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Thursday, 12 May 1994
Page: 731

Senator MINCHIN (11.07 a.m.) —Unlike Senator Carr's hysterical and irrelevant outburst, I would like to speak to the motion before the Senate. The opposition supports the motion that has been moved by Senator Kernot, and I enjoy the opportunity to speak in favour of it. The sticking point in relation to this debate is part (4) of the motion, which refers to the timetable for reporting of the print media inquiry. This is the so-called linkage provision which seems to be the difference of opinion between us and the government.

  The point to make is that it is quite proper and reasonable for the print media inquiry to be given the opportunity to comment on the outcome of a privileges committee report on Senator Kernot's bill. The print media inquiry, as item (4) notes, is going to report on everything else by 9 June, and I think the government seems to have missed the point. The print media inquiry will report on just about every substantive issue that is considered in this very worthwhile inquiry by 9 June, so I cannot understand this amazing and hysterical outburst from the government today.

  All that this motion seeks to do is allow the print media inquiry the opportunity, which it is quite reasonable for it to have, to comment on the outcome of the report of the privileges committee. The privileges committee is due to report by 23 August, and this motion gives the print media inquiry the time and opportunity to comment on that report. Nothing more is sought than that, and the outburst from the government today is quite irrelevant and ridiculous.

  The inquiry simply seeks to reserve the right to comment on the privileges committee report. The point we need to make and understand is that this issue has arisen directly out of the print media inquiry. That is why we think it quite proper and reasonable for the inquiry to reserve that right. This is a function of this inquiry. This is the issue that has been highlighted by the print media inquiry endeavours and hearings.

  What we have had through this print media inquiry is a complete refusal of the government to cooperate with this inquiry, a legitimate inquiry brought into being by a majority of this Senate which reflects a majority of the people of Australia. The government has placed public servants in a quite invidious position in its determination to refuse their right to appear before us and give evidence and present documents. The government has frustrated completely a legitimate inquiry by this Senate into a very major public policy issue, and that is the ownership and operation of newspapers in this country and the wider point of the operation and effectiveness of the FIRB.

  We have heard from Senator Loosley today a most outrageous attack on the very effective chairmanship by Senator Alston of this committee. The reason those opposite have become so hysterical is best summed up in an article in the Adelaide Review of this month by David Bowman who says:

The cause of it all, the one who deserves to be pilloried by the Senate inquiry into the Conrad Black affair, remains in the shadows, amused, perhaps, by the recent fireworks display before the Senate committee and by the media, which have lost the plot. The Prime Minister, of course. It is his conduct that is at the heart of the thing, not Conrad Black's, not John Hewson's, nor anyone else's. It won't stand up to the least examination, which is one good reason for his refusal to appear before the Senate committee.

That is the reason the government has performed in the way it has today and throughout the hearings of this committee. The government is terrified of and hates this committee. It does not have the numbers on the committee and does not like that. Hence its behaviour. It has attempted to do everything it can to prevent this committee inquiring into what, on the face of it, is one of the most outrageous deals that has ever been done in the history of government-media relations in this country.

  The government does not like being in a minority. The minority it has is a direct reflection of the pathetic result of the government in the last Senate elections when it came back into this place with its tail between its legs and only 30 members. It is the government's fault that it does not have the numbers and cannot control these things—because of the results obtained in the last Senate election, which are a reflection of what the Australian people think of it.

  This print media inquiry has put the spotlight on deals those opposite do all the time. They are a deal-making party. It is most extraordinary. I do not doubt that Conrad Black is terribly sorry for what he said in his book, but he exposed and put the spotlight on the way this government and its Prime Minister operate.

  It is perfectly legitimate for the Senate to have set up a committee of inquiry to find out what really went on in relation to the ownership of one of this country's most significant newspaper outfits. What really happened? Before this committee was set up, Mr Black was one key player and Mr Keating was the other. Both say publicly that they had discussions and negotiations about the basis on which Mr Black would get an increase in Mr Black's ownership. Mr Keating said quite blatantly, `We want to see how you report politics over the next few months before the next election; and we want to make sure you have "balanced coverage".' Do those opposite really expect us to believe that Mr Keating was endeavouring to ensure that the coalition got fair coverage from Fairfax newspapers? That is a complete joke, and they know it.

  This is a major public policy issue which this inquiry has endeavoured to look into and put the spotlight on. The government hates having the spotlight put on it; and it is desperate to subvert and prevent this committee's operations.

  In terms of the government's frustrations with the committee's operations, given the government's determination to rely on public interest immunity, it leaves the Senate with no recourse other than to consider the punishment of public servants who refuse to cooperate. That is what is so insidious about the government's behaviour, putting public servants in that position. It is not a satisfactory position and, therefore, the Kernot bill has come forward as a potential resolution of this issue.

  As Senator Alston says, that may not be the best solution; it may need amendment, but it is quite appropriate that the Senate, through its privileges committee, consider the Kernot bill as a potential resolution of the problem the government has brought about by its refusal to cooperate with this legitimate inquiry.

  In summing up, all I want to say is that the coalition totally supports this motion. It supports paragraph 4 which the government seeks to delete from this motion. I remind honourable senators that this issue is a direct result of the print media inquiry. It has come to national attention because of the print media inquiry—because of the government's utter intransigence and refusal to cooperate with this committee, and its determination to place public servants in a quite invidious position. Therefore, it is eminently reasonable for the print media inquiry committee to be given the opportunity to comment on the privileges committee report on this bill.