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Thursday, 10 November 2011
Page: 8859

Senator CROSSIN (Northern Territory) (15:07): Let's take this opportunity to reiterate some of the facts about this. I know Senator Conroy has answered some extensive questions during the most recent estimates process regarding this. The Australia Network is a core element, as we all know, of our overseas broadcasting network, and it is a major public diplomacy platform. It makes a significant contribution, as we know, to the promotion and protection of Australia's national interests.

Let's go to the tender process. It was terminated, as Senator Conroy has said a number of times, including again today, on legal advice that it was compromised by the leaking of information confidential to the process. We know that at all times, though, this government has acted within the terms and conditions of the tender process—no more or no less than the opposition have done in government and would do again, no doubt, if they ever got a chance to be in government again.

For the benefit of the Senate I think it is worth explaining that the Australia Network has come to this point under the absolute propriety of the government's actions at every stage of the process. The government announced that it would conduct an open tender process, as we all know, for the Australia Network in November last year and, as is the normal practice in these matters, placed an official publication notice of the tender on AusTender on 4 February this year. Tenderers were given until 25 March to respond. They were considered by an independent panel of government officials, a process which, again, is normal practice for such a large tender, and it took several months.

Despite the assertions of the opposition Senator Conroy, as I understand it, has said repeatedly that he had no involvement in the development of the ABC's bid during this time and nor was he briefed on it—

Senator Birmingham: He said it was a 'fine bid'!

Senator CROSSIN: In fact, it was a fine bid. The ABC's bid was strong—

Senator Birmingham: How do you know? You weren't there.

Senator CROSSIN: As I already know—and you know as well, Senator Birmingham—at the estimates committee he was quite forthright in providing that advice to the estimates committee when questioned about it.

During the period between the government's initial decision to put the Australia Network to an open tender and the finalisation of the independent panel's deliberations, we saw a significant number of international changes take place. There was significant political transformation across the Middle East and North Africa. A number of consular crises also underlined the importance of ensuring strengthened information services would be available from a range of sources. Consistent with this view, the Australia Network was a matter of national importance—as it has been and continues to be—and the government wanted to ensure that the tenderer took account of these rapidly changing international events. And the government then announced that it would amend the Australia Network tender to add a selection criterion to cover these issues—not an unusual process at all, I would have said.

So, in taking this position, I am advised that the complete propriety of adding to the tender criteria was normal practice. As the opposition may or may not know, a media release to this effect was issued on 24 June this year and the amendment was placed publicly on the AusTender site on 8 July, with the two tenderers given until 27 July to provide additional information. The government also publicly announced at this time that, consistent with our view of the importance of the Australia Network and the expanded criteria for the tender, cabinet would in fact take the final decision on the tender. I understand that cabinet made a decision at that time and I am advised that Senator Conroy would be the approver for this purpose. The independent panel reconvened in August to consider the amended tender bids and provided an update report at the end of that month. So a two-month time frame in DFAT handling was entirely justifiable, as tenderers were given the opportunity to address the new criterion. And the tender evaluation board considered those responses.

So, as we move on with this time frame, as the opposition try to unpick what they think might be a story here, we lay more facts on the table for their consideration. Apparently, some elements of the independent panel's report, as we know, have now been leaked. The leaking of this information has, of course, compromised the process—as it would if any information were leaked under a tender process that might have been held during the Howard government years, or under any government's jurisdiction. Every government—previous governments and this government—would consider such a leak to be— (Time expired)