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Thursday, 27 May 1993
Page: 1455

Senator COLLINS (Minister for Transport and Communications) (12.34 p.m.) —I will examine whether that is correct or not, but I have no difficulty in asserting that I am sure it is not. The proof of that is before the committee. I am still here alive but I think, quite honestly, that if I had been advised of that on Monday I probably would have had a terminal heart attack. I will organise now to get a copy of the newspaper article referred to but I think I can positively assert that, if that was the newspaper account, it is wrong. There are no further technical difficulties.

  This is very comprehensively laid out in these two reports and also in the documentation that has been tabled in Parliament. They show all of the problems that have occurred and all of those matters are now before the Federal Court. I am told that the hearing is going to proceed expeditiously—both sides have asked for that—and I would expect the matter to be heard in the near future. To the best of my knowledge there are no further technical problems.

Senator Alston —Is it not the standard practice for the department to provide the Minister each day with a detailed written analysis of newspaper articles?

Senator COLLINS —That is what I am saying. I do not think the report is correct. Yes, I do get—

Senator Alston —Did you not get one in relation to this article?

Senator COLLINS —No. That is why I think it is wrong.

Senator Alston —You should have got a report saying it was wrong.

Senator COLLINS —This is all based on the assumption that what Senator Alston has told the committee is correct. I am sure that my staff are now watching the monitors and getting this information. I will say it again: I can positively assert—and the information is contained in here—that there are no further legal technical difficulties with the report. So far as Australian Financial Review articles are concerned, if I took the trouble to correct every mistake the Australian Financial Review has made, I would be doing nothing else except correcting the Australian Financial Review. From my perspective, I think the only times that Tom Burton would comply with the AJA code of ethics would be by accident. As I said the other day, the only conclusion I can draw from some of the Australian Financial Review reports has been that, when the Australian Journalists Association merged with Actors Equity, the code of ethics was amended to take consideration of that merger.

  All I am saying—and I do not say this in a flippant manner—is that there have been a very large number of inaccuracies on this entire matter canvassed in the Australian Financial Review. For that reason, I am not altogether sure that one more would have been directly brought to my attention. I am sure that the article will arrive here momentarily. I think the substance is the important thing about this question, that is, there are no further technical difficulties with the process. I have just received the article in question. I must say that I cannot recall this particular column—there have been so many. I will just give it to the officers and ascertain whether they have any further advice.

  The resolution the Commonwealth would like to bring about—and I have made this clear—is that the court would examine the legal argument and that the court would acknowledge that, even though the odds are very slim of the legal technicality being exploited in the way I have already canvassed in the Senate, now that it has been brought to the attention of the court it cannot be left to stand; and that the court would, in fact, issue new orders to allow the process to be restarted, with a new set of determinations, gazettal notices and information papers. That is the resolution we want to bring about. I am pleased in that regard. That is why I think a resolution is capable of being formed on this.

  I was pleased therefore—and I told the Senate this—to see the public comments made by Mr Stokes, who, I think Senator Alston would agree, is probably the most aggrieved party. Certainly he is the party in the action. He has conceded publicly, having read the legal advice I provided him with—in other words, I have given him advance notice of the arguments we are going to run in court, which is not a normal procedure, as Senator Alston knows—that the earlier comments he made were made without reference to those articles. He has now conceded that he is satisfied that the Commonwealth's action in this matter has been, if you like, legitimate and was not for any ulterior purpose, and that there is a real legal problem that has to be addressed.

  I would hope, from the Commonwealth's point of view, that the resolution to it would be that the court would agree with that and would issue new orders for a new process. To the best of my knowledge, there are no problems other than those laid out in these reports.

  I have precise advice on this article now. The problem referred to in the Australian Financial Review article is the allocation problem additional to the technical determination problem in the notice. It is covered in the Hutchinson report and in the Gyles advice. The article referred to further problems. The further problems—and this has all been canvassed by the Senate—are not just the technical problems in the determination but the actual problems further down the track which would have occurred when the licences were being allocated. It is at that point that the, if you like, extreme case I canvassed in the Senate could have arisen.

Senator Alston —Is the Minister able to advise the Senate as to who was the first person to draft the notification?

Senator COLLINS —I cannot at this moment answer that question precisely. I have not had an opportunity to read the reports from cover to cover, but the entire process is meticulously laid out in these departmental reports, and I would agree with Professor Pearce that it is laid out in a way which is tough and glosses over nothing.

Senator Alston —In relation to the communications selection team, were any members advised of the possibility that prospective bidders for the satellite pay TV licences were able to, or intended to, make multiple bids?

Senator COLLINS —That question has been asked in the Senate estimates committee, and answered by Christine Goode. The advice that was given to the Senate estimates committee by Ms Goode was that people had advised the department that they would be putting in more than one bid.

Senator Alston —That report in the Financial Review seems to have been reasonably accurate, then. Does it follow from that that the department anticipated that from the outset, or that it was content to accept that when it became aware of the possibility?

Senator COLLINS —Nothing can be added to the answer already given in Senate Estimates, because it is the same question. To save going back for readers of the Hansard of the Committee of the Whole, I will read in that answer. Ms Goode says:

The newspaper references to what I was told are inaccurate. A number of people had said to me during February and March—after the court challenge to the Minister's January decision on the use of MDS—that the outcome of that court case, and therefore whether the direction would stand or not, might not be known by the time the satellite licence bids closed. They had said that they thought the outcome of that court case would affect the value of the satellite licences. Some people had said that they were contemplating putting in—and it was possible, they thought, to put in—two bids at different values.

Senator Tierney then asked what her reaction had been to that, and Ms Goode replied, `That is what I was told'. The reference is contained in the Hansard of Estimates Committee E of 11 May at page 111.

Senator Alston —Does it follow from that that that was the first time members of the department, particularly Ms Goode, became aware of the possibility that multiple bids could be lodged?

Senator COLLINS —The advice that I have received from the officer concerned was that that was the first time that she had had information that people were contemplating such a process.

Senator Alston —My question was whether the department had intended that from the outset.

Senator COLLINS —I think I would have known the answer to that just from reading the pile of papers, and Ms Goode has just confirmed it. The answer to the question is that that was not a matter contemplated by the officers of the department when this process was put together. In other words, the process was not deliberately designed to have that effect.

The CHAIRMAN —Order! Normally at 12.45 p.m. I would report progress, but I understand that there is an agreement that we finish these estimates before I do that. Is that so?

Senator COLLINS —Mr Chairman, I am not aware of that personally but I indicate, on behalf of the Government, that I am perfectly happy to continue until the matter is concluded.

Senator Alston —Mr Chairman, I am not aware of an agreement either. I think, from our point of view, we would prefer that you report progress at this point.

The CHAIRMAN —There being some confusion, I will report progress.

  Progress reported.