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Monday, 24 May 1993
Page: 1062

Senator ALSTON —My question is directed to the Minister for Transport and Communications. According to the Pearce report, by mid-November the department had clearly decided that no deposit was required for satellite tenders and a document specifically saying so was already in intradepartmental circulation. As this was clearly contrary to the policy approach spelt out in the 10 October determination for MDS tenders which imposed a five per cent deposit requirement, how could this possibly have occurred?

Senator COLLINS —That matter has been addressed by the Pearce report as Senator Alston correctly stated. As Senator Alston will find when he reads the papers that will be tabled in Parliament as soon as possible this afternoon—he has already been provided with an advance copy of those papers, as has Senator Bourne—the single document referred to by Professor Pearce in his report is included, as one would expect it to be, in those documents that are relevant to the satellite process. I read it with great interest. As Professor Pearce has said, it is the only document in that mass of documentation with corrected notations and margin notes and so on that Senator Alston received, I think earlier today, that specifically mentions the fact that no deposit will be required.

  However, the Pearce report does cover the deliberations that were held by those officers in relation to that issue where, as has already been revealed to the Senate, a deliberate decision was taken. The Pearce report—I think from memory it was paragraph 26 or 27—canvassed the principal reason for that, which was that the officers, when they had been told by the Attorney-General's Department that they could not apply those prequalification tests which they wanted to put on, referred to in that earlier advice tabled in the Senate as being `the department's preferred position', because in the view of the Attorney-General's Department that would conflict with what would be a price based system, they then sent the amended proposal off to the Attorney-General's Department, and had done so on the assumption that this would be given commercial scrutiny by the commercial law section of the Attorney-General's Department.

  I described this in the debate on Thursday as being in my view the most serious omission highlighted by the Pearce report. As Professor Pearce said—in the paragraph I have just mentioned—that assumption was not well founded, and that indeed is the explanation. They did take a deliberate decision to place prequalification conditions on, which would have picked up these problems. The Attorney-General's Department advised them that they could not do it. They then removed those prequalification conditions and sent the matter to the Attorney-General's Department, assuming that it would be given commercial scrutiny—and that assumption was not based on good grounds. That has been laid out quite comprehensively in the Pearce report, and it is a matter that will be redressed in advice which I will provide to the Senate later this week on how these problems are going to be addressed in a way that will ensure they do not recur.

Senator ALSTON —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. The Pearce report says that the origins of that critical document and its status are not entirely clear. Has the Minister been able to get to the bottom of that document and the context in which it originated and, in particular, are there any records of the meeting that was held in mid-November at which, presumably, all these matters were discussed? Were they brought to the Minister's attention or was he once again given the mushroom treatment?

Senator COLLINS —Senator Alston has obviously not bothered to read carefully the documents that I took the trouble to provide him with as soon as they were available. We did make some attempt yesterday to provide the documents to Senator Alston, but they certainly would have been provided to him no later than this morning. All those documents make clear what Professor Pearce has said—and there is not a satisfactory explanation for it; it is an error which will now have to be addressed. The only document which specifically addresses in a positive, assertive way that no deposit would be required is the document that Professor Pearce has referred to in his report. It is contained in that bundle of documents which Senator Alston has and which I will table later today. Professor Pearce has also made adverse critical comment on what he believes to be the less than satisfactory record of keeping notes on the actual meetings that took place. (Time expired)