CHRIS UHLMANN: Today offered another insight into the dysfunction at the heart of the Gillard Government during its simmering leadership tensions. An Auditor-General’s report declared the flawed tender process for the overseas television service cast the Government in a poor light and raised questions about its fairness. The tender panel twice recommended Sky TV [Australian News Channel Pty Ltd or Sky News] for the job, only to see the Government intervene and hand the contract to the ABC indefinitely. As Stephen Long reports, the process got wrapped up in Labor’s power play.
JULIA GILLARD: On the Australia Network tender, the Government determined that it was best that the ABC do that work, and that was the right decision.
STEPHEN LONG: Perhaps, but the process was appalling.
DAVID SALTER: A shemozzle from start to finish. Maybe they ended up with the right decision for all the wrong reasons.
MICHAEL FRASER: During the process the goalposts were changed, different terms and conditions, different decision makers.
ASHLEIGH GILLON, SKY NEWS: The Auditor-General’s report has criticised the Government’s handling of the tender process, and says it’s raised at least concerns of perception when it comes to a conflict of interest.
STEPHEN LONG: At stake, a $223 million contract to run Australia’s overseas broadcasting service, a network at arm’s length from Government but considered vital to Australia’s soft diplomacy.
The bidders: the ABC and Sky News, jointly owned by the Nine Network, Seven and Murdoch’s BSkyB [British Sky Broadcasting]. Behind the scenes, a power struggle between then Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy. Senator Conroy won out, quashing the recommendation of an independent review panel that twice favoured Sky, and permanently handing control of the Australia Network to the ABC.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: There was real dysfunction at the heart of the Government that drove much of this.
STEPHEN LONG: The Auditor-General Ian McPhee’s conclusion is measured but damning. Senator Conroy’s decision to award the contract to the ABC involved a perceived conflict of interest. The Government failed to safeguard confidential and sensitive information during the bid, circulating it widely to ministerial staff and public servants with no role in the decision and the process cast the Government in a poor light, calling into question its ability to deal with such sensitive issues fairly and effectively.
TONY ABBOTT: We’ve seen more evidence of Government bungling today with the Australia Network. It shows that this Government can’t be trusted with money, can’t be trusted to follow due process, and senior members of this Government can’t be trusted to be honest with each other about what’s happening.
STEPHEN LONG: The backdrop to this saga was ABC Managing Director Mark Scott’s vision for a global expansion of the ABC via the Australia Network.
MARK SCOTT: If you want there to be a global understanding of Australian values, Australian culture, Australian democracy, if we want to be a global influence, then we need to use the greatest influential tools that there are, and they’re the tools of the modern media.
STEPHEN LONG: Senator Conroy backed the plan, proposing that the ABC provide the Australia Network permanently, with oversight shifted from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to Communications. Stephen Smith, Foreign Minister at the time, initially agreed but delayed. Then came the leadership spill.
DAVID SALTER: What’s interesting is that the undercurrent for this whole botched and bungled process has actually been an echo of the Rudd/Gillard leadership tensions.
STEPHEN LONG: As Foreign Affairs Minister, Kevin Rudd put the Australia Network up for tender. He wanted his head of department, Dennis Richardson, to have the final say over who won, arguing this would ensure the decision was made on merit.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kevin Rudd, at least according to this audit report, did go through proper processes. He did want to keep the politicians at arm’s length.
STEPHEN LONG: Media commentator David Salter argues that the motivations of Kevin Rudd and his department weren’t all about due process.
DAVID SALTER: My information is that the important factor here was the relationship with China. China is clearly the dominant force in our region, and the information I have is that the requests were quite specific, that they wanted to be able to actually put Chinese television on the Australia Network signal and that’s a real sticking point for the ABC, because the ABC is constrained by its requirement to preserve editorial independence under the charter and the act.
STEPHEN LONG: In June last year the terms of the tender were changed, giving the Communications Minister final say and the right to reject the recommendation of a panel set up to evaluate the bids. And that’s just what Stephen Conroy did, using a series of leaks to The Australian newspaper as the rationale to abort the tender and hand control to the ABC.
STEPHEN CONROY (November 2011): The Gillard Government, Mr President, is extremely disappointed that the tender process was compromised by leaks.
STEPHEN LONG: Though the Gillard Government’s own lack of controls led to them.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: It was clearly an incredibly lax arrangement in terms of tender information.
STEPHEN LONG: The Auditor-General issued no recommendations, just a plea that the Government learn some lessons from this debacle.
CHRIS UHLMANN: Stephen Long with that report.