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Wednesday, 5 May 1993
Page: 165

Senator MICHAEL BAUME (4.43 p.m.) —The matter we are debating is the appalling failure of the Minister for Transport and Communications (Senator Collins) to accept his ministerial responsibilities in relation to the pay TV satellite licence fiasco. We have just heard another fiasco of a speech. We have heard assertions that there was no ministerial failure, no impropriety, no omission, no failure of responsibility. I agree with the bit about no omission, because this sin is a sin of commission, not omission. The normal situation was changed by this Minister who, Senator Loosley says, did not read the document that changed it.

  For Senator Loosley to pretend that somehow the price based tender system would have been changed beyond recognition by adopting the normal procedures that had been adopted in all previous price based tender systems requiring a substantial and reasonable deposit—to pretend that changing the normal situation was the only way to have a genuine price based tender—is absolute and arrant nonsense. I am surprised that Senator Loosley would get up and damage his own status as a man of reasoned argument in putting such absolute nonsense to this chamber.

   What we have to do is look at the facts, which I notice Senator Loosley very carefully avoided or, when he did come near a fact, treated extremely loosely. The simple proposition that we face here is whether or not there was a mess-up—and there sure was—and we have to ask ourselves why and how and who was responsible for it.

  What were the facts of the mess, and what were the motives behind those people who participated in the mess? Was it a conspiracy? Senator Loosley seems to suggest that we were regarding it as some kind of continuation of conspiracy theory. Or was it simply a muck-up? A conspiracy or a muck-up? I must concede that seeing the way this Government has administered this nation for the last 10 years, it is more likely to have been a muck-up, because that is the traditional way so much legislation has been dealt with in this place; it has ended up as muck-ups.

  But for Senator Loosley to pretend that debating the legislation at 5 o'clock in the morning, because this Government wanted to force it through—to pretend that Opposition responses to this legislation had anything to do with the way this Minister mucked up this tender system—is absolute nonsense. This tender system was mucked up because this Minister changed by an act of commission the normal processes.

  I am appalled to note that the Minister is not in the chamber to listen to this debate on his maladministration. What I want to know is whether the Minister was aware of the fact that his department was advised long before tenders closed that the tender system that the Minister had approved was going to attract a series of collapsing bids from phoney, shonky applicants. In other words, the department knew the chaotic result we have now got before tenders closed. I know that because I know who told it, and I know it was well before the closing of tenders. And this Government did nothing.

  Now, did this Government and this Minister do nothing because the department did not tell this Minister, in which case there should be an immediate sacking, and not a wait for some lengthy inquiry? If the departmental officers were advised of what was happening and failed during the tender process to correct it, then they are culpable. If they did tell the Minister and if the Minister failed to act, he is culpable. In any event, any knowledge that this farce was going to emerge from this tender process should have brought about some kind of governmental action. It did not do so.

  I am interested to know whether the Minister was advised by the department of the information given to the department about these shonky bids being inevitably delivered into the tender box, and if there was a deliberate decision made not to change the tender process at a time when it would have been proper to do so. It is only after the tenders close that one ends up with real problems. I ask the Minister, in his absence from this debate about himself: did the department tell him of this advice, warning that the process was certain to turn into the farce that has now damaged Australia's status internationally and made us a laughing stock in this area?

  If he was not advised, we want to know why not and what he is going to do about this immediately. Will his internal inquiry raise this matter to see why such vitally important information was withheld from him if, in fact, it was indeed withheld?

  What also intrigues me is to see the way Senator Collins's initial response was like Senator Loosley's—to try to blame the Senate for this procedure. Had Senator Collins continued with the proper, normal procedure relating to price based tendering, requiring a reasonable amount of deposit, as had been the case on all previous occasions, then of course the only person Senator Collins really could blame is himself.

  As Senator Alston said, it is always someone else's fault when Senator Collins makes a mistake. So now we are having the buck-passing—but the buck is supposed to stop with the Minister. Why did the department proceed to an inevitable disaster, knowing one was on the way from the sort of collapsing bids from the shonky group which has won this tender, for example? If the Minister did know that this inevitable disaster would take place, one has to wonder what were the objectives. Why was it allowed to continue? Was it a deliberate attempt to destroy the price tender system, in favour of mates, to avoid the sort of protest that would have emerged had the thing gone forward immediately, to the benefit of particular mates? There would obviously have been an immense outcry and, no doubt, political flack.

  What is the purpose of, before the tenders close, putting up a facade of absolute nonsense which is known to be nonsense and allowing that nonsense to persist? Is it to destroy the price tender system so that the mates can be looked after without there being the public response that would take place otherwise? People are now saying, `You've got to fix this up. For heaven's sake, fix it up. It's a ludicrous situation. If fixing it up means looking after the mates, so be it'.

  One has to wonder, if the thing was allowed to proceed in the knowledge that it was going to be a farce, was it to create a pay-off structure for some shonks, giving them the opportunity to stand over the genuine bidders? These shonks can delay this process for something like three years by having their collapsing bid system. I think it takes 30 days for them to provide the money and up to 45 days for their bona fides, in terms of multiple interests and so on, to be examined by the Trade Practices Commission. In any event, it is certainly a minimum of a month's delay for every application.

  I understand that the winners had something like 19 tenders up—all collapsible, and all, no doubt, buy-outable, if the main players were determined to proceed and to try to buy these people out; in other words, to get them to collapse their tenders because of the costs and inconvenience of the main players being delayed if the system that Senator Collins had approved and signed proceeded.

  What I certainly want to know is: did Senator Collins query the $500 fee introduced by his department in that process in January? Did he ask whether there were any changes from the normal procedures? Surely that is the duty of a Minister, and it is not just the duty of the department to tell him whether there are any changes. Surely any Minister with any recognition of his obligations would ask: are there any changes from normal procedure involved in this vitally important multimillion dollar matter? Apparently the Minister made no such query or request. We did not hear of one today. Why not? Surely not asking is a sin of omission, whereas the sin of commission involves changing the system. That is what we have to underline: he changed it.

  I noticed that Senator Collins said, `I was not going to change a comma of the submission that came to me from the department, nor a full stop'. That is simply an abrogation of a Minister's responsibility, but I can understand why; after all, the real Minister at the time was Mr Keating. He was the one who was intervening and interfering. No wonder his terrorised Minister, having already been made a fool of by Mr Keating in this matter, was not prepared to stick his neck out again. Naturally he did not want to change a comma or a full stop, but that had nothing to do with the reason he presented today; it had an awful lot to do with the intervention of his Prime Minister in this area, terrorising this Minister who had been made to look foolish in that way.

  There may be many other reasons why this extraordinary situation took place. It may be that the department decided not to tell the Minister of its knowledge that the tender system was going to be a mess because maybe it wanted to destroy the satellite system concept. There are all sorts of allegations that the department has a level of hostility towards some of the major media players. There is no doubt that as a result of this delay a lot of the major players are looking at other systems of delivery because the satellite system, which requires digital technology, does present particular difficulties—there simply are not enough receivers for digital technology—whereas MDS can proceed straight away.

  I notice in the media that some of the major players are saying, `Let's have a look at these other ones'. An article in the Sunday Telegraph stated that the consortium which was favoured to win a satellite pay TV licence says it will use alternative technologies for distribution. The article states:

  The consortium believes that it is best equipped to provide a high quality national pay television service to Australians and remains committed to its objective of doing so.

If the Minister was not told by his department, maybe this is the reason. If that is the situation, action has to be taken by this Minister. A failure to take action, on the basis of being grievously misled, if that was so, immediately he became aware of that is also a dereliction of duty. Either the Minister knew or he did not know, or it is a conspiracy or a muck-up. Whichever it is, this Minister is responsible for it. To try to blame other people—to try to blame the Opposition; to try to blame the legislation itself—is arrant nonsense.