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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1611

Senator SCHACHT (Minister for Small Business, Customs and Construction) (1.49 p.m.) —I was going to move that we adjourn for 10 minutes before we come back for question time but, in view of the fact that we have a few minutes left on this debate, I will say a few words about the Senate select committee.

Senator Minchin —I think we should adjourn.

Senator SCHACHT —I thought Senator Minchin might try that. Perhaps I will regret taking this time but I cannot resist because I did have some involvement as a caucus member back in 1991 in the debate about Fairfax and general media issues.

  I have had a brief chance to look at the recommendations of the majority and the minority of the committee. I think the remarks made earlier today by my colleagues Senator Carr, Senator Loosely and Senator Murphy give the correct emphasis on the response that should be made to this particular issue. There is no doubt that the whole of the media inquiry, and the way it was established, was a political stunt aimed at the Prime Minister. However, that is not surprising. In fact, one could quote Mandy Rice-Davies and say, `The opposition and the democrats would say that, wouldn't they?'

Senator Minchin —You could say that about the government.

Senator SCHACHT —Senator Minchin is probably quite right in saying that the government would say that. That proves to me that this report is fatally flawed. It is a politically partisan report. It was fought out as a political issue. It was not, in my view, a select committee aimed at getting to any general issues about the media in Australia. It was aimed at fighting out a very partisan issue.

  I do not think it does the Senate any good to establish select committees that are aimed at fighting a political battle. In the end, it demeans the whole nature of Senate select committees and even the Senate committee system itself. I have always thought that Senate committees have performed best where issues of principle and policy have been debated in a nonpartisan way, when people from all parties—government, opposition and minority—have genuinely entered into the discussion to seek out the truth, without any grandstanding, and aiming to achieve a result of an almost unanimous report. That can then be the basis on which the government of the day accepts a report. In that way, you would also get a better policy result for Australia.

  I do not think the Senate committee in this case has been able to perform its duty. The committee was established in the white heat of political debate and controversy—there is no argument about that from either side. People had an issue and an argument to make. Therefore, any recommendations, from either the majority or the minority, are flawed and will be seen as politically partisan.

  In the end, what do we have? We have a document that will not be accepted with any credibility by an overwhelming majority of the community. We also have a document that will reflect poorly on the Senate committee system, and that is very unfortunate. Members of this chamber only have to read the recommendations from the majority to agree with that. I noted that Dr Hewson escaped completely any comment about what he may or may not have said to Mr Black, whereas the Prime Minister is condemned out of hand for what he said.

  The suggestion that the Fairfax press ran a campaign in favour of the Labor Party at the last election is just preposterous. If people had a look at the front pages for four weeks of that campaign, as I did, they would have to say—

Senator Minchin —Did you read the final week's headlines?

Senator SCHACHT —The final week's headlines only came about because the then leader of the Liberal Party carried out the worst week of campaigning in living memory. In the last 40 years, no leader has so got off political strategy, or been so politically incompetent and stupid. Senator Minchin, as an old party secretary like me, knows deep down that that is true. The first rally in Adelaide was a good one: it was a great success. However, the Liberal Party made the classic mistake of repeating that for the next five days. That gave us time to make sure that the next four or five did not work.

  The former leader of the Liberal Party did not back off. He did not realise that by standing there shouting, `Labor has got to go' and appearing on television every night with just that angry phrase was a political disaster. I learnt that lesson in 1975, when we had 100,000 people in the streets demonstrating against the sacking of the Whitlam government. I learnt then, as many of us did, that what is reported on television about a political rally is quite different from the reality of the cheering and chanting of all the people at the rally. The media started reporting that Hewson was going downhill because that was the reality of what was happening.

  Overall it is just a joke to say the Fairfax press was on side because the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) had spoken to Conrad Black. I would have to say to Senator Minchin that if he wanted to have a good look at what a biased newspaper was in the federal election of 1993 he should go to the Adelaide Advertiser. Goodness me, I have never seen a more extraordinary, biased campaign by any newspaper, probably not since the Murdoch press of 1975. It ran the campaign, in the way the headlines were slanted, the way the photographs were slanted, very much in favour of the coalition. Mr Hepworth, at Adelaide university, quite clearly demonstrated that in an academic exercise about the slanting and the bias of the Adelaide Advertiser.

  To take the evidence of the campaign as proof of what the report from the majority says—that the Prime Minister had some influence on the outcome of the Fairfax press—is a joke. Therefore, the report itself, on the issue of the coverage of the media or supposed buying or creating of influence, has no credibility at all.

  Issues are raised about the operation of FIRB. The minority report concedes that there should be some change. That is probably a reasonable discussion to have. But in the atmosphere of that report it is suborned by the overall political atmosphere, the political witch-hunt of the way the committee has come down with the majority of its recommendations.

  No committee operating in that political atmosphere, going through the controversy of the hearings itself—where charge and countercharge were laid by the two sides and where the chairman of the committee, Senator Alston, was strongly criticised for ringing the chief editor of the Melbourne Age—could possibly have a sensible debate. Therefore, it is with not some irony but some sorrow that the Senate has allowed the select committee process to be, in my view, seriously compromised by having this report come down as a political document.

  I understand that some reforms and restructuring of Senate committees have been suggested. I hope that in the future, in the new structure we have, we can go back to the time when people on the Senate committees could genuinely, without the impact or overriding view of political partisanship, look at issues on their merit, discuss them and bring down almost unanimous reports which government and opposition can accept for the better governance of Australia. I move:

  That the debate be now adjourned.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.