The tender trap set by Government mired in enmity
The commonly accepted choice between a stuff-up or a stitch-up is to go with the stuff-up. Anyone reading the Auditor-General’s report into Labor’s botched tender for the Australia Network television service will reject that accepted wisdom and conclude a stitch-up was more likely.
While the Australia Network may be Australia’s soft diplomacy channel into the Asia-Pacific, Labor’s internal wrangling over who should produce this service has involved anything but soft diplomacy. A needless internal power game saw the most senior figures in the government face-off over the future direction of the Australia Network.
Sadly, Labor wasn’t content to just battle it out amongst each other. The owners of Sky News and the ABC were dragged into the fray as proxies in a war over a contract that need not have gone to tender in the first place.
The government would have been within their rights to just award the Australia Network contract to the ABC on public policy grounds without tender, as they ultimately did anyway. But there was a tender and twice the tender evaluation panel made a recommendation that twice the Government found bizarre and inexplicable excuses to reject.
The Auditor-General has described the rejection of these recommendations as presenting “the Australian Government in a poor light” and further that “the manner and circumstances in which this high profile tender process was conducted brought into question the Government’s ability to deliver such a sensitive process fairly and effectively.”
Senator Conroy, who was handballed responsibility for the tender process after the Prime Minister stripped it from Kevin Rudd, has himself described this process as corrupted.
While Senator Conroy means the alleged leaks corrupted the process, it is far more likely that bias and interference at the highest levels of Government were the true corrupting forces.
The Auditor-General has revealed that Senator Conroy has sought to have the ABC appointed permanent custodians of the Australia Network as early as 2009.
Yet this blindingly obvious conflict was overlooked, without reference to legal or probity advisers, to make Senator Conroy the final approver of the successful tenderer. Given his predisposition towards the ABC winning the tender is it any wonder the lengths he went to so as to avoid accepting the alternative recommendation of the Tender Evaluation Board?
This tender was ultimately axed because of alleged leaks of confidential information. The Auditor-General has revealed that Senator Conroy’s own office and department mishandled confidential tender information, stating that their “briefings should have had greater regard to the confidentiality and sensitivity of the information being provided for what was still a ‘live’ tender process.”
How convenient it must have been for Senator Conroy when the leaking of information his staff and officials had handled inappropriately provided him with the final excuse to scuttle the tender that he never wanted.
When this tender was axed under dubious circumstances by Senator Conroy there was initially a textbook cover-up by the Government.
They rolled out the classic trifecta of claims to avoid answering questions or revealing details about their own debacle.
Firstly, we were told that everything associated with the tender continued to enjoy commercial confidentiality, despite the tender having been extinguished. Secondly, legal advice was used to justify the axing, but of course could never be fully released by the government.
And thirdly, allegations of leaks were referred to the Australian Federal Police, meaning matters could not be discussed as they were the subject of police investigation.
This trifecta of cover-up tactics revealed a government with a lot to hide. Thankfully, opposition calls for an Auditor-General’s inquiry were finally accepted and with the release of its findings the government now has nowhere left to hide.
While the Auditor-General has outlined some of the administrative failings, there remain plenty of questions for the Prime Minister and her Communications Minister to answer.
Why did the Prime Minister seek to have cabinet make the decision when legal advice said it could not? Why was Mr Rudd overlooked when it was decided that a minister should have the final say on this tender? Why did the Prime Minister insist that Senator Conroy be able to ignore the express advice and recommendations of the Tender Evaluation Board?
Ultimately, no amount of explanation will undo another case of lies, mismanagement and waste from Labor. It seems this was never an open tender, but instead it was a tender always open to subversion.
Taxpayers are now left to foot the bill for the government’s costs in the tender process, for the ABC’s costs and also for Sky’s costs.
While much remains murky about this sorry saga at least one thing is clear, the Australian taxpayer loses to Labor again.
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