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Monday, 4 June 1984
Page: 2434

Senator DURACK(4.48) —As I said earlier this afternoon, we have already had four bites of this cherry to try to find out the arrangements into which the Government had entered with contractors for coastal surveillance, the nature of the variations and why the tenders had not been called for contracts covering areas which had expired and so on. This was raised at Estimates committees on 3 May. Questions were asked then because this had been a subject of questioning in the Senate and there had been a certain amount of confusion as to the department responsible. Senator Boswell asked a question about this, it was passed around and finally the Attorney-General (Senator Gareth Evans) on behalf of the Special Minister of State, accepted responsibility. That was due to the fact that this matter, which had previously been administered by the Department of Transport, had been taken over by the Australian Federal Police, which comes under the responsibility of the Special Minister of State (Mr Young). That was why the matter was raised in the estimates for the Special Minister of State. No specific item was raised, admittedly, but it was accepted then that that came under the general items of administration-salaries and so on-and that was an appropriate time to raise it.

Despite the background to this, the questions that have been asked and the concern that has been expressed by people about the way this has been done, incredibly no adequate answers could be given by officers at the hearing of the Estimates Committee on 3 May. Consideration of those estimates was adjourned for one reason or another. We came back to them again on 9 May. Further questions were asked then and quite inadequate answers were given or no answers could be given. It was then stated that detailed answers would be provided before the Estimates committees reported. In fact further answers were provided to that Estimates Committee but still a great number of questions were left unanswered. We got some very strange answers, I might say, in those matters that were provided by the Chief Executive Officer on behalf of the Commissioner of Police dated 28 May. There were statements such as:

Because the Government is still contractually committed to Skywest until 31 March 1986 it was not a practical proposition to recall tenders.

I do not know what 'recall tenders' means. The point is that the contracts for surveillance had expired on 31 March 1984, I think it was, or earlier and tenders should have been called for the areas covered by those contracts. What that means heaven only knows. It was then stated:

There is no unfair advantage to this contractor.

Nobody has suggested that there was an unfair advantage to Skywest Airlines Pty Ltd. The concern was that it may be unfair to other people who could be interested in tendering for areas. Anyway, there were still a number of unanswered questions, the details of which emerged in the questions that were asked last Friday which was 1 June. These matters were first raised on 3 May and there was still an inability to answer questions. When I called for the tabling of the contracts which would have made the whole thing, I would have thought, a little bit clearer, the Attorney-General tabled the tender schedule and specifications for charter aircraft tasks which is simply the tender documents. It is not, in any shape or form, the contracts. I would have thought that the Attorney-General, after two years experience at the Bar of which he is so proud, would have known the difference between the tender documents and the actual contracts.

Senator Gareth Evans —You weren't listening. I said there was an exchange of letters embodying those terms.

Senator DURACK —The actual material on which the contract has been spelt out has not been tabled. That has still not been provided to us. What we got from the Attorney-General today was, firstly, an answer to some of the specific questions that I and Senator MacGibbon asked which edged us a little closer to the whole truth in this matter. That also contained some strange statements. For instance, the first response to me contains the following statement:

The call for tenders for additional contracts could only result in significant additional costs estimated in the order of $2m in a full year. To call for tenders for additional contracts would cost $2m.

That is an amazing statement. Perhaps the totality of it gives us a little more enlightenment, but not much. The Attorney-General-I commend him for doing so- obtained a four-page statement. I complained about the speed with which he read it. I have now had the opportunity of reading it. At long last, at what would be the fifth bite of the cherry, I suppose, we have some reasonable glimmer of what the facts are except that we have not got the documents from which we can check the statement. Having had all this trouble in obtaining the facts, it certainly does not give me much confidence to be relying on the statement made this afternoon by the Attorney- General without our having the original documents against which we can check the statements.

There are certainly some further questions that I fear arise out of the answers . The answer does not deal with the contract in relation to the Darwin approaches. As I understand it, that contract was held by another company known as Northern Territory Aerial Work. Apparently Skywest has now taken over the area covered by that contract. Under the tender documents, that contract is clearly a very important one covering over 280 nautical miles of the approaches to Darwin. It was specified as an off-shore task. Two aircraft are required for the contract. It very specifically requires radar which is available on the Nomad Searchmaster. I presume that Skywest has now also covered that aspect. The tender document states:

. . . it was decided to vary the Skywest contract so that it covered the surveillance of the Great Barrier Reef, previously undertaken by Airesearch.

The document also reveals that there was not just one Skywest contract but there were several Skywest contracts. The statement at the bottom of page 2 states:

The Skywest contracts before variation were based on standing charges for a total of 14 aircraft in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland .

Apparently Skywest had a total of 14 aircraft which were available over the whole of this area. The variation of the contract is not so major as I understood. That is very helpful, I think, in getting a proper understanding of just what the arrangement was and the background in which it was varied. I agree that, under the terms of the tender, variations can be made. However, I point out to the Attorney-General that the Commonwealth can seek variations provided that any such variations are subject to such conditions as shall be mutually agreed between the parties and, failing agreement, can be determined by arbitration. In fact, variations of new contracts need to be subject to mutual agreement. Therefore, that is not really the same as we were told was the position. We were told that the Commonwealth could only extend the contract to observe a number of conditions. Presumably, there are documents in existence which would indicate these new mutual arrangements. The situation has been most unsatisfactory from beginning to end of this examination.

The position is still not totally satisfactory, but a reasonable effort at explanation has been made by the Attorney-General in his statement to the Committee this afternoon. If that statement had been made earlier, at least at the second bite at the cherry on 9 May, or, at worst, in the answers given to the Estimates Committee on 28 May, we might have been able to shorten this examination considerably. The question still remains whether the Audit Act has been complied with in that no tenders were called for this extension or variation of the Skywest contract. Perhaps that is a legal matter on which one should ponder but not speculate on in this chamber. Some of the answers that have been given as to why tenders were not called for have been very cavalier and, to my mind, quite unsatisfactory. I hope that there will be a better performance from this Department in future at Estimates committees.