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Monday, 11 November 2002
Page: 5883

Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (3:22 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (Senator Alston) to questions without notice asked today relating to Telstra.

In question time today we had another extraordinary demonstration of Senator Alston's lack of knowledge and lack of interest in his own portfolio responsibilities. What an extraordinary admission to the Senate today—Senator Alston, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, had not read the Estens report. What an extraordinary admission from him! He said he had glanced at the findings and recommendations of the report. He had glanced at them! The report was released to the general public last Friday. I do not know how long Senator Alston had the report before he released it, but what an admission. He did not read the report.

I suppose that you would not worry about reading the report if you were Senator Alston when the report is only window-dressing anyway. He was always going to give the full privatisation and the full sale of Telstra the green light. The report, of course, was always a sham. So why would you bother reading it if you were Senator Alston? The report was always a tactic and not worth reading if you are Senator Alston, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. It was just a fix—not even worth a read by Australia's communications minister.

Of course, he also had the complete embarrassment in question time today when he was not able to answer two questions of detail by my colleagues Senator Mackay and Senator Lundy. Senator Mackay's question related to a matter that was raised in the Estens report. A major recommendation in the Estens report was the very important issue of the widespread network problems associated with Service Plus and Director and the proposals in relation to Future Edge, the new work force management database. Senator Alston said he did not know anything about it at all. It is one of the major findings, one of the major recommendations, of the Estens report. But Senator Alston could not comment on that or the other matters raised by Senator Lundy because he has no capacity to look at the detail in relation to these important and crucial issues in his own area of ministerial responsibility.

If that was not bad enough, Senator Alston consistently flubbing questions in relation to the COT cases. What on earth was he up to anyway phoning the Victorian major fraud group? When he was asked about his 1999 phone calls with the fraud group regarding Telstra on the Sunday program, there was a bit of a twitch from Senator Alston—a guilty twitch, I thought—and he said, `Oh no, not at all.' But the body language said it all to everybody. Of course he changed his tune when, on the same program, he was presented with evidence that two calls had been made to the major fraud group's solicitor, Neil Jepson. Senator Alston said he might have made the phone calls but he could not recall. This is the record of Senator Alston. He denies on the Sunday program that he made any such calls. Then he claimed on the self-same television program that he made the calls to ensure the matters were properly investigated. Then another change—later on in a media release, he claimed that he made the calls to ensure that any action he took did not compromise the investigation.

Then later on, he gave a fourth version of events; namely, that he made the calls on behalf of Mrs Ann Garms, which she vigorously denies. So that is the record. Senator Alston could throw no light on those matters today. The three COT claimants involved in this matter—Ann Garms, Ross Plowman and Alan Smith—all state categorically that they never asked him to contact the Victorian major fraud group on their behalf, even though Senator Alston claims that Mrs Garms did. In a media release dated 6 November, Mr Plowman said:

Senator Alston's call to Neil Jepson in 1999 prior to the Senate recommendation was not at our request or any of the other COT cases.

I would say to Senator Alston that of course they would not have asked him to make the calls. They clearly do not trust him and why should they? There are allegations that not only was Mr Jepson called by the minister but there may have been other contact. In his qualified and guarded language, Senator Alston now says that that is not the case. But we are entitled to ask and entitled to get some answers from Senator Alston on what is going on. Why all the excuses? Why the admission in question time today that he had not even read the Estens report? This minister has got to lift his game. (Time expired)