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Tuesday, 18 May 1993
Page: 722

Senator CHAPMAN (3.50 p.m.) —The continuing saga of this pay television fiasco is not only causing this Government to bleed badly in political terms, but also causing the Australian people to bleed badly in terms of the continuing delay which they are experiencing in being able to avail themselves of the opportunity to obtain pay television services. Of course, it is those potential consumers who ought to be the primary interest of this Senate and this Parliament, but it seems they are being completely ignored in this continuing fiasco.

  We now see the Minister for Transport and Communications (Senator Collins), for the third time in but a few months, engaged in a furore with regard to the tendering process for pay television. Firstly, we saw the problem relating to the abandonment of the tendering process for microwave television services or MDS. That process was abandoned because it suddenly became apparent that microwave systems could be used for the delivery of pay television on a broad scale. Prior to that, the Minister had claimed that MDS was never intended to be used for broadcasting pay television. The lie to that claim is given by the fact that in November 1992 the Minister said that microwave services were likely to broadcast the first pay television.

  In November 1992, in the Senate debate on the legislation relating to pay television, the Minister also said that it was important to note that there would be no restriction on the use of other technologies to deliver pay television, such as cable or microwave, and that they will be licensed under section 96. He said earlier that technological neutrality of government legislation would ensure that licensees would be encouraged to use whichever delivery mechanism suited their commercial needs. That first fiasco revealed the incompetence of the Minister.

  More recently we have seen the fiasco regarding pay television as delivered by satellite, with the tendering process failing to require any sort of deposit from the successful tenderers; therefore, the process was not able to guarantee that the successful tenderers would be able to deliver the goods and deliver a pay television service by satellite. Today we are back to the issue of microwave pay TV and the technical deficiencies which have been revealed in the earlier tender process which resulted in the offer by the Secretary to the Department of Transport and Communications to stand down—an offer which was rejected by the Prime Minister (Mr Keating).

  Relevant to all of these fiascos is the performance of this Minister. He has been responsible for the department throughout this period. It is not only with regard to pay television that we have seen fiascos occur under this Minister's administration of the department; earlier we saw the problems with the tendering process for the provisions relating to air traffic control. Prior to that, on the Minister's appointment as Minister for Shipping and Aviation, responsible for the waterfront, we heard his commitment that he would resign if he did not obtain reforms on the waterfront as quickly as he desired. Those reforms were not obtained at the speed the Minister had indicated they would be, but of course we did not see the Minister resign—we simply saw him promoted.

  Throughout the time he has been a Minister—from his previous portfolio to his administration of the present department—we have seen difficulties and problems which indicate quite clearly his failure to adequately perform his ministerial duties and his incapacity to manage the job.

  We know that this department has for a long time had a reputation of pleasing itself and going its own way as far as policy direction is concerned. We are also led to understand—indeed, the Minister confirmed it again in his remarks to us today—that the Department of Transport and Communications is a highly competent department. The Minister indicated that in his remarks a few moments ago. He also made that claim in answer to questions directed to him at estimates committee hearings last week. I also understand that this department has been praised for its administrative competence by no less a body than the Institute of Public Administration in Canberra.

  Those pieces of evidence indicate that this is a competent department. So we have to ask ourselves: why have these particular fiascos arisen? Are they simply errors or mistakes that the department has made, as I said here in debate last week, or are they in fact deliberate and calculated decisions the department has taken which subsequently have caused political difficulties for the Government and this Minister which they have then had to take action to attempt to overcome by legislation, by inquiries into the department and by all of the experiences of the past week or so?

  Given those facts, it is all the more reason why the Minister ought to be taking particular interest in the activities of his department. If it is competent but has this reputation for going its own way, for taking its own initiative on policy direction and issues, then it is absolutely critical that this Minister—having, we assume, been aware of that—be across his department and be especially careful about what the department is putting before him. Of course, this has not happened. Neither the Minister nor his personal staff has taken adequate interest in what the department has been doing. Of course, that is at the centre of this matter of public importance debate today.

  The Minister is the person directly responsible for the future of pay television in Australia and he has failed in that responsibility. Therefore, consistent with that failure, the Minister ought to stand aside pending further investigations and inquiries into this particular issue. It is clear, as the terms of the matter raised by my colleague Senator Alston this afternoon indicate, that there has been a `continuing failure by the Minister for Transport and Communications to exercise any authority or control over the pay television tender processes'.

  Given that the Minister has failed to do that, we need to ask: who in fact has been exercising that control? As I said a few moments ago, the department has a reputation for going its own way, but it is hard to believe that even this department—if it were acting in its usual highly regarded, competent way—would put forward proposals that would lead to its Minister and itself being subject to such criticism. It simply does not make sense that it would be putting forward these sorts of proposals.

  Why is it suddenly making decisions, which the Government and the Minister have come to regard as errors, on such an important issue—an issue which is not only important to the future of pay television and the potential consumers of that service, but is indeed also important as a political issue? Why has it apparently made such a mess of what are relatively simple issues? These are not difficult issues to determine. They are relatively straightforward and simple issues, yet we see the fiasco that has resulted.

  One can only therefore conclude that the department is getting conflicting advice or interference from elsewhere and that it is not the Minister who is exercising authority or control over the department with regard to this issue but that it is in fact someone else. We need to ask: who is that someone else? Is it the Prime Minister? Is Mr Keating seeking to look after his mates in the industry by putting forward proposals that may in fact assist them, as was clearly evident at the time of the termination of the original tender process for microwave television?

  Nothing is clearer than that the Prime Minister directly interfered in that microwave tendering process to benefit his mates in the media industry when he discovered that microwave technology could be used for the widespread delivery of pay television services. He did not want Mr Cosser to have the advantage of being able to deliver those services; he wanted that reserved for some of his mates.

  That leads us to the conclusion that it is not this Minister who is exercising authority and control over the pay television tender process and over his department in that process, as is his responsibility as a Minister. It is another Minister, the Prime Minister, who is interfering and intervening, perhaps even contrary to what this Minister would like to achieve in that regard. That really is the source of this problem. If this Minister is going to exercise his responsibility, it is up to him to tell the Prime Minister to shove it.

Senator Collins —It is the only thing I do exercise.

Senator CHAPMAN —It is clear that the Minister is not exercising that responsibility; hence the matter of public importance we have raised in the Senate today.

Senator Tierney —Who is running the department?

Senator CHAPMAN —As Senator Tierney asks: who indeed is running this department? It certainly is not the Minister who is sitting across from us in the chamber today.

Senator Collins —Yes, it is.

Senator CHAPMAN —If the Minister had been exercising that responsibility, I would have to retract what I have said in the last few minutes and say that all of these problems, fiascos and difficulties are his direct responsibility. Whether the Minister is exercising responsibility and is therefore directly responsible for all the mistakes, or whether someone else has superseded him and is interfering and is influencing that department—either way—it is the Minister's responsibility because he is not fulfilling his responsibilities as a Minister. That is the case whether he makes mistakes in exercising his responsibility on the one hand, or has abdicated that responsibility to someone else on the other. That is why we say it is essential that the Minister stand aside from this position until we get the results of the particular inquiries and the answers to the questions we have asked.

  Over the last couple of weeks, the Opposition has asked this Minister a number of direct and legitimate questions on these issues. We have asked those questions both in this chamber and in estimates committees. All we get is continual stonewalling, a refusal to answer the questions and diversionary tactics. On the issue of pay television satellite services, we get a deferral to the Minister's pet inquiry and an inability to answer the questions based on the excuse that he has set up the inquiry, which I now understand we will get the results of in a couple of days.

  But it is this chamber—this Parliament—which ultimately has the responsibility for these issues and it is entitled to direct answers to the questions. I am not referring to matters of opinion or matters that require a great deal of detailed investigation but to simple matters of fact which have been asked about by Senator Alston, me and others, both in this chamber and in estimates committees, and on which the Minister simply refuses to answer.

  Again, that can only lead us to the conclusion that the Minister is totally derelict in his duties as the person responsible for this department. It again reinforces the public importance issue that the coalition has put before this chamber today, which warrants the strong support of the Senate; that is:

the continuing failure of the Minister for Transport and Communications to exercise any authority or control over the pay television tender processes.

Whether it is the Minister's deferment to the inquiry under Dennis Pearce or the difficulties created within his department, the Minister cannot avoid responsibility for any or all of those particular issues.

  This matter of public importance debate put forward by the coalition warrants the full support of this chamber and the support not only of my colleagues in the coalition but also of the Australian Democrats to ensure that this Minister faces up to his responsibility and stands aside until this whole tawdry issue and the matters associated with it are resolved.