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Thursday, 27 May 1993
Page: 1482

Senator HILL —My question is directed to the Minister for Transport and Communications. Twice yesterday he said that `the Department of Transport and Communications made absolutely no request whatever for anything to be removed from the Auditor-General's report' into the sale of Aussat and other asset sales. Now that the Minister has had a chance to reflect overnight on what he said yesterday, does he stand by that statement? Secondly, because of the disquiet on this matter and others in relation to his department, will the Minister now table the 20-page response of his department to the Auditor-General's draft report?

Senator COLLINS —I have not even bothered to ask the department at this stage to—

Senator Alston —Highly irresponsible.

Senator COLLINS —I am taking my department through Senate estimates at the moment, and that is my primary concern. This is the greatest furphy of all time. That incredible conspiratorial sigh from Senator Hill yesterday when the normal process of an Auditor-General's report was—

Senator Hill —We'll see.

Senator COLLINS —We will certainly see, Senator Hill. I put on the record again that it is up to the Auditor-General and the Minister responsible for the Auditor-General in this chamber to give a precise answer from their point of view as to what pages, if any—and I suspect none—were actually removed from any report. I gave the answer on behalf of the department that I am answerable for in this chamber, and I will repeat it for the record: the Auditor-General's office has sole responsibility for the content of its reports and cannot be prevented by a department from expressing findings critical of that department. I think the Treasurer would probably agree with that statement. It also does not prevent debate on the findings of the Auditor-General's report, and that is proper.

  The report of the Auditor-General on the sale of Aussat went through several drafts, commencing with a draft discussion paper of 50 pages, plus appendixes, in August 1992, before being finalised as a 46-page report to Parliament on 13 May 1993. It was at all stages up to the Auditor-General—and I apologise for stating the obvious—what would or would not be included in the report. It is the Auditor-General's report.   As I said to the Parliament yesterday, although I did not expect it to be realised in such a spectacular fashion, the Auditor-General has a reputation of being a person of independent mind. Written comments—and this is normal procedure, as Senator Hill knows or should know after his length of time in here—were provided on each draft by the Department of Transport and Communications as well as by some other agencies. At this stage, I do not know what other agencies. One of them that I do know put in written comments was the Department of Finance, and I provided that information to the Senate yesterday.

  Early drafts were also discussed at meetings between the audit office, DOTAC and other agencies. In the course of these comments and discussions, the attention of the Auditor-General's office was drawn to further material held in the department that had not been taken into account in earlier drafts, and errors of fact were pointed out. Amendments were suggested to preserve commercial confidentially.

  The Department of Transport and Communications at all times considered that the dialogue between it and the Audit Office was both courteous and professional. It advises me that it provided full access to all papers at all times. I think that is acknowledged in the report. The Auditor-General's office confirmed yesterday to the Department of Transport and Communications that, contrary to some press reports, it was fully satisfied with the department's cooperation in the audit process and has had no concerns about the audit process or the sale process that were not fully addressed in the report. I conclude by saying that the central finding of that report was that the sale of Aussat was completed on time, in accordance with the Government's objectives, and at a price acceptable to the Government.

Senator HILL —Mr President, I have a supplementary question. I am not interested in submissions from other departments; I asked the Minister whether he would table the 20-page response from his department to which he referred yesterday.

Senator COLLINS —When I get time to address that matter, I will. I have no difficulty in saying that I have not had time to address that issue. It has the feel of the last day about it. At the moment I am taking the department's processes through the estimates committees. That was interrupted by Question Time and no doubt will continue after Question Time. I will look at the 20 pages the department—

Senator Alston —Why won't you table them?

Senator COLLINS —I want to check with the Audit Office first. If the Audit Office has no objections to the 20—

Senator Ian Macdonald —What have you got to hide?

Senator COLLINS —Nothing. If the Audit Office has no objections to tabling these papers, I will not have any.