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Tuesday, 10 August 2004
Page: 25992

Senator CARR (2:17 PM) —My question without notice is to Senator Coonan, Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. Has the minister for communications had any contact with former minister Richard Alston at any time since she was appointed minister earlier this year? Has there been any contact between Mr Alston and her staff? When was this contact? Who initiated the contact? What was the nature of the discussions? At the time of any such contact was the minister aware that Mr Alston had been engaged as a lobbyist by the Austereo media group?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I can inform the Senate that the first I knew of former Senator Alston's appointment as a consultant for Austereo was when the Australian rang me last night. I have not had any discussion with Mr Alston about this issue at all. It is a legitimate point that all ministers face when they leave a ministry, and I think the principle is correct. It is a sound principle that recently retired ministers should not take up positions that will conflict with their prior duties, if in fact that is what is occurring. It is not a matter of length of time that will sort this out; it is a matter of whether there is a conflict.

In respect of any of the issues that Mr Alston might be involved with, I suppose one way of speculating about this is that he might be involved in providing some advice about digital radio. He has been gone long enough, since October last year, that he would not have any knowledge of the outcome of a report that has recently become available to my predecessor and to me and I doubt whether he would have any knowledge of digital trials. In those circumstances it is very difficult to see, on the face of it, how any experience that Mr Alston might have had in his previous ministry could have had direct relevance to those particular issues. It is a knee-jerk reaction and it shows that people who advocate some time limit when ministers should not take up appointments simply do not understand that it is a matter of whether there is any conflict. You could have a conflict three years afterwards—it is possible—or you might have one as soon as you leave. That is why you have to judge each of these matters on their facts.

With respect to former Senator Alston, I have absolutely no reason to think that he is anything other than a most honourable man. He was a very successful communications minister and he does have a lot of general experience in the area. We have Mr Tanner saying, on the one hand, that he was a hopeless minister and then, on the other hand, complaining about the fact that he is obviously good enough for his consultancy services to be required and in fact sought. It is an absolute furphy by the Labor Party that there is any problem with what the former Senator Alston has sought to do in relation to life after being a minister.

The other point I would make is that this is very dangerous territory for the Labor Party. The Labor Party is in a glass house here, throwing stones in circumstances where the reputations of decent people are, once again, traduced. It is entirely inappropriate to assume that the mere fact of an appointment equates to a conflict. I personally resent the imputation that I would have any part of it.

Senator CARR —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Given that the minister has now conceded that she only knew of Mr Alston's involvement with Austereo from last night, can she now advise the Senate on how many occasions she discussed with him matters of interest to Austereo? Further, can the minister assure the Senate that Richard Alston has not passed confidential government information on this or other commercial-in-confidence matters to Austereo? If she cannot provide that assurance now, what action will she take to satisfy herself on this important matter? When will she be able to report back to the Senate on these questions?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I am able to report right now because I have had absolutely no conversations about Austereo with Mr Alston at all. Senator Carr seems to have got his questions completely around the wrong way because he was not expecting that answer. He has posed his questions on the basis that I had had some conversation, and he is absolutely dead wrong. The Labor Party really ought to reflect on some of the extraordinary potential conflicts of interest of some of their previous ministers. I might remind you of a few. What about Mr Kerin, who was minister for primary industries and then became involved with the Australian Meat and Livestock Corporation? What about former minister Ros Kelly—who I think is a very decent person? She was environment minister and now she works with an environmental consultancy. The list goes on and on. If we are seriously going to stand here and take up the Senate's time, be my guest and keep asking these questions.