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Thursday, 20 May 1993
Page: 973


Senator HILL (Leader of the Opposition) —by leave—Mr Deputy President, as you would be aware, yesterday the Senate passed an order by consent, in effect—there was no government objection to it—that certain documents be tabled by midday today. Those documents concerning the satellite tender and the MDS process were to be tabled in the Senate by 12 o'clock today.

  At 12 o'clock today, the Minister for Transport and Communications (Senator Collins) came into the chamber. We thought that we were either going to get the documents or an explanation as to why the documents could not be tabled. Approximately an hour later we had achieved neither. We still do not know whether the Government had any real explanation of why it was unable to table the documents, and we certainly do not have the documents.

  At that stage debate on the matter was adjourned until later in the day so that the Minister might consider his position and so that, hopefully, we would get the documents in accordance with the order of the Senate or, alternatively, hear from the Minister as to why he was unable to comply. This debate has now been reopened, for which I thank the Senate. I think we are at the stage where what we are really doing is giving the Minister a further opportunity to act in accordance with the order, or to make some satisfactory explanation.

  I will put this matter a little more into context. I said that the order was made yesterday by consent. Yesterday certainly no indication was given by the Minister that he would be unable to comply with such an order. I guess that that is not surprising, because we have been hearing for some weeks that there is no difficulty in the Minister tabling documents in relation to these two matters and, in fact, that they would be tabled.

  Mr Deputy President, I do not want to take much more of the Senate's time, but I take you back to 6 May. In answer to questions from my colleague Senator Alston, who asked that a whole range of documents in relation to the satellite pay television licences be tabled, Senator Collins said:

I will table the documents which apply to Senator Alston's question. As I said yesterday, I have asked my departmental secretary to start the process of getting those documents together now.

Senator Collins said that on 6 May. Those documents included advices, notes of telephone conversations—all relevant material, in effect, to the satellite process. On 13 May the Minister also said, in effect addressing Senator Alston:

This I can guarantee: the maximum number of papers will be lodged on Tuesday. If any are left out, I imagine that it will not be long after that that they will be tabled.

Then yesterday Senator Collins, in relation to Professor Pearce, said:

Professor Pearce has been examining all of the papers connected with this matter. He has had access to whatever officers of the department he wished to speak to about it. His report, together with the papers that he has examined, will be tabled in this Parliament.

We have got to this stage, and certainly Senator Collins has now tabled Professor Pearce's report and two documents—but he has certainly not tabled all the documents that Professor Pearce has examined. Certainly Senator Collins has not complied with the order of yesterday.

  Yesterday's order was very carefully drawn to try to reduce the number of documents that we would require, because we understand that there is a certain management difficulty in dealing with a lot of paper. We were at pains to try to be more specific—more specific than those that the Minister had indicated earlier that he would be able to provide to the Senate. So we were not even keeping him to his earlier undertakings. We tried to be helpful by reducing the number and focusing on the documents that were particularly relevant to the questions that we were seeking to have answered, and the order was in that form.

  So Senator Collins has not complied with the order. He has not complied with any of the undertakings that were given on any of these days. He has not complied even with the statement that he made yesterday that he would table all the documents that Professor Pearce considered. We of course, not surprisingly, find that just a totally unsatisfactory situation.

  There is one document that immediately struck me as being relevant. It was referred to on page 5 of Professor Pearce's report and is a draft determination that was floating around, which said:

This document includes the statement that tenderers for a pay-TV licence `are not required to pay a deposit to enter the process'.

I would have thought that that was a vitally important document for us to have to make our determination whether this Minister has met the standard of performance of a Minister that we think is necessary.

  It is one thing to argue that Professor Pearce has made certain assessments, but that does not absolve us of our responsibilities. We have responsibilities to make certain assessments, and we can only do that if we have access to the necessary documents. We have had undertakings to produce those documents time and again, and they have not been produced. That forced us to the stage yesterday of seeking an order of the Senate that they be produced. Obviously we do not go down that path unnecessarily, but they were not being introduced. We sought the order, and the Minister said he consented to the order. The order was made. The documents have not been tabled and we still have no satisfactory explanation why that has not occurred.

  So I raise the matter again and invite the Minister to either comply with the order or put to the Senate an explanation that we can consider. If the Minister is not prepared to do that, then we obviously have no alternative than to take other actions that are open to us because, as much as Ministers might not like being called to account by the Senate, it is our responsibility that they are and we are not going to let them avoid their responsibilities so easily by simply snubbing their nose at the Senate in the way that Senator Collins has done today.