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Monday, 4 June 1984
Page: 2437

Senator GARETH EVANS (Attorney-General)(5.06) —I apologise for the difficulties which apparently have been felt by Senator Durack and other honourable senators opposite in obtaining information to their satisfaction on this matter. I congratulate them, however, on their perseverence and endurance. Indeed, if they keep this up, they will be a good, professional opposition and worthy of playing that role for a good many years to come. The difficulty which the Government, and the Department of the Special Minister of State in particular, experienced in dealing with these very detailed questions which have been pressed on this matter is that the Estimates Committee hearings came at a time when the Department of the Special Minister of State was just assuming responsibility for this role from the Department of Transport. It was one of these situations in which not all of the information was in the hands of the people with the responsibility for answering immediately to Parliament about it. Indeed, that situation continues to some extent.

Senator Durack made reference to the actual contract documents constituted, I understand, by exchange of correspondence after the original tender document, which basically incorporated by reference the key elements in that tender document. Those documents, I understand, are still in the possession of the Department of Transport, rather than the Special Minister of State. That makes it difficult to produce them instantaneously but, if Senator Durack is wanting to pursue the matter, I have no doubt that, subject to conditions of commercial confidentiality and security so far as it bears upon questions as to flying patterns, and so on, further information can be made available. There is no reason in principle why it should not, and there has been no desire to stop it.

As to the effectiveness of the particular surveillance that is proposed for North Queensland, I am not sure that Senator Boswell was in the chamber when I read the statement from the Department explaining, as we understood it, the different capacities of the respective radar systems and also the costs respectively attributable to those different systems. It is not the Government's or the Department's belief that there is anything ineffective from the point of view of rescue operations about the particular aircraft that Skywest Airlines Pty Ltd will be flying. It is possible for reasonable men, reasonable women or reasonable aviators to differ about the comparative effectiveness. It is possible for reasonable people to disagree about the way in which one trades off perhaps variations in operational effectiveness against cost savings.

All I can say in that respect is that the Government does not believe there has been any downgrading of effective capacity, particularly insofar as search and rescue operations are concerned, and several aircraft would be used in any search and rescue alarm that is raised. Obviously it is only if the Litton- fitted aircraft were in the vicinity of a boat in distress that it would be any use in that respect. It is dependent on a whole variety of contingencies. When all the matters are balanced out, we do not believe that we have done anything, as a government, to abandon our responsibilities. As I have said, it is possible for people to disagree about these things, and it is with that in mind that the operational effectiveness of this new system will be very closely evaluated over the six-month period to which I referred in the departmental statement. Certainly this is not a matter on which the Government regards the decisions as having been foreclosed for all time. We will keep monitoring and reviewing what is occurring and take very closely into account the sorts of noises which have been made by the Queensland senators, particularly here today, and, hopefully, produce a situation which is both cost-effective so far as the taxpayers' purse is concerned and also meets the other objectives which have been so well articulated by Senator MacGibbon, Senator Boswell and others in this place.

In Senator MacGibbon's particular question, he raised the reasonable point that if the profits are built into the standing component rather than the flying hours that would appear to presume that there is no profit component, that it is just a direct cost recovery so far as flying hours are concerned. I am told that flying charges are at an agreed rate designed to cover attributable costs associated with flying. That indeed is so. It may be that some further and better particulars can be provided on that point, but so far as the officers here are aware, that is their understanding of the situation and it is as I described it in the statement.