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Thursday, 19 March 2015
Page: 2041


Senator DASTYARI (New South Wales) (19:49): I just want to make a few brief remarks following what happened today in the Senate estimates hearing of the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee. Today, we held a continuation of an earlier hearing, where we were able to have some executives from SBS come to try and answer questions that were not able to be answered because of the lack of availability of the correct people at a previous estimates hearing.

Let me just be perfectly clear: the performance today by the chairman of SBS was pathetic. It was deplorable. There is no doubt in my mind and, I think, increasingly in the mind of senators and people across this place that, frankly, he should no longer be the chairman of SBS. The fact is that the chairman of SBS, who gets paid $120,000 on a five-year contract—a total of $600,000 worth of public money—was not prepared to come before Senate estimates and answer a single question about the application procedure and was not able to address very legitimate concerns about whether or not he lied to the application process to actually obtain the job.

The system that has been set up is not perfect. Perhaps, it is worthy of review from time to time. But an independent process was set up as part of the appointment process. There are those on this side of the chamber who have outlined concerns in the past as to the fact that a few people with strong conservative bias may have been appointed to the application process. My issue is not with that. My issue is with the serious allegations that false and misleading information was given to the selection process which resulted in Mr Nihal Gupta becoming chairman of SBS. There are serious allegations there that he would not have been one of the three names that was presented to government to make a decision if he had actually given true and accurate information. What is so concerning is that Mr Gupta refused to answer any question, that the department itself refused to answer questions, and that the minister effectively ran a protection racket to ensure that no questions were going to be asked and that no answers were going to be given.

Very concerning for Mr Gupta, there were two bits of information that are going to be proven incorrect. He unequivocally said that he had not been contacting politicians and urging them to try and speak to me to get the hearing called off. He unequivocally said—and this will be tested at a future time—that he had not said to former senators of this place that, 'It will not be in Sam Dastyari's political interest to continue to pursue me like this.' That is something that is going to be tested through the appropriate channels. He unequivocally said that he had not spoken to the other members of the board, to other politicians or to other people saying that he personally had no faith in a botched attempt to try and sack the CEO of SBS—a move that failed when the board unanimously ended up deciding to reappoint the chairman of the SBS—in a midnight poor attempt of a coup when he called a snap meeting of the SBS board to try and not renew the contract of the chairman.

The big problem is this: we in this place have legitimate questions that we should be able to put as to the selection process that was undertaken. The view of the government through the minister is that he is going to take it on review. I note that the minister that was there today was the Minister representing the Minister for Communication, Senator Fifield. I think it is worth noting that Senator Fifield is not the minister personally responsible for this as a line item. The idea that there is no avenue or opportunity to test if false or misleading information has been presented which results in someone being selected, frankly, I do not think can stand.

I think there are serious questions about the process that allowed Mr Gupta to become the chairman of SBS. I have put it on notice and I am getting information from the department what other avenues that can be pursued. Perhaps it will be through the department or perhaps it will be through the ombudsman. But I certainly intend to keep pursuing this matter through the Australian Senate.

I think it is ridiculous that you can have a situation where someone is paid $600,000, potentially by giving false and misleading information, and somehow there is a decision made that this is not an issue we can review nor something we can test. It is something I intend to pursue and something I think is of significance. Frankly, if Mr Gupta had nothing to hide, he could have come today to Senate estimates and uttered the words, 'I provided no false or misleading information.' He could have gone through the information that was presented.

Let's be clear what the allegation is. Mr Gupta allegedly provided information that he ran a company of 200 employees in the communications space. It turns out that half of his claim was true. He is the managing director. He is the only employee—he is also the receptionist—of his firm. There was false information given about his company and false information given about his previous employment. I believe that by giving selection panel the wrong information, we ended up with what has ultimately become clearly the wrong result.

It is a matter that I think deserves to be pursued. It is a matter that deserves to be looked at. It is a matter that we will be continuing to look at through the environment committee but we will also be finding out what other steps we can take to investigate this matter. Frankly, I think there are serious questions. They can be answered and there was an opportunity today when Mr Gupta could have put forward his case, put forward his reasons. He failed to do so. His failure to do so really puts him in an untenable position. Mr Nihal Gupta should be removed by Minister Turnbull, the relevant minister, as the chairman of SBS because, frankly, if he cannot come to Senate estimates say that he did not lie to get his job, he should not be having it.