Commercial-in-confidence' has a limited meaning and has had a longstanding limited role in this place. But increasingly, I observe, the role of Commonwealth agencies and Commonwealth departments is not to assist in the estimates hearings but to rely on commercial-in-confidence for reasons that are best known to themselves. The role of estimates and the role of senators in this place and of the parliament generally is to inquire, to make observations and to report on matters of public interest.

I would have thought a case involving officials of Telstra and officials of Leightons Holdings—that company and one of its senior officers being involved in a very public review which will make findings and may make recommendations, if accepted by government, that go to the disposal by Telstra of assets worth tens and tens of billions of dollars—would be a matter of public interest, would be a matter that this parliament should be and is interested in as a matter of our continued review. So, at this stage, I think it is appropriate to place on record the attitude of the relevant officers of Telstra. Their refusal of what were, in my view, legitimate requests to have access to the nature, duration and value of current contracts between Telstra and Leightons Holdings was an inadequate response and needs to be pursued in the coming weeks through actions in this chamber.

Question resolved in the affirmative.