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Thursday, 9 June 1994
Page: 1614

Senator ALSTON —Mr President, my question is directed to the triple Acting Prime Minister. On 18 November last year the current Prime Minister told the world that he had said to Conrad Black, about Black's desire for an increase in his level of foreign ownership:

Well, we'll think about it, but we want a commitment from you that the paper will be balanced.

He went on to say:

So therefore, after the election, I, on behalf of the Government made good a commitment to reconsider them, and took them to 25.

In making the decision to allow Conrad Black to increase his shareholding in the Fairfax group from 15 to 25 per cent, what national interest factors did the Prime Minister take into account?

Senator ROBERT RAY —This, of course, follows the presentation of the print media report today. I must say that the report reminded me a bit of that section of Alice in Wonderland where they give the sentence, then the verdict, and then they go around and rake up the evidence afterwards. The fact is that the main factor in any government decision on whether Conrad Black could increase his ownership of the Fairfax group really came down to a question of whether 15 per cent was sufficient for him to give proper managerial control; whereas 25 per cent, I think, would have put him in a much better position, considering that at least one other shareholder had 14.9 per cent of the ownership of Fairfax.

  Senator Alston again refers to the question of whether there was a deal made between Conrad Black and the Prime Minister over the editorial comment of Fairfax. Mr Keating, the government and government ministers have consistently denied that that occurred. When we look at the evidence, we have to look at the editorials from the Age on 12 March, the Sydney Morning Herald on 12 March and the Australian Financial Review. What sort of crummy deal did we do to get all three of these newspapers urging that the coalition be returned to power?

  Some might care to go back and have a look at Stuart Littlemore's Lateline program which dealt with the different coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald of Mr Keating's campaign launch at Blacktown compared with that of Dr Hewson. We saw prejudicial headlines, ugly photos and all the rest run against the Labor Party's launch and a Disneyland production for John Hewson. If that is an example of bias, I will jump in the lake.  The Fairfax papers owned by Conrad Black showed a predilection towards John Hewson, Fightback and the coalition throughout the election campaign. That is Fairfax's right. We had one national newspaper in Sydney out of about 40 in Australia that supported us in its editorial comment in the last election campaign. From start to finish this inquiry has been a witch-hunt in which the conclusions were made before the evidence was ever heard.

  I will say one thing about the majority report: it does make reference to the fact that the majority believes that the Foreign Investment Review Board is too secretive. If the FIRB wants lessons in openness, lessons in leaking, and lessons in prejudging, all it has to do is go to this committee. Before every meeting we saw Judge Roy Bean here giving us a preview. After every committee meeting he gave us a review of what happened at the meeting. If we have a long look at the record of Judge Roy Bean here—Senator Alston—we can see that he consistently put on the public record the deliberations of the committee. He consistently put on the record what his views were of what the committee was doing. If the Foreign Investment Review Board needs to take any advice about over-secretiveness and openness, all it needs do is see Senator Alston for advice.

Senator ALSTON —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I note that the minister says that the reason was that it was necessary for Conrad Black to achieve proper management control. If that is the case, why was it that the Prime Minister said absolutely nothing about the national interest criterion when asked the basis of the arrangement, but instead chose to talk in terms of, `But we want a commitment from you that the coverage will be balanced', and after the election, `I, on behalf of the government, made good on the commitment'? Why did the Prime Minister not say anything about those sorts of managerial factors, or is it really the truth that he got caught red-handed in Seattle?

Senator ROBERT RAY —No-one will ever know the record of conversation between the Prime Minister and Mr Black because we have two versions. Senator Alston's definition and his imputation as to what the word `balance' means is quite different from the Prime Minister's expressed view. Senator Alston and the Prime Minister have a different view, but Senator Alston approaches it from his political prejudice to read the worst possible connotation into it and then extends his case from that. It is based on a false assumption; therefore the question is meaningless.