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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1560

Senator ALSTON (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) (9.43 a.m.) —I present the first report of the Senate Select Committee on Certain Aspects of Foreign Ownership Decisions in Relation to the Print Media, entitled Percentage Playersthe 1991 and 1993 Fairfax ownership decisions.

  Ordered that the report be printed.

Senator ALSTON —I move:

  That the Senate take note of the report.

The decisions of the Senate print media inquiry, as it is shortly known, are of profound importance to all those who are interested in freedom of the press, and all those who are interested in seeing that decisions that are supposed to be made in the national interest are in fact made in the national interest. What we have seen in this instance is a despicable example of how decisions that are supposed to be made in the national interest have in fact been made for party political advantage.

  The most interesting aspect, and what I think is absolutely significant about this whole inquiry, is that Conrad Black, having come clean about the basis on which he was required to do business in this country—in other words, he was simply wanting an increase in the level of foreign ownership, which is not something that is unique to Mr Black, but presumably to any other businessman—was told by Mr Keating that such an application would not be considered unless a guarantee was given of balanced coverage.

  We have waited long and hard to hear a credible explanation of the meaning of `balanced coverage'. Indeed, we have waited a very long time to hear whether the Prime Minister would resile from what he said in Seattle. The fact is he has not and no-one in this parliament, and indeed no-one in this country, would for a moment believe that `balanced coverage' meant anything other than balance his way. That is a classic example of the prostitution of the process. What should have happened here is that decisions should have been made in the national interest; they were not. Instead, they were made by way of a private arrangement, a secret deal that would never have seen the light of day had it not been for Mr Black's autobiographical frankness. As a result, the committee makes a number of important findings in relation to both the propriety of Mr Keating's actions and a reform of the process. I will give a classic example of hypocrisy in this whole exercise.

Senator Schacht —You rang Alan Kohler of the Melbourne Age.

Senator ALSTON —Senator Schacht was quite interested in my conversation with Alan Kohler. Remember all that? Senator Loosley actually approached Fairfax witnesses before they gave evidence, clearly with the purpose of coaching them to give evidence; in other words, classically interfering with the processes of the committee. He has never had the guts to come into this chamber and deny those matters, and I still challenge him to do that.

  The other outrageous hypocrisy in this whole exercise is that Mr Willis said some weeks ago that indeed the government would be looking at announcing changes to the FIRB process after the committee had reported. Senator Loosley went on Meet the Press and said that he and his colleagues on the committee had similarly taken the view that the current position was untenable. Yet, this hypocrite has the gall to say publicly on national television today—

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Zakharov)—Order! Senator Alston, I ask you to withdraw the term hypocrite.

Senator ALSTON —Does Senator Loosley take exception to that? I thought he would be proud of it.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —It is unparliamentary.

Senator ALSTON —I see, it is unparliamentary. All right, I will withdraw it. Let the facts speak for themselves: here is a person who says that all his own committee members are of the view that the FIRB process is not working. When we look at the minority report we find that it contains a number of specific recommendations from those members about how there ought to be greater transparency in the process and more consultation. And what do we find? We find that Senator Loosley goes on national television today and says what he said to us privately. We laughed so loudly that he could not take the heat in the kitchen and had to walk out.

  On the one hand, he is the bully boy behind the New South Wales town hall and, on the other, he is a little, sulking schoolboy who could not stand the fact that the aridness of the logic of his argument had been exposed. He has the cheek to go on national television today and say that any changes that might be announced have nothing to do with this inquiry. Do I need to say any more? That is the way the New South Wales Right operates. It will say black is white if it thinks it can get away with it; but it certainly will not get away with this because it knows that FIRB is desperately in need of an overhaul, that the whole process has been exposed as a charade and that the 1991 decision was a travesty of justice as far as AIN was concerned.

Senator Carr —Tell us about your connections with AIN.

Senator ALSTON —If Senator Carr has anything along those lines he would like to say, let us talk about it on The World Today. If he can give me any evidence at all of any dealings I have had with the AIN group, I would be very interested to hear it. I know one board member and I have met a couple of others; I would not have had the slightest connection with the deal, I knew nothing about it, and I was not a shadow minister. So if those opposite want to trot that out, they can trot it out.

  The report contains a number of very important recommendations on overhauling the system and reforming the FIRB processes. I know that Senator Kernot will go into those in a lot more detail. I pay tribute to her for her persistence not only in regard to those matters but also in withstanding the blowtorch from those on the other side who were determined to do absolutely everything they could to intimidate her and to derail the committee from the outset. So let us not have hypocrisy, let us not pretend that somehow there are no serious issues to be debated, because government members have conceded there are very important FIRB issues.

  Those opposite should face up to the fact that their Prime Minister has never denied what he said in Seattle. In an unguarded moment he spilt the beans. Caught red-handed, he made it perfectly clear that he believed the national interest consisted of putting a requirement on a media proprietor to provide balanced coverage. We are not dealing with euphemisms any more; we know what `balanced coverage' means. This bloke rings up journalists every day of the week, virtually, and tries to intimidate them. He has a long-standing hatred of the Fairfax press. A government senator had the cheek to say that the Fairfax press had been anti the ALP for about the last 150 years; he watered it down to 100 when he was questioned on it. The fact is that those opposite have long held the view that Fairfax has got it in for the Labor Party, and they have therefore been absolutely determined to tilt the balance fundamentally in their direction. That is what this whole exercise was about: Conrad Black blew their cover and Keating was not smart enough in Seattle to cover his tracks. Since that time, his only defence has been to resort to denigration of this committee and to have his acolytes get out into the community and bag individual members of the committee in the process.

  I simply say that the findings of this committee speak for themselves. They make it clear that there was impropriety—that Mr Keating did improperly seek to influence the committee. They make it clear that the 1991 process was fundamentally flawed and that there is an urgent need to overhaul the system. I am very confident that, despite all the blusterings today from those opposite, that will happen, and that this committee will have been responsible for bringing about a much fairer system of foreign investment review. Indeed, we would hope that there will be a much more arms-length approach. We would also hope that all the dirty double deals of those opposite will no longer be tolerated and that, having been exposed and caught out in this instance, they will never every try to do it again.