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Monday, 29 May 1989
Page: 2950

Senator RICHARDSON (Minister for the Arts, Sport, the Environment, Tourism and Territories)(9.23) —Senator MacGibbon's wide-ranging speech requires a number of answers. The first point I want to raise is on media censorship. In six years in this place I have not heard a more extraordinary allegation than the one made tonight to the effect that, having spoken to Senator MacGibbon, journalists had the hide to want to check their story with the Minister and then would not run Senator MacGibbon's allegations. Anyone who has a dud story that does not stack up does not get a credit. Every journalist in the gallery has a duty to at least check the other side of the argument. Senator MacGibbon's arrogance is such that he cannot stand being disputed. But he was disputed on that occasion, and he was found wanting. The journalists in the gallery agree with what I am saying, and they would not run a dud story. That is fine; that is the game we all play. If I put out a statement which attacked the Opposition, I would never expect someone in the gallery not to go to the Opposition and ask for a comment. At times, we all have to suffer the indignity that journalists just might not agree with us. What a huge deal. This is not about censorship; it is about a free press and democracy. I wonder whether Senator MacGibbon supports either principle.

If I can remember back so far, I think we started on this long ranging discourse on the question of the VIP aircraft.

Senator MacGibbon —It would be hard for you with your neuronal capacity.

Senator RICHARDSON —I think it just about matches yours. There was the question of the five Falcons and Senator MacGibbon's assertions about the inability of the Department to provide what he considers to be appropriate expenditure details. The Department is happy to provide its costings for the future operations of the five new aircraft. As I said, given that there will have to be some assumptions based on guesswork, not on facts, those will be provided to the honourable senator, and the Department will begin working on them.

The next issue that Senator MacGibbon covered in some detail was Cockatoo Island. Senator MacGibbon has shown a continuing interest in the Oberon submarines. It is not the first time that he has criticised any decision to have their maintenance carried out in Western Australia. I do not hate Western Australia or Western Australians and cannot see any reason for his attack on that fine State. Senator MacGibbon is wrong when he suggests that the Minister or the Department, or both, are involved in an exercise of coming up with a request for tender (RFT) which can only be met by one company. The Defence Source Definition Committee has considered a report produced for departmental consideration on this question. It has met a couple of times over the past few weeks to complete its deliberations. It has recommended that three companies be short-listed and invited to tender for the work. The RFT will be issued by 1 July this year. It is hoped that responses will close three months later. There is no great magic about that. Once again, the Government is acting properly in making sure that as many companies as possible are given the opportunity to tender. It is interesting to note-again, it is something that Government spokesmen have been saying for some time now-that whenever any attempt is made by the Government to sell off any government enterprise it is immediately criticised by the Opposition, which runs counter, of course, to its professed philosophy.

We have moved from aeroplanes through to submarines, then to helicopters and back to the decision on the Chinooks. It is true that that decision was taken on the recommendation of the Department of Defence. The Department had to consider all the options available. I would not have thought that the answers which have so far been given have precluded costs being a factor in the decision; they obviously were. The upgrade which Senator MacGibbon has mentioned from a C model to a D model was estimated to cost in the region of $200m. That was the Defence Department's estimate. I suppose Senator MacGibbon could try to vary that, but it was a very, very substantial amount of money. The Defence Department then had to look at whether there was justification for that sort of upgrade, particularly when the Black Hawk could cover practically every operation that the Chinook would be involved in. The great majority of the tasks of the Chinook can be performed by the Black Hawk. In the light of the costs of the upgrade and the fact that the Black Hawk can pretty well do what the Chinook can do, then the Department, regretfully-I do not think there was joy in the decision-recommended to the Minister that the Chinooks should go. I think that is responsible management rather than any problem.

In finishing my response, I want to turn to the question of the submarines and the Swedes. The fact is that the Department recommended the Swedes. When I look to my left at this collection of advisers here, I do not think I am looking at a bunch of rabid socialists besotted by the Swedes; I doubt that very much. There was a very lengthy technical assessment. I do not remember how long it took, but it went on for a very long time and it was no easy decision. Of course there were tremendous lobbying efforts from all concerned. But as I recall it the lobbying was not coming from the Swedes or the Germans but rather from the States.

State governments, all over Australia, were filling aircraft to Canberra with Ministers and advisers who were running around the corridors of this place pleading with governments about where to put the main part of these contracts, where the main benefits would go, rather than putting forward arguments about whether the right technology was being chosen. The Defence Department had the opportunity, in the absence of all those sorts of representations, to look solely at the issue of technical capabilities, and came down with the recommendation for the Swedes. I am not aware of any problems of great magnitude with that project. Obviously with massive projects there are always going to be some hiccups. Not everything goes smoothly when we are spending hundreds of millions or billions of dollars. None the less, the project is proceeding.