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Western Australian media owner seeks an injunction in the Federal Court against the Government's decision to abort the pay TV tendering process

PETER THOMPSON: Just when the Federal Government was hoping it had weathered the worst of the pay television storm, a cold wind is blowing in more trouble from Western Australia. Yesterday, the Communications Minister, Bob Collins, faced a grilling in Parliament over the Government's latest decision to cancel the tendering process for microwave licences because of legal errors. But one of the tenderers for the microwave licences, the Perth-based media owner, Kerry Stokes, isn't taking this latest decision lying down. He's gone to the Federal Court seeking an injunction to stop the move to abort the tendering. A hearing has been set down for Friday for the Federal Government to put its case.

Mr Stokes has already won one round against Canberra over pay TV. In April, a court ordered that the tendering process for microwave licences be re-opened after an appeal by Mr Stokes. Now, Mr Stokes says the Government has no right to abort the re-opened tendering, and says the action is contempt of court. In Perth, Kerry Stokes told Diana Russell-Coote that the Government doesn't appear to understand what it's doing.

KERRY STOKES: We were operating under orders previously granted by consent of both parties by the Federal Court. The Government appears not to fully understand or comprehend all of those orders in the manner in which the consent was granted. To unilaterally decide to abandon the process or to deal with the applications before them would, in fact, probably be contempt of court.

DIANA RUSSELL-COOTE: Does this mean that the tender process has now re-opened?

KERRY STOKES: No. It means that they are bound by court to allow the tenders to stay open till the end of this month, whereupon they must close them. Now, the court actions that are current will determine whether or not this process proceeds, but there is no evidence yet produced by the Government that would indicate that this process should be abandoned.

DIANA RUSSELL-COOTE: Isn't the reason that the Government aborted the tender process because there are two legal errors in that process?

KERRY STOKES: If so - and I don't concede that there are - having read the press release, I've never read so much gobbledegook in my life. It doesn't stand up logically. I don't know if it stands up legally - I doubt that it does. But more importantly, we've got to remember that not a month ago the Government's solicitors - the Crown law department - negotiated this settlement and the consent orders. Now, they've had six months of the opportunity to find legal argument. I can't believe that they've only just found it in the last month, the last couple of weeks. It doesn't make sense.

DIANA RUSSELL-COOTE: Do you think the Government and the Minister are confused about this or lack understanding?

KERRY STOKES: I think there's every possibility that they're confused. I think there's no more than three or four people in the entire country who actually understand all of the issues involved in this, and I don't think any of them are in the department and possibly not in the Government.

DIANA RUSSELL-COOTE: So this is a further bungle on the errors that have already been made?

KERRY STOKES: I think this goes beyond that. This is possibly an attempt to prevent the course of justice and it's possibly an attempt or in contempt of court, and no Minister or Prime Ministers or government officials are above contempt of court. There is a perfectly valid action with which the Government has agreed - it's signed the consent orders. I'm very confused.

DIANA RUSSELL-COOTE: Well, should the Minister, Senator Collins, stand down or resign now?

KERRY STOKES: I don't think Senator Collins' resignation is going to necessarily make the matter less confusing. I just think that it seems like somebody is making unilateral decisions and I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't realise the total significance nor the importance of the current Federal case in Perth.

DIANA RUSSELL-COOTE: Do you suspect that the Federal Government was aborting the tender process again because it had these legal flaws, or do you suspect another motive?

KERRY STOKES: Well, the legal flaws mentioned, I believe, are untenuous as legal grounds. What they're arguing is that they should have tendered for each frequency. The documents are pretty straightforward. They say the Government allocate the frequencies to the winning bids. I think it's semantics as to whether you tender for individual frequencies or people tender for the whole spectrum and are granted frequencies. I don't think that argument is consistent, only if one of the bidders were in fact to object to a frequency, and I don't think that having granted them, that option would be open to them.

DIANA RUSSELL-COOTE: Is it likely you'll win your court case?

KERRY STOKES: I feel very confident that what's currently before the court won't be upset.

DIANA RUSSELL-COOTE: If you didn't win your court case, would you be looking at compensation, given that you've had to take so much litigation?

KERRY STOKES: Given the fact that we've had consent orders, which the Government have consented to through their attorneys, should it be found there is an illegality upon that premise before that, we'd certainly believe we'd have damages actions against the Government.

DIANA RUSSELL-COOTE: How does this reflect on the Federal Government?

KERRY STOKES: I think it shows a lack of co-ordination on technical and legal issues which should have been addressed when this process was embarked upon.

DIANA RUSSELL-COOTE: Who is responsible?

KERRY STOKES: Obviously the departments and, finally, the Minister has got to be responsible.

PETER THOMPSON: Kerry Stokes, the Perth-based media owner.