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Thursday, 28 November 1985
Page: 2534

Senator VANSTONE(10.49) —In discussing today with a number of people the nature of the speech I intended to make tonight several of them cautioned me not to make it. They gave me two reasons, the first of which is not particularly attractive. I was told that if I made a speech that was critical of media coverage of items raised in the Senate and of Senate standing committees, that speech might be reported but no other speech that I made for some considerable time would be. That is an unsatisfactory reason for not making the speech, firstly because I do not really regard myself as having got a lot of coverage anyway, so I am in a no-loss position; I have nothing to lose. Secondly, it seems a reasonably timid attitude for any member of parliament to take-that he or she will adjust the nature of his or her speech on the basis of whether or not it will get media coverage. I discarded that negative and that left me free to proceed. The second negative that was offered was that I would have to show some caution in making this speech so as not to pre-empt in any way the report of one of the Senate's standing committees. I sought advice on this matter and I am confident that in making this speech I will not be doing that in any way.

The nature of the speech relates to a public meeting of the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations which was held here on Monday and in particular to the media coverage that was given to it. Honourable senators present may well remember some complaints being made after meetings of the Estimates committee that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation had not been forthcoming about particular pieces of information. The piece that caused so much controversy was the question of Geraldine Doogue's pay. This caused so much fuss that a reference was given to the Finance and Government Operations Committee. The exact terms of reference were:

Whether the claim by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that certain information should not be available to Senate Estimates Committee C, on the ground of commercial confidentiality, is justified.

That was the reference that was given to the Committee. It was not asked to find out Miss Doogue's salary.

A public meeting was held on Monday and a number of people came to give evidence. A number of journalists attended and sat through the entire proceedings. The following day there were a number of reports of these proceedings. There were two in the Sydney Morning Herald, one on the front page with the headline `Geraldine's salary to stay an ABC secret'. Accompanying it was a reasonably amusing cartoon by Tandberg in which a number of people were sitting behind a desk saying `How much is Geraldine Doogue being paid?' The response from the ABC is `You're the Estimates Committee'. I can see that that is not a bad front page article if one wants to create some amusement and appeal to the sorts of people who have a desperate desire to know what Geraldine Doogue was paid at the time the question was asked. Further into the paper-and I am not sure what page this was on-in the `Stay in Touch' column there was a quite amusing report of one question that was asked in the Committee at about 5 o'clock. The question got such an extraordinary answer from the ABC-it was one of the best pieces of jargon that I have ever come across-that I can understand why the Sydney Morning Herald chose to report it. It reported the ABC's answer on the difference between a `frozen' and a `melted' position. I will not labour the point by going into it but the Sydney Morning Herald also reported the ABC's answer to the difference between `substantively occupied, but physically vacant' and `substantively and physically vacant' positions. In my opinion those are pieces of ABC no-speak. I give full credit to the Sydney Morning Herald for reporting that aspect of the Committee in that context. In the Age of the same day on page 3 under the heading `One ABC forgets about the other' there was a similar report of the same jargonistic sort of answer that was given to these questions that were asked quite late in the Committee's sitting.

I have no complaint with the reports about the jargonistic answers that were given by the ABC, but I do have some complaint about the front page article of the Sydney Morning Herald that was headlined `Geraldine's salary to stay an ABC secret.' In my view the headline on that article, its placement in the paper and the text of the story very clearly gave the impression to people who would not know the ins and outs of parliamentary practice in Senate standing committees that there was a Senate standing committee which had been given the job of finding out Miss Doogue's salary-a pathetic enough job to be given in the first place. It also made quite clear that if that was the task, the Committee was not successful in that task. My complaint is that that is a gross misrepresentation of the task of that Committee and it does the Senate no good and it does the reputation of Senate standing committees no good at all. I know that I am repeating myself but I seek to make the distinction again between the articles that referred to the jargonistic no-speak sorts of answers in a public meeting which deserved reporting in that context and this particular article on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald. It is quite clear from the reference that I have read out that this Committee had a quite serious task. The rise in Government expenditure is constantly criticised by taxpayers, who constantly claim that their money is being wasted. Senator Walsh, who looks as if he is asleep, is one of the people who frequently agrees that public money is being wasted. I would have thought that it would have been of interest to the media to pursue full and reasonable reporting of a committee that was trying to get to the bottom of whether a big statutory organisation such as the ABC could get out of its accountability to parliament.

Senator Peter Rae —How many million dollars does it spend-$400m?

Senator VANSTONE —As my colleague says, it spends millions and millions of dollars. It is not as if this Committee was handled in a boring way. The journalists were not asleep and the Committee was very well run. Some very good questions were asked and there were good and serious things that could have been reported, not just by the Sydney Morning Herald but by whoever else was there.

I will not go through the full details of the evidence that was given to that Committee, because I would be here all night telling honourable senators so many things that could have been reported. I will just present a few of them. The ABC offered the information that it has in the vicinity of 50 contracts with people, not for personal service, but for services rendered. In the current debate about tax reform and tax evasion, that raises serious questions for someone-whether a statutory organisation should, as a matter of practice, arrange its contracts with people in such a way that they are able to minimise their tax. I express no view on that matter other than to say I would have thought that the media should present a view on it.

Senator Peter Rae —Senator Walsh might have a view about it.

Senator VANSTONE —As Senator Peter Rae says, Senator Walsh might have a view on it. The second aspect that perhaps should have had some coverage in my view is the matter that was disclosed once again towards the end of this meeting and that was that in Miss Doogue's contract-I think I am right in saying her contract is not for personal service but for services rendered-there is a non-disclosure clause. The knowledge of that raises two other serious matters that could well have been reported. In my view the public should know and deserve to know about them. Those two matters are these: First, given that it is the case that the contract of employment that occasions Miss Doogue to do whatever she does with the ABC has a non-disclosure clause in it, why did not somebody say that at the Estimates committee meeting? There were a number of ABC people there who well knew this information at the time. I suggest that had they disclosed it then and there it would have saved a lot of people a lot of time and bother. It might have given the Finance and Government Operations Committee a more specific reference or a different reference from the one it has now. That aspect deserves some reporting. The other aspect of there being a non-disclosure clause in this contract and in others raises a much more fundamental question. Given that we believe that statutory authorities should be accountable to parliament, to what extent will the Parliament permit them, by signing contracts with non-disclosure clauses in them, to contract out of their responsibility to parliament. If the ABC can do it with Miss Doogue, the ABC can do it with the supply of glide-on clips and anything else it wishes to purchase. It is something that can be done not only in the employment of individual people.

I could go on, but I hope that I have made my point. When I say that I am distressed with the media coverage of this aspect, I should add that if anyone said to me: `What do you mean by `the media'? ', I would have to say: `I do not know.' I do not know who is responsible for these serious matters not being reported. I am not suggesting that it is the journalists; it might be a sub-editor or someone above that. I have absolutely no understanding of the hierarchy within newspapers; I do not know who is responsible. All I am saying is that the Senate has addressed some serious matters in a public meeting and the media has chosen to give it only flippant coverage, and the Senate should be annoyed about that. Other journalists or people in other occupations within the media should be annoyed about that. There is plenty of opportunity in reporting Parliament, particularly the Senate, for very good investigative journalism, of which we see so little. Perhaps it is because of economic times or management policies of newspapers, television and radio, that journalists are not given the time to undertake the tasks of which they are capable.

The point with which I wish to leave the Senate tonight is that a serious matter of accountability to the Senate is being debated. We are all proud of the work that the estimates committees can do and the best coverage of the job that one of those committees did went under a headline `Geraldine's salary to stay an ABC secret'. I think that is disgraceful.