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Wednesday, 5 May 1993
Page: 168

Senator TATE (4.58 p.m.) —The Senate is discussing what is termed a matter of public importance submitted by the Opposition in these terms:

The appalling failure of the Minister for Transport and Communications to accept his ministerial responsibilities in relation to pay TV satellite licence fiasco.

If there is a fiasco—if there is some sort of sham, some sort of spurious theatre—it has been demonstrated this afternoon in even bringing this debate to this chamber in the timing which we have seen demonstrated today. Where lies the true responsibility of a Minister? Of course it is to the Parliament, and ultimately to the electorate. Basically, if this Minister is to be held responsible, it means that he has to answer to this Senate chamber.

  When was his first opportunity to demonstrate his responsibility to the chamber? Of course, it was after the convening of this Parliament, the drawing together of honourable senators after the general election. The first real opportunity was during Question Time this afternoon. But the Opposition lodged this matter of public importance, crying for the Minister to act responsibly—which can only mean to this Parliament—with your office, Mr President, at 8.30 this morning, 5 1/2 hours before Question Time.

  The Opposition was not really interested in what I thought was a very able implementation of the principle of ministerial responsibility, which we saw on the part of Senator Collins during Question Time when he responded to five or six questions, including supplementaries, and indicated to the Senate in a very open and frank way the reasons for actions that had been taken in relation to this matter. That was where the ministerial responsibility of Senator Collins was well and amply demonstrated at the first real opportunity. But the Opposition had predetermined and decided—probably last night, but by lodging with your office at 8.30 this morning, Mr President—that it would claim that the Minister had not exercised or demonstrated ministerial responsibility, and it brought forward this matter of public importance.

  I believe all this is a sham. I do not believe there is any evidence whatsoever that this Minister of all ministers is unwilling to answer to this chamber. I have seen him here night after night, in the early hours of the morning at estimates committees and so on, answering questions and being responsible in this democratic process to this parliamentary chamber. That has been demonstrated again today. There is no need for this MPI. It was all predetermined. It is part of the chronology set down by the Opposition, probably late yesterday, and bears no relationship to reality.

  What is all this hullabaloo about? Two unknown groups have been given an opportunity to take on the vested media interests in this country, provide pay satellite television and to provide that sort of service to Australians if they wish to take up the possibility of enjoying television. They have only been given an opportunity. This has to be emphasised. No licences have been given to these two groups—`shonky groups' as they were called by Senator Michael Baume, who immediately preceded me in this debate. Senator Baume has already made a judgment about the two groups when they have jumped only one hurdle.

  It is still for the Trade Practices Commission and the Australian Broadcasting Authority to make their proper determinations in accordance with law, in accordance with the statutory framework set down by this Parliament. In the meantime, it is true that these two newcomers have been given their opportunity, but they are still just candidates for a licence. They have got their opportunity possibly because they have been able to make an application by lodging with it a small deposit, $500, rather than, say, 5 per cent of the tender amount—or $5 million, as Senator Alston suggested was appropriate.

  There is no suggestion—I have not heard one indication from those opposite—of any corruption, any dishonesty, any perverting or any deliberate attempt to skew the choice away from certain candidates who might make an application for these licences in favour of others. There is no such suggestion at all. In fact, I believe it can be shown that at neither departmental nor ministerial level has there been a skerrick of evidence of any corruption in the way that this has been set up. This process has allowed two newcomers to come in, and the cries of anguish from the vested interests in the media have been perfectly predictable.

  Having been given every assurance when he was dealing with this matter from Darwin that the Attorney-General's Department was of the view that this particular tender process and this documentation faxed to him was in accordance with the law, the Minister decided that in good conscience he could sign that determination about the way in which the tender process would go ahead. I believe he was doing so in a way which acknowledged not merely that this document was legally correct, but the matter was much broader than that. It was being said to him that this particular process and the documentation were in accordance with the policy set down by the Parliament. It is lawful because it is within the parameters set down by the Parliament. It is not merely legally technically correct, it is lawful because the Minister was being asked to sign a matter that was in total conformity with what the Parliament intended when it passed the Broadcasting Services Bill 1992.

  I believe that the Minister, quite properly, considered himself able to sign it with good conscience, acting as a Minister in this regard. Impropriety would have been alleged if the Minister had varied the documentation put before him to require a substantial, let us say, in Senator Alston's terms, $5 million non-refundable deposit to be put in by the candidates for these particular licences. That would have been a variation and would have been a disruption which would have undoubtedly attracted immediate attention, allegations and suggestions of impropriety.

  This is only my personal opinion, but I would go even further and say that I regard the requirement of a $5 million deposit as taking the tendering process beyond what Parliament intended. Parliament intended that players in the market could put in an application and we would then see what value the market attached to these licences. To narrow the field and say that the only players in the marketplace who could put in a tender were those who could afford $5 million non-refundable deposit would, I think, go against the policy intention of the Parliament, which was to allow as many applicants as possible the opportunity to put in a tender. Then processes relating to the Trade Practices Commission and Australian Broadcasting Authority matters, along with the actual finding of the money, would follow. But I believe that to have a non-refundable deposit as a precondition would raise very serious questions as to whether that document would be in accordance with the will of the Parliament, which clearly was looking for price-based applications at this first hurdle stage.

  Having assured himself that this particular document was lawful in the wide sense of being within the policy determination of the Parliament, the Minister quite properly signed the document. Therefore, this allegation by the Opposition is that somehow the department should have alerted the Minister to the fact that there was another possible way of implementing the will of the Parliament. That involved requiring a substantial deposit by way of some sort of fee—not simply a processing lodgment fee of $500.

  I do not believe the failure of the Minister to be informed by his department as to that possibility can be regarded as his failure. I do not believe the Minister can be faulted for the fact that the department did not underline, accentuate or emphasise the fact that an alternative way of implementing the will of the Parliament was available and had not been pursued. Nor can he be faulted for not being aware that the department had considered that and had put it to one side or was pushing at a different alternative. I believe that he was quite entitled to sign the documents that were presented to him.

  What really lies behind the Opposition is a suggestion that, while all the language of price-based allocation of these licences is kept, it really wanted a vetting system to be implemented. The Leader of the Opposition, Dr Hewson, in an article by Anne Davies in today's Sydney Morning Herald said:

  There was no attempt to run a beauty contest, no attempt to put any preconditions, no attempt to narrow it at all. Nobody was concerned as to whether they were fit and proper people . . .

That is what the Opposition really thought ought to happen. But as has been made abundantly clear, that could not happen lawfully within the parameters and the terms set by this Parliament as to how this particular first hurdle was to be jumped by the applicants for the pay TV licences.

  I believe that even to require a substantial deposit in terms of that $5 million would be to narrow the field and exclude those who could not have ready and immediate access to substantial sums of money which they would be prepared to regard as a non-refundable opportunity possibly to win this tender. That would narrow the field in a way which favours those who have vested interests or access to substantial funds. I believe it could well be seen as a device in favour of such vested interests and against the policy that was put down by this Parliament.

  I believe that this Minister has acted, as I say, in a completely proper way. He has reacted to the concern that has been expressed by requiring of his department a full explanation as to the internal departmental processes which preceded his receiving the documents for his signature. I believe that in doing so, once again, so long as that report to be prepared by the department is made available to the Senate and publicly, he is discharging his responsibility as a Minister to the Parliament and hence to the electorate. I have no doubt that that will be done. In doing so, as I say, he will be discharging his responsibilities as a Minister. Of course, his responsibility is to allow the Senate, with the benefit of that full explanation, to make its own assessment of the propriety of what occurred. That will dispel, I am sure, many of the conspiracy theories that have been expounded, most lately by Senator Michael Baume.

  I believe that this matter of public importance has completely missed the mark. The Minister has demonstrated his willingness to act responsibly within the Westminster tradition by presenting himself for Question Time and being questioned rigorously and answering fully and frankly. But, of course, the Opposition had predetermined the course of today's events and has brought on this matter of public importance. Honourable senators opposite have not brought it on, by the way, in a way which allows it to be voted on because I believe they realise that they would not have had the support of the chamber for the passage of any resolution condemning this particular Minister.

  I am pleased to have had the opportunity to speak in support of this Minister. I believe he has discharged his ministerial duties with full propriety and I believe, as I say, that the chamber should regard this matter as one not meriting the title `matter of public importance' because of the way in which it has been brought forward as a sham, as a bit of theatre, by the Opposition this afternoon. I believe, as I say, that the Minister ought to be commended for the frank and open way in which he has answered to the Senate for the matters under discussion.