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Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works frustrated by refusal of Civil Aviation Authority officials to answer questions relating to tenders for a new air traffic control system

JENNY HUTCHISON: Hello, Jenny Hutchison with The Parliament Program.

Well, Ministers under attack, one after another; as the week progressed, the Opposition tried for yet more scalps, or to use the more common terminology, conducted fishing expeditions which in the end, were unsuccessful - not a catch. Not that surprising, given the targets. For example, Senator Richardson, the one scalp they already had, was intriguingly repursued on Thursday afternoon, in the Senate. Also that afternoon, Liberal Senators got very hot under the collar about Senator Cook, formerly an industrial officer with the Building Workers Union, now wearing the hat of Minister in charge of legislation which would force independent contractors to join that very union.

Throughout the week, and in both Houses, the Opposition attempted to tie Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, to complicity in the Marshall Islands affair. And on Thursday in the House of Representatives, Shadow Minister, Fred Chaney, queried whether Environment Minister, Ros Kelly, was a fool or a knave, in relation to the last minute cancellation of the launch of a World Environment Day school kit.

Chasing ministerial scalps is a worthy Opposition exercise, but claiming those scalps isn't, and isn't meant to be as easy as some members of the media would have you believe. Indeed, this week began with media created hype and a far larger than usual number of journalists in the Senate press gallery, but neither they nor the Opposition came up with anything of substance. Minister Kelly might look like a fool but it was politically predictable and acceptable that she direct blame to her department or her office. The Opposition was bound to enjoy making the Ministers squirm, but on the information we currently have, to talk about Evans and Kelly offending ministerial responsibility, is unwarranted. Ministers are human. They always try to wriggle out of accepting blame personally and they only go if the Prime Minister pushes. Ask any senior Coalition MP; or Australian Democrat Leader, Dr Coulter, who criticised the Opposition and especially Senator Bronwyn Bishop, for breaching standards of decency by endeavouring to entrap Senator Evans.

Whilst the concurrent pursuit of so many Ministers was unusual, the more important debate was that in the Senate on Tuesday, on the actions of Senate President, Kerry Sibraa. We will cover that later in the program, but first, let's look at one of the unsung watchdogs of the Parliament, the Standing Committee on Public Works. Established in 1913, the Public Works Committee considers all proposals for Commonwealth construction projects, in terms of the need for the project, the estimated cost, and the financial, social and environmental implications for the community. One of the current inquiries of the committee is on the construction of air traffic centres for the Civil Aviation Authority. An initial problem was the Authority's reluctance to talk to the committee, as Chairman, Colin Hollis, noted at a public hearing in Parliament House on Monday.

COLIN HOLLIS: It really does surprise me that someone of such a senior standing in the public service, doesn't know how committees of this Parliament operate. And the information contained in his letter about the roles of this committee are inaccurate and wrong, and someone occupying such a senior position should get their facts correct before they write to a committee of this Parliament. The facts contained in this letter about the power of this committee are inaccurate and I have advice from the Attorney-General's Department informing me that it is inaccurate.

JENNY HUTCHISON: But the CAA's Dr Robert John Gillies Edwards said:

ROBERT EDWARDS: The Civil Aviation Authority's position in relation to the information which you've sought, in particular as to the competitive prices offered by both Thomson and Hughes, and as to the evaluation process, can be succinctly put as follows. Firstly, it's a simple but important question of business ethics. It is normal and expected business practice to keep the details of offers supplied by companies in a competitive selection process, confidential. This undertaking was given to all the companies who provided offers under the Civil Aviation Authority's registration of interest, issued for the TAAATS project last May. While it is quite proper and reasonable for us to comment on our evaluation process and be quite open about the process we used to make the selection, it is entirely inappropriate to reveal any of the commercial in-confidence aspects of the offers relating either to technical content of the negotiations or the contractual terms and conditions or prices. To offer such information would clearly be in breach of established business ethics as well as a breach of specific contractual undertakings by the CAA to the TAAATS ROI respondents.

Secondly, we have not concluded a contract. We are still in negotiations and we still have a competitive alternative contractor in the wings. During such competitive negotiations, it is essential that the CAA retain maximum advantage to get the best deal for the industry that it serves. Public disclosure of the relative strengths of the two competitors at this time, could cost the CAA, and therefore the aviation industry, millions of dollars due to lost leverage. Having said all of that, it is important that the CAA, as an authority of the Commonwealth, pay due regard to the inquiry of this committee. There is a conflict between the contractual and commercial obligations of the CAA under the negotiating agreements binding it to each of the two potential contractors, and the position which CAA occupies as an authority of the Commonwealth, governed by its own legislation, and also under the Public Works Committee Act 1969.

JENNY HUTCHISON: As Public Works Committee Chairman, Colin Hollis, explains, there are no restrictions on what the committee can pursue.

COLIN HOLLIS: We were given a mandate by the Parliament to look at two buildings, but what was inside those buildings would depend on how the buildings would be, and that was our real difficulty. The buildings themselves were about $40 million, the equipment to go in there was about $300 million, and we had no plans for the building and we wanted to have more detail about the equipment that was to go into the building, which of course would influence our decision on whether the buildings should be approved, or not. And the departmental witnesses felt that that was commercial in-confidence and we were in the difficult situation that we felt that we couldn't fulfil our role to the Parliament of advising the Parliament whether approval should be given, until we had this knowledge. So it was a little bit of a Mexican stand-off position, if you like.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Indeed, so in fact, your committee members proceeded with asking questions of the Civil Aviation Authority, but you didn't necessarily get answers?

COLIN HOLLIS: No, we didn't get the answers that we required and this has been an on-going battle, if you like, that we have had with the CAA. They keep saying that we are exceeding the powers that were given to us by the Parliament, but our powers given to us by the Parliament, are very wide, because at the commencement of each hearing, I read out, and that we have to report back to the Parliament if the work is justified, if the expenditure of public money - which is taxpayers' money - if it can be justified. So we have a fairly wide mandate and we can arrange wider than the very narrow technical brief that we are often given, and indeed, it is often very necessary for us to do that to make ourself fully informed and to make that report back to the Parliament.

JENNY HUTCHISON: I can remember, there have been occasions in the past when in fact, your delving in this way, has been very productive. You have indeed, found that some proposals were not quite what they first appeared.

COLIN HOLLIS: Well, one of the classic examples, I always think, is that two years ago, we were inquiring into the refurbishment of the Reserve Bank building in Sydney, and we were very concerned at the amount of money that was going to be spent. I think, from memory, it was something like $96 million. With a few questions and that, we had decided that $96 million couldn't be justified and we told the departmental witnesses that, and miraculously, they came back to us the next week and they had found that they could do it for $86 million. So we saved the Australian taxpayers $10 million just by a few questions. And that is always the role that we take on my committee.

We are very very concerned at the expenditure of government money. Every year, we are responsible for the expenditure of in excess of $1 billion, quite a considerable sum of money, and we have to ensure not only ourselves, but the Parliament, that that money, the expenditure of that money can be justified. So we take quite an investigative role in all our inquiries, and I must say, it doesn't matter if it's a small project - and for us, a small project may be $6 million or a large project, like $300, $400 million.

JENNY HUTCHISON: In this particular example, the officers of the Civil Aviation Authority were initially instructed not to provide quite a lot of information, on the grounds of commercial in-confidence, but you then obtained an opinion from the Attorney-General's Department.

COLIN HOLLIS: Yes, well we warned the witnesses in Perth, first of all, that if they refused to answer the questions that the committee were putting to them, that they could be held in contempt of Parliament, because a parliamentary committee has the same standing and the same status as a chamber of the Parliament. They did refuse to answer these questions; they said that they were commercial in-confidence. We always want to respect commercial in-confidence and eventually, we went into camera for some of the information. We realised that in a tendering process that it would not be fair or would not be right to force people to divulge information. So the committees, all committees have this power and I must say that it is always exercised with due concern and care, but sometimes there are issues that really have got to be raised on the public issue.

This is .... the question we are dealing with is air safety, a system that is going to be in existence in Australia for the next twenty, thirty years, and at considerable expenditure of taxpayers' money. So really, the taxpayer has a right to have these questions answered, as well, and we are the way that the taxpayer can have these questions answered. Bureaucracy, I have always found, loves secrecy, and they will try and keep everything in camera that they can. They will refuse to give information and I think that the role of the committee is to decide whether they are just stalling or whether there is a serious commercial interest there, at stake. When there is a serious commercial interest, I don't believe that we should force them to divulge that information, but when they are just acting in a bureaucratic manner, not wishing to make known information that should be made known, I think the committee has a right to insist that that information go on the public record.

JENNY HUTCHISON: Concern about the radar tendering process has seen high-powered executives flown out from the United States for committee hearings, and direct representations to the Prime Minister. And there is a similar committee investigation under way in New Zealand. Still dissatisfied with the CAA, Mr Hollis is likely to take the unprecedented step next week, of passing the ball back to the Government, recommending the appointment of a technically qualified committee of inquiry. That should head off any possibility of a Senate inquiry.

Back to the general matter of the power of parliamentary committees to require information from public servants. In response to a request from Mr Hollis, the Senior General Counsel of the Attorney-General's Department, Mr Dennis Jessop, gave this official advice: 'The critical issue for present purposes is whether the fact that the material sought by the committee is commercial in-confidence, gives officials of the Authority a reasonable excuse not to divulge the material. In my view, it does not.' Mr Jessop concluded: 'It follows that officials of the Authority could be compelled by the committee to disclose the information.'