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Thursday, 6 May 1993
Page: 252

Senator MICHAEL BAUME —My question is directed to the Minister for Transport and Communications. I ask the Minister the question that was not answered when I raised it in yesterday's debate on the pay television tender farce: did the Minister's department tell him at any stage of the high level advice that I know it received long before the closing of tenders for satellite pay TV licences that the process was going to be corrupted by a series of collapsing bids from shonky applicants?

Senator COLLINS —The short answer to Senator Baume's question is no, that advice was not given to me. It is interesting to have a look at the debate yesterday. Opposition members were saying, `Oh, well, it was perfectly proper for the Minister to be apart from the process after it started'; my `negligence' was that I did not sit down and go through the determination and second-guess the department. But it would have been perfectly proper after the process started, when the box was open and the bids started going in, to have involved myself in what the bids were, whether they were shonky or whether they were fair dinkum.

  I asked the secretary to my department to speak to the officer concerned this morning, after the Australian Financial Review article appeared quoting her. The departmental secretary has advised me that the statement attributed to the head of the broadcasting division of the department is accurate. But nothing hangs on that, and the public record shows it, for the simple reason that the entire bidding process, from start to finish, has been knee-deep in speculation about who was going to bid, whether the bids were going to be of this nature or that nature, or what. After the process started, I kept apart from that.

  As they say in this business, history will judge me on whether I made the right decision. This is not very pleasant, of course; but, as I said yesterday, and I meant it, I would rather be in here being attacked for not intervening in the process than be in here being attacked for intervening in the process. I personally would have had great difficulty defending that in terms of my own views on these subjects. I said yesterday, and I repeat it, that not only did I decide that I was not going to have any involvement in terms of this tender process but also I told the senior staffer in my office that he was not going to either. I also spoke to the departmental secretary last year and said that this would be an arm's length process.

  All I am saying in response to Senator Baume's question is that the officer has confirmed that the statement she has made is accurate, that is, that approaches were made. Months ago—and this was revisited on Lateline last night—I had representations on the central policy issue of whether it should be a price-based or a merit-based process. All those arguments were run again last night.

  I conclude by saying that there has been confusion in some reporting that the criticisms that are now being made by these people are criticisms of the five per cent deposit not being put on. They are not. The criticisms are that they thought this was going to be a disaster because a beauty contest was not entered into. In all the examination I did of this issue, and it was extensive, before the Bill came into the House last year, if on balance I had come to the conclusion that a government or a government agency was a better test of a company's financial viability in the marketplace, I would have gone for that merit-based system. If I had come to the conclusion that a merit-based system was better in terms of not burying the process in litigation, I would have done that. The classic example is the third commercial television licence in Perth; but there are hundreds of examples, not just here but around the world.

  The difficulty with merit-based processes, with respect, is this: does a price-based process, on balance, on the records that one can look at, produce a better return for the asset? The honest answer to this is yes, it does. Does a price-based process, at the very least, produce as good a result in estimating the future financial viability of a company as a government or government agency? The answer to that question is, on balance, yes, it does. It certainly produces no worse a result, because there have been failures in both.

  The history of this industry, and Senator Baume knows this, is that it has been buried in litigation, not just here but around the world. This has been a feature of the industry for 20 years, and I want this inquiry to investigate it later, as I said on Lateline last night. That does not go just for this administration. All the concentration at the moment is on this Government, rightly, and this Minister, but licence issuing for broadcast licences has been absolutely deluged in litigation going back 20 years. As I said, the former communications Minister, Tony Staley, a man for whom I have the highest regard and respect, and I deal with him in his role as a public broadcaster, had a decision taken against him by the High Court of Australia.

Senator Robert Ray —He is not polling well at this end.

Senator COLLINS —We all have our views on these subjects.

The PRESIDENT —Order! Senator Collins, this is becoming another very long answer.

Senator COLLINS —I will conclude on this point. It ended with the Minister receiving direct official advice from the department of the Attorney-General that his Australian Broadcasting Tribunal was acting unlawfully—advice which he then ignored and was censured for ignoring in the House of Representatives—and he was called upon to resign. Of course, the Minister did not resign. All I can say is that nothing hangs on these inquiries being made because the speculation was right across the board.

Senator MICHAEL BAUME —Mr President, I have a supplementary question. The small portion of that rambling answer that related to the question apparently indicates that the Minister's indolence is accurately reflected by the department's lack of action. Is the Minister aware that the Prime Minister's department received similar high-level advice of the prospect of collapsible bids corrupting the tender process, also in plenty of time to avoid this shambles? Did the Prime Minister's department inform the Minister's department of that advice? Will the Minister table such advice? Why did the Prime Minister in this instance not, once again, go over the Minister's head to intervene to fix up this mess; or did his department not tell him either?

Senator COLLINS —This question has about as much value as the question that Senator Baume asked yesterday, trying to link Senator Richardson to a group of Marshall Islands pornographic pig farmers who had interests in pay television. It is an absolute furphy; it is claptrap. I took a decision in January to intervene on this matter that Senator Baume has just asked about. I took that decision based on one very simple premise: that this Parliament had decided that there would be a national satellite system providing the major television coverage for pay TV for Australia, and that as part of that coverage there would be a role for our national broadcaster as part of that national pay system. That was one of the major issues. I thought the Senate would have supported my action on this because it was the Senate that insisted on this being done. On the question of whether this was my decision or the Prime Minister's decision—

Senator Walters —No, that wasn't the question.

Senator COLLINS —Yes, it was.

Senator Michael Baume —Mr President, I raise a point of order. The question I asked is not the question that Senator Collins is now saying he is answering. I asked specifically: did the Prime Minister's department receive similar advice of the prospect of collapsible bids corrupting the tender process? I invite him—and I ask you to invite him, Mr President—to answer that question.

The PRESIDENT —Order! In relation to the point of order, I ask Senator Collins to relate his answer to the question.

Senator COLLINS —On that particular part of the question, which I also heard, if I am expected to be directly responsible for the administration of the Prime Minister's department as well as for everything that goes on in my own, these are ridiculous questions. I have no idea what happened in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. I do not know.