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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee

DOBELL, Mr Graeme, Private capacity


ACTING CHAIR: I now welcome Mr Graeme Dobell from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Dobell : I am a journalist fellow with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, but I appear on my own behalf.

ACTING CHAIR: Would you like to make an opening statement?

Mr Dobell : Yes, I would, thank you. First of all, thank you for this opportunity to appear. This is a chance for me to, in a way, think and talk about three places that have played a really important part in my life and my work, drawing strongly on my affections and my respect. The first of them is this institution: the parliament. I first came to Canberra in 1978 to work in the old press gallery. I finally left the press gallery in this building in 2008, so I have spent a lot of time in this committee room and in a lot of other rooms in this place. Second is the ABC, which I joined from newspapers in 1975 and which really is a unique Australian institution, a uniquely valuable institution and a wonderful place to work. Finally, the South Pacific, which, because I joined Radio Australia and continue to work for Radio Australia, is a place that I have spent a lot of time. Since 1975 I have travelled throughout the South Pacific and written and worked in the South Pacific. Like my three children, I would not actually want to rank any hierarchy on those three places, all of which are incredibly important. But I do think that today I am going to be guilty of giving the ABC some tough love.

I think my submission highlights Australia's interests, and that is the parliament's role, obviously, ultimately. It talks about South Pacific needs and it talks about ABC responsibilities. I wanted to talk very briefly about those. I think Australia's abiding interest in the South Pacific is quite extraordinary—how consistently Australia comes back to the same sort of responses in the South Pacific again and again. We will be talking a little bit about the ABC's foundational document, the charter. It is worth referring, as my submission does, to the foundational document for this place, the Australian Constitution, and the extraordinary point that a document that does not actually refer to the job of the Prime Minister or the role of the cabinet actually in its external affairs powers has a specific reference to Australia's interests in international and external affairs in the South Pacific. That is there because, going back to the 1880s Australia's focus on the Pacific and Australia's interests in the Pacific have been extraordinarily consistent. It is a striking note about the way Australia thinks about where it is in the world and what Australia's interests in the world are.

If you fast forward to the 2016 Defence white paper you see Australia offering a security guarantee to the whole of the South Pacific—Australia pledging to be the principle security partner for every member of the Pacific forum and also for Timor-Leste. It is not just a security guarantee we offer; that document talks about ensuring government and social stability in the islands. Australia pledges not just a military partnership but diplomatic, social, economic, environmental and democratic values. This is an Australia that wants to be a principle partner, expressing all of its values and all of its interests in the Pacific.

The other point, I think, about this is that if you look at the history of Australia in the South Pacific, one of the other striking points is these recurring bouts of amnesia when Australia lifts its focus to other things or bits of the polity see other things that are more important. The ABC, I think, is yet another example of Australia showing a bit of big memory loss about its abiding interests in the South Pacific.

You have some excellent submissions from the Pacific—from Vanuatu's Prime Minister and from the Pacific Freedom Forum—so you have some specific voices. They are really important Pacific voices, so I will not presume to talk to Pacific needs.

Let me talk a little bit about the ABC's place in this and the ABC's role. I think the ABC's submission was really interesting in the three points it highlighted at the beginning about impinging on the independence of broadcast technologies, the significant costs imposed on the corporation to maintain short wave and their third point about obliging to deliver language services that had not been provided.

The first point, of course, is the key, going to important questions about what the ABC is and what it should do in the Pacific. These are separate but vital issues that I think will and should lead this committee back to a consideration of the charter and what the ABC is supposed to be doing in the charter given by the parliament.

I think that point 2 is merely an objection by the ABC at having to go back to paying for things that it has been paying for for decades and no longer wants to pay for. Granted, the ABC says it would cost not $2 million but $4 million to go back to doing shortwave. That perhaps suggests that the ABC has been running down the service for some time.

The third point I think is just odd. The third point is about the proposed act calling on the ABC to maintain a shortwave service to PNG and the 19 countries of the Pacific. The ABC claims that it is doing a good job in the South Pacific. The ABC says that it is giving the Pacific what it needs through its English and Tok Pisin services. If the ABC believes its own assurances about the quality of what it is offering it should be able, I would suggest, to tick the appropriate box quite simply on its own behalf. Or is the ABC tacitly conceding that it is actually not providing a good and appropriate service to the Pacific?

Which brings us to the issue of charter. The charter is the Holy Grail, and that reference to independence in the ABC submission is a reference to the charter and the legislation. I would argue to you that what you are doing is no more than pointing the ABC back to its own charter. The parliament that enacted the charter in 1983 is acting through this committee to tell the ABC to meet two key elements of its own charter. The ABC, under the first point in the charter, is instructed to give Australians 'comprehensive' broadcasting services. And by killing shortwave in the Northern Territory, the ABC has failed that comprehensive test: it is not reaching all Australians. That is base charter failure.

Secondly, the charter instructs the ABC to transmit to countries outside Australia, broadcasting programs of news, current affairs, entertainment and cultural enrichment. But in a most un-charterish manner, the ABC has been steadily gutting its South Pacific service. By killing shortwave, the corporation merely highlighted the trend line. It called attention to what it had been quietly doing by pulling out resources, pulling out people and pulling away money.

Now, when the ABC lost the contract to run the Australia Network international TV service in 2014, the blame for that, of course—or the decision for that—came from the Abbott government, killing off a 10-year contract after only one year. The ABC, however, which had in a sense brought together Radio Australia and Australia Network in a quite sensible—

Senator XENOPHON: Sorry, can you just repeat what you said about the decision in 2014 made by the Abbott government to kill off—

Mr Dobell : Australia Network.

Senator XENOPHON: Australia Network.

Mr Dobell : The television service.

Senator XENOPHON: That is right, but—

Mr Dobell : A 10-year contract.

Senator XENOPHON: We know about that, but did that impact on radio as well?

Mr Dobell : Yes, it did. What the ABC had done over a series of years—quite legitimately, I think—was to bring together in its international service its television operation and its Radio Australia operation.

Senator XENOPHON: Yes.

Mr Dobell : Radio Australia was the 'international' service part of the international service. When the ABC did what the government told it to do, which was to step back from running this contract, it did not just step back from television it also, very seriously, downgraded Radio Australia. There was a knock-on effect from that decision, which was an ABC decision, to rip resources away not just from television but from Radio Australia.

In a sense, what we are seeing now are the flow-on effects of those series of cuts. In a column about the impacts on Radio Australia that I wrote at the time for ASPI, I thought they were 'bad, mad and sad'. We are seeing the effects of those in this greatly diminished Pacific service.

On the limited utility of shortwave: I think the ABC submission is notable because, apart from a few assertions, the evidence really struck me as very limited. I would suggest to you that there is a very good submission before you about shortwave which goes to some detail about the technical issues, and that is submission No. 40 from Nigel Holmes. He was 'Mr Shortwave'; he was Radio Australia's transmission manager for 23 years.

CHAIR: Yes, we heard from him this morning. Do you have much more on your opening statement?

Mr Dobell : No. I come back to the issue of the Pacific. That is a good point to stop.

Senator XENOPHON: Thank you for a very articulate and powerful submission. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in its submission, said it expects the ABC to continue to meet its international charter obligations and it will continue to consult with the ABC regarding how its overseas service can support Australia's engagement with the Pacific. Do you consider such statements, in a sense, reflect the importance of Australia's presence in the South Pacific?

Mr Dobell : At one level, yes, it does. The language about Australia's interests in the South Pacific is pretty consistent, and the ABC embraces that language. What we are talking about here are actions which do not really reflect the language.

Senator XENOPHON: Historically, the ABC's shortwave footprint was wider than the shortwave footprint that was shut down, was it not?

Mr Dobell : The shortwave footprint to parts of Asia has gone down, yes.

Senator XENOPHON: And was that out of transmitters in Darwin?

Mr Dobell : That is correct. It was out of Carnarvon as well, I think, on the West Coast.

Senator XENOPHON: So are you saying that ideally bringing back even the North Asia broadcast is something that you think would be good for Australia's soft power in the Pacific and in the Northern Pacific? Or should we just try and retain what we have got?

Mr Dobell : I think that there are parts of South-East Asia, Indochina particularly, where shortwave still has a role to play but much less than it once did. The digital revolution which is surging around the world is really very evident on the streets of Indochina, Indonesia and North-East Asia. I do not think that the grip that shortwave once had in parts of Asia is anywhere near as strong as it was.

If we are having an argument at the moment about just maintaining shortwave to the South Pacific, where it is actually still vital, I think I would be, in a sense, using ammunition that I would like to focus on an area where I really think the need still is strong. Once Radio Australia's shortwave signal was very important. I think of Indonesia, particularly under Suharto, where our shortwave service to Indonesia, our Bahasa service, was a really important outside contribution to the life of Indonesia.

Senator XENOPHON: Because you cannot block shortwave?

Mr Dobell : That is correct.

Senator XENOPHON: Unlike the Radio Australia FM station in Fiji after the coup?

Mr Dobell : That is correct.

Senator XENOPHON: What is your understanding of shortwave digital, the new technology? Can that be blocked?

Mr Dobell : I do not think so, no. It is an external signal with a long reach. You can block shortwave but you have to put a hell of a lot of resources into it. The Soviet Union, during the Cold War, spent a lot of time trying to knock out shortwave signals from the West with some success but it is not 100 per cent possible.

Senator XENOPHON: You have attached Geoff Heriot's piece to your submission. Can you elaborate on the great game of the airwaves? Are you talking about other countries expanding their shortwave transmissions into the region?

Mr Dobell : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: For instance, does China to shortwave digital or just ordinary shortwave?

Mr Dobell : I would have to defer to people who know a hell of a lot more about this than I do. My understanding of China's shortwave investment is that it is taking up as many of allotments of shortwave frequencies and shortwave slots as it possibly can. Its investment in broadcasting is ratcheting up at a very large rate. So my answer is that China is investing in shortwave in a big way.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you, Mr Dobell. I do not think you finished going through your opening statement, so I am wondering if you might be prepared to table it so we can have a copy?

Mr Dobell : You would have to be able to read my extraordinarily poor shorthand.

Senator XENOPHON: You can table the shorthand.

Mr Dobell : Your ability to read my execrable Pitman would be impressive.

Senator URQUHART: I did learn Pitman once, so I might be able to do it.

Mr Dobell : I promise you I will be writing a column about this, which will go up on the ASPI website on Monday.

Senator URQUHART: That would be fantastic.

Mr Dobell : Basically, I think I covered most of the points that I wanted to make.

Senator URQUHART: That would be great, but if we can have some—

Mr Dobell : In fact, I have some classic journalist things.

Senator URQUHART: That is fine, if it will be in the column.

Mr Dobell : It will become a column on Monday.

Senator URQUHART: I want to talk to you about the broadcasts from China in the Pacific. You are aware of those, clearly. Can you give us an overview of the content of those programs?

Mr Dobell : China's investment in all of its layers of international broadcasting over the last decade has been as strong as lots of other areas of China's development. It has just been an extraordinary surge. Just confining it to the South Pacific, China's work and investment in the South Pacific has been overwhelmingly to the good. There is no doubt about it. China's engagement in the South Pacific has been for the good. There have also, obviously, been side-effects such as the arrival of Asian-linked criminal gangs and some of those elements, but the reality is that any power system expanding will expand into adjacent power systems. The South Pacific has always been a place where expanding power systems come to play. We saw that during the European colonial experience, and China is doing, in some ways—almost in an absent-minded way—much the same thing in the South Pacific.

China really got into the Pacific in the last decade because it was having a diplomatic contest with Taiwan. What really got China into the Pacific was the need to play against Taiwan, which had, I think, from memory, five flags, or six flags maybe, in the South Pacific. And that is really what got China's attention. It actually had some very nasty effects. The riots that we saw in Solomon Islands on Honiara in 2006 where partly a result of the fact that Taiwan had gone all out to buy MPs and had been seen to buy a government in that election. The torching of China town that followed from that was a bit of a wakeup call in Taiwan and, to a lesser extent, in Beijing.

I think the reality is that China gets a lot in the Pacific for not very much. It means that, if you get elected to an office in the Pacific these days, your first overseas trip will be to Shanghai or to Beijing. If you are a Fijian military officer these days, unfortunately—and they do think it is unfortunate—they will not be coming to Duntroon or to the officer training courses out at Weston. By the way, on one of the boards out at Western, one of the alumni of the officer training college is Sitiveni Rabuka. I am pretty sure that Frank Bainimarama might be there too. Anyway, unfortunately for the Fijian military, these days they do their training in China, and they do not find the messes as quite congenial as they do here. The overall point is: yes, China is coming, because China is coming everywhere.

Senator URQUHART: This leads on to my question: can you give us an overview of how the Chinese broadcast programs my present a threat to the Australian soft power in the region? There is the fact that there is so much influence and we are stepping back from providing that voice of Australia in a very close region to us. I was in Vanuatu in October or November last year, and the amount of Chinese's businesses and that is just exponentially growing, enormously. I guess you can see the influence on the ground. My concern is, what does that do for our soft power with in the region?

Mr Dobell : That is a great question, a really good question. In a way I am undercutting my own argument but, in a way, my view about the South Pacific is much as is my view about China. My view about the South Pacific is that Australia has lucked out—we get to be the hegemon, or the nation-builder, in one of the most beautiful parts of the world where everybody else wants to come for a holiday. But, more than that, we get the developing region which has most successfully transitioned from their colonial period to independence. We get a region which is strongly Christian, very pro-capitalist, very conservative and very pro-Western and where English is the language and the Bible is the vessel.

If you like, the soft power Western cultural influences in the Pacific and the ability of the Pacific to take what it wants from the West means that we are, almost despite ourselves, accepted and liked in the Pacific. Of course, they know us better than we know them, because they do not suffer from those bouts of amnesia that we do. We are accepted as the people who turn up and who are lousy at the singing but, nevertheless, pay for the beer. We have a strong role. The religion is important and the Bible is important but, by God, the singing is magnificent.

Senator URQUHART: They sing beautifully and they drown us out, so it really does not matter how bad we are.

Mr Dobell : My experience of the Pacific and Australia is that, if you send three Australians and one Pacific Islander into a room, the islander will come out with the shoes and the belts. I have never had any doubt about the ability of the islands to assimilate all sorts of different change and to bring that incredible strength of community. These are classic strong societies and weak states, and the problem in the Pacific is that the weak states are getting weaker and the strong social settings are actually weakening, for a whole range of reasons—urbanisation and all the other elements.

If you asked me how influential China can be at a sort of a changing-of-the-values level, I do not think that is going to happen. I really do not think that that is where the issue is. It is more about influences on the state, influence on services and the way governments operate and then, further up the chain, how the Pacific Island governments operate in the international space and whether Australia and New Zealand will get the sort of natural affinity that we have always had. We have always had a lot of trouble in the Pacific; we offer them leadership but we do not always do what we need to do to get followership. That is a roundabout answer, but I have a lot of faith in the strength of the Pacific to keep its eye on its own best interests.

Senator URQUHART: In relation to the ABC's position—that they have indicated that they will shift broadcast to FM transmitters in the Pacific—do you have a view on that initiative?

Mr Dobell : My view is that the ABC needs to be in everything. My view is that the ABC must of course be in FM, because one of the big changes in the Pacific is urbanisation—the drift from the villages to the cities. You do need FM transmitters in the cities, obviously, because that is where the decision-makers are and that is where the small middle class is—that is where many of them are. But FM does not get you that far, as you know, particularly if you are looking at Papua New Guinea with its mountainous terrain—it just does not get you very far.

Senator URQUHART: So what is required?

Mr Dobell : A whole range of things. Short-wave, FM—

Senator URQUHART: So a mixture?

Mr Dobell : Facebook. I think Facebook, due to the way we speak to decision-makers who can log on. They are logging on, obviously. The way that they use phones—the phone effect in the Pacific—is not quite as dramatic as the mobile phone effect in Africa, but it is striking how families will make sure at least one member has a phone. There are those sorts of networking effects.

Senator URQUHART: What is Taiwan doing in relation to broadcasting? You mentioned the Solomon Islands before, and I understand that they still recognise Taiwan over mainland China.

Mr Dobell : Yes, they do.

Senator URQUHART: Can you also expand on the competition between Taiwan and China and the risk for Australia's place in the Pacific in relation to that?

Mr Dobell : Taiwan's approach is, in a couple of areas, quite important. In a couple of areas where it has diplomatic recognition, such as the Solomons, Taiwan is a very important aid provider. As an aid provider it is actually quite generous. Taiwan's work on some areas such as health services is quite important. But Taiwan's, if you like, soft-power ability to operate is greatly constrained. It is not a great broadcaster. If you like, its Kuomintang background meant that a free player medium might be a new development in Taiwan, but it does not give it much international space.

What I think that most people in the region would hope is this. Former President Ma, when he was elected, essentially negotiated a tacit detente or ceasefire with China in the South Pacific, and that seems to have held for the best part of about eight or nine years, under which the two sides essentially agreed to a ceasefire on the existing lines of diplomatic recognition. As long as China does not push too hard in countries where Taiwan's flag is, that gentle ceasefire will hold. That is good for the region because very small amounts of external dollars can have a big destabilising effect. At its worst, when the war between the two was running hot, say from 2000 to 2005, Taiwanese diplomats were running around with suitcases of dollars, and in small island polities it was extremely damaging and very dangerous. So our interest and, I think, the islands' interest is that that ceasefire continue. As long as things do not happen in the Taiwan-China relationship—for them the Pacific is a third- or fourth-order issue, but if things go bad at a first-order level then it could cascade down again, and that can be very destabilising.

Senator URQUHART: My final question is: in relation to the absence of ABC short-wave service, do you have a concern about the capacity of communities in the Pacific in relation to them receiving emergency broadcasts?

Mr Dobell : Yes, I do.

Senator URQUHART: What does that mean for communities?

Mr Dobell : Let me come at it, in a way, from an ABC perspective. My view of the Pacific has been framed by the ABC, working for the ABC. What is striking to me is that, when the ABC pulled this out, stopped this, and started to get the responses from the Pacific that we have seen, particularly that letter that you got from the Prime Minister of Vanuatu and the references to Cyclone Pam, I really started to think about what has changed in the South Pacific and what has changed in terms of the use of the technology that would say that this is the moment to pull the pin on short wave. I really see nothing that has changed. The big Ds are still the same big Ds. The issues of distance have not changed. The issues of development and underdevelopment are exactly what they have been, and in some ways they are getting worse. And the issues of disaster are exactly the same, and we will see more Cyclone Pams. Yes, the other big D, the digital revolution, is slowly reaching out there. But nothing had really changed in that environment apart from the fact, as far as I could see, that the ABC was coming to the end of its short-wave contracts, and it seemed to the ABC that this was a pretty good time to cut and run. So it was a decision that really did not reflect anything about the ongoing realities, the big-D realities, of the South Pacific.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you very much.

Senator LUDLAM: I have a couple of questions, if I could. I do not have many, mainly because your submission has been so comprehensive. You have written:

There may be no big domestic constituency for good foreign policy - but the whole nation pays for bad foreign policy.

I think we should cut that out and stick it on the wall. That made me realise that, although you are here presenting today on a very specific initiative by the ABC, you are pointing to a much bigger picture about withdrawal, I guess, of Australian influence in the region. What is your view on whether Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade portfolio come up with the cash and get the ABC to switch it back on?

Mr Dobell : It is a hard one, isn't it?

Senator LUDLAM: They said no this morning, but maybe your evidence could sway their view.

Mr Dobell : Let's put it another way. Next month we finish 14 extraordinarily important years in the Solomon Islands. RAMSI wraps up after 14 years. We spent, and rightly spent, $3 billion, give or take a buck, in the Solomons. When you talk to lots of other countries around the world about the South Pacific and what the Solomons were facing in 2000-2001, you see that essentially—there is some academic debate about it—what Australia did and what the region did, was nation-building. That was the important thing: we did it with the forum and through the forum. It was driven by Australia and funded by Australia, but it was a forum initiative. It had to be the forum, of course, because if it had gone to the UN Security Council it would have been vetoed by China, because Solomon Islands did not have diplomatic relations with China. It had to be the forum.

So we did that nation-building, which was vital. Cast your mind back. The Solomon Islands cabinet were not able to meet, because if they had met they would have been held hostage and taken down to the central bank. Every time a new cache of cash came into the central bank, deputy police commissioners and others were putting out their hands. The police force operated as the police force during the day, and during the night time it was the armed arm of the Malaitan Eagle Force. What the Pacific Islands Forum did, and what Australia did, in Solomons was good. It was a wonderful regional initiative, and we paid for it—and we should have. Most Australians, I think, would even be surprised to know that RAMSI is still there. It will finish up next month, and the region understands that. The region knows what Australia and New Zealand did there. And they are proud of it. It is one of the biggest things the forum has ever done.

But, again, to go with the thing about good foreign policy, not everyone actually draws the lessons from good foreign policy, and I think Australia in some ways are already starting to forget some of the lessons we should draw from what we did and how we paid for the Solomon Islands.

Senator LUDLAM: So that is kind of a yes.

Mr Dobell : As you were talking to Michael, I was thinking back through long discussions between Foreign Affairs and Radio Australia over many years, going back through the Dix report and the Waller report. I think ultimately the reason that the ABC is so significant for Australia as an international broadcaster, even at this late stage when so much of what we do has been cut back, is that people know the ABC—in pidgin—'telim tru'. And it is amazing.

I remember many years ago sitting—it might even have been in this room, actually—with a bunch of high-level apparatchiks from Cambodia. They were essentially the MPs who were your equivalents, the broadcasting committee of the Cambodian parliament. These were slightly different politicians. Some of them had been with the Khmer Rouge; some of them had been in the jungle; some of them had fought with Hun Sen. They were a pretty tough bunch.

Senator LUDLAM: I am from south suburban Perth.

Mr Dobell : Oh, are you? Well then you know to lead with your left! What these guys were fascinated by was the concept that you could have a government funded entity, the ABC, that spent half or more of its life driving the government mad. They were really fascinated by that. We went around it a lot of times. I talked to them about the charter, I talked to them about the role of the parliament—we got back to Oliver Cromwell!—but what really worked was that in the end I walked out with them as they were leaving and I said: 'I know! I will show you.' And we walked up the grass to the top—this shows you how long ago this was—and I said, 'You are standing, as any Australian can stand, on top of the Australian parliament,'—in Buddhism, obviously, above the head is important—'You are standing above the head of the Australian Prime Minister.'

Senator LUDLAM: Have you seen the new fences they are putting up?

Mr Dobell : I know, I know.

ACTING CHAIR: An issue for another day.

Mr Dobell : To draw me out of my anecdotage, the point about the ABC and the point about Australia, in that sense, is that we do have a set of democratic and media values that resonate wonderfully in the Pacific. Part of what the Pacific knows and part of the reason that they do continue to look to Australia is not just for the banking and the health care and the airline links but because of the free media environment that is just part of the way that Australia operates.

Senator LUDLAM: That brings me quite nicely to my last question. I do not know if this is out of your area or not, but if you were to tune into the Chinese short-wave broadcasters, what would you hear? What is the programming?

Mr Dobell : The interesting thing about the Chinese broadcasters is that it is a bit like the Al Jazeera effect. One of the most influential things the Americans have given the world is first-amendment journalism. That has shaped the way the customs of journalism on television, the sort of kabuki of how interviews are conducted. All of those first-amendment structures that are intrinsic to the way that America does television and radio, and the BBC in its sense, are now replicated in Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera does first-amendment journalism. Of course, the Americans find that quite confronting. It is very interesting to have your own values—

Senator XENOPHON: So do the Saudis.

Mr Dobell : Yes, but not quite as well. Nevertheless, the Saudis have that format. The Chinese, too, have adopted the format if not necessarily the function. The format of what they do is very slick. The sets, the presenters, some of the style—it is not quite as bombastic as Fox, but it is very slick. You can get the stories of the day. You will find out most of the international things that happen, and it has the format of first—which, I suppose, comes back to the point. The DNA of some of this stuff is very strong. If you are going to get in and play in that media space, as China now is, big time, you have essentially got to adopt some of the DNA, but with slightly different purposes, obviously.

Senator LUDLAM: Thanks so much, it has been really valuable. I appreciate it.

ACTING CHAIR: We have no further questions for you, Mr Dobell. Thank you very much for your evidence. It certainly was interesting. I thank all witnesses today for your evidence; it is very helpful to the committee. On that note, I declare the hearing closed.

Committee adjourned at 10:53