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Senator comments on the print media inquiry on foreign ownership and the need for public servants to give evidence

MONICA ATTARD: Well, we're now joined by Labor's Senator Kim Carr. Senator Carr, what did you think of that criticism of Bob Hawke?

KIM CARR: I was surprised, but essentially the allegations that have been made concerning Mr Hawke are issues, I think, that Mr Hawke will have to respond to rather than people like me.

MONICA ATTARD: Do you think that Mr Hawke should be recalled?

KIM CARR: Well, that remains to be seen. Essential, I think this whole committee should be wound up, frankly. It's been based on an erroneous allegation that there was some sort of deal asked for in terms of the ownership of Fairfax that's been demonstrated again and again and again to be totally untrue. The use of the word balance, as Conrad Black indicated today, was his word, not Mr Keating, and in itself, the word balance in itself does not, in my mind, imply any impropriety. It only takes on a projorative meaning when cynical-minded people seek to distort the facts. And, essentially, that's what's happened. This is a party political inquiry which has been designed to operate as a witch-hunt by the conservative forces in the Senate.

MONICA ATTARD: But if you wind up the inquiry, how do you ever get to the bottom of the matter?

KIM CARR: Well, there is nothing to get to the bottom of, and that's what's been abundantly demonstrated today, and has been on many other occasions. There was no deal. Of course, if we look at the evidence in terms of the way Fairfax has behaved since the change in ownership, you'll see that the Fairfax papers in the last elections went for the conservative parties, not for Labor, and if anything, the newspapers themselves have become more conservative in recent times; there's been a change in culture within Fairfax from the days when it was, in fact, bankrupt. But that reflects not a change in favour of Labor.

MONICA ATTARD: So, when you say there's nothing to get to the .. there's no matter to get to the bottom of, does that mean that you believe Conrad Black?

KIM CARR: I think that Conrad Black's evidence today was quite credible and, in fact, is reflected in what Mr Keating has said and a number of other witnesses before the inquiry. This whole proposition was based on a politically inspired device by the conservative parties to attack the Government. Now, the use of the Senate in this way, in my view, is totally inappropriate. We have many good Senate committees, but the establishment of select committees to run as witch-hunts, to attack citizens, to threaten them with gaol; and, of course, to undermine, in my view the integrity of the Senate processes themselves, is a totally inappropriate use of our time. It might provide some entertainment, and I suppose that adds value, but frankly, it is not the best way to use the Senate's time.

MONICA ATTARD: Would one way of getting to the bottom of the whole affair perhaps be to get your Labor colleagues to allow public servants, in particular those of the Foreign Investment Review Board, to give evidence?

KIM CARR: I think it's very important to understand that the decision of the ownership of Fairfax was not made by the Government, it was made by the receiver. And that's a point that needs to be, I think, drawn to public attention. Clearly, that has not sunk in. There is a problem with a company that's in receivership which the Government did not own; it did not dispose of Fairfax. The question of public servants giving evidence goes to more fundamental issues about the way in which advice to government should be protected; to protect the integrity of that advice; the confidentiality of that advice is essential to maintain objectivity and, in my view, candour. And a government, no government anywhere in the country would allow hostile political tribunals like this one access to public servants as part of a political witch-hunt. It would, of course, if the contrary view was taken, undermine the very workings of government, the integrity of government, throughout this country.

MONICA ATTARD: Senator Carr, Conrad Black says all limits on foreign ownership should go up. Is he right in saying that foreign owners aren't the bogey-men they're painted to be?

KIM CARR: Well, I think that in this country there is considerable concern about the question of Australian ownership of Australian resources, and I think that's appropriate. There is no indication that I see within the Government of a move to increase the level of foreign ownership of Fairfax. He has - Conrad Black - has indicated his concern about the security of his shareholding within the company in terms of the possibility of others moving in on him. I think that's a matter that has to be taken seriously, but I see no evidence that the Government is moving to expand his interest in that particular company. Mr Dawkins indicated in May 1993 that the Government would not countenance a further increase beyond 25 per cent. I've seen no evidence to suggest a change in policy.

MONICA ATTARD: But, more broadly speaking, are politicians, particularly those in the Labor Party, perhaps unnecessarily touchy about foreign ownership?

KIM CARR: I think the question of ownership of our resources is very important. I think there has to be obviously public debate about the way in which economic resources, the power of this country is distributed. I'm not convinced that every Australian owner of every newspaper has behaved properly, and clearly in the case of Fairfax, which was under Australian ownership, there wasn't the best practices we've seen. That doesn't necessarily mean that every foreign owner should be given access to Australian media. There clearly are cases where foreign owners have behaved very badly and have not produced the best results for the countries in which they're working.

MONICA ATTARD: Senator Carr, we'll leave it there. Senator Kim Carr, a member of the Senate's print media inquiry. And P.M. tried to contact Bob Hawke but he's overseas.