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Australia Network: The tender trap

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COMMENTS

8 July 2011 12:00

What to make of the mess that the Australia Network tender process has become?

Yesterday, Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham, who has been assiduously probing the progress of Australia Network tender in Estimates hearings, moved that all the reports and briefings prepared by the 'assessment panel' (the evaluation board convened by DFAT to assess the tenders), and all correspondence between ministers and their respective departments about the tender, be presented to the Senate by 18 July.

Game on.

Just to back-track a bit. The Australia Network is the international television broadcasting service funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs to be Australia's 'voice' to the region. The tender document says the Australia Network is 'designed to present a reliable and independent voice in the Asia-Pacific region. It promotes Australia's engagement with the region by fostering public understanding of Australia, and presenting, through its programs, an Australian perspective on the world'.

The service is broadcast 24/7 to 45 markets in Asia, with a mix of news, current affairs, business, English language education, drama, documentaries, sport and children's programming.

The ABC's contract to deliver this service was due to expire in August this year. In late November 2010, the Minister for Foreign Affairs announced that the service would be put to open tender. This came after a year of intense speculation, with the incumbent ABC and aspiring Sky News both arguing their respective positions on the value of bringing the service to a competitive tender process.

By early June, the decision on the successful tenderer (due on 2 May) had still not been announced. Dennis Richardson, DFAT's Secretary, indicated in Estimates that the tender evaluation board had finalised its evaluation but that no recommendation had yet been made to the Minister. 

Shortly after, the Prime Minister and the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Communications announced an extension to the ABC's contract. Furthermore, they said the decision on the tender would be referred to Cabinet, though it's become clear since that Communications Minister Stephen Conroy would lead the process. Unsurprisingly, there has been considerable scrutiny of this development across the media.

For my part, there are legitimate questions to be asked about why this decision is not to be taken by the Minister for Foreign Affairs on the advice of his Department.

The Australia Network is the Government's primary vehicle for public diplomacy: its means of engaging with foreign publics, of providing reliable news in information-starved regions, of communicating with Australians living and traveling overseas, and of projecting Australia's culture, ideals, values and expertise to the region. These functions are integral to Australia's international relations, and decisions about such a vehicle belong with the Government ministry responsible for the conduct of Australia's foreign affairs.

The reasons the Government gave in its press release to justify turning over the decision-making power to Cabinet were:

  • The increasing influence of key emerging markets on the global economy.
  • Political transformation in the Middle East and North Africa.
  • The need for strengthened information services in times of consular crisis.

In subsequent interviews, the Foreign Minister cited the 'thousands of Australians' living in the Middle East, our 'massive economic interests there', and 'tens of thousands of Arab students in Australia' which have prompted Cabinet to look at 'the totality of our international interests, not just our foreign policy interests'.

But all those interests are squarely in the foreign affairs arena. Why would the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy be the person best-equipped in Cabinet to guide that process, particularly when the decision directly concerns commercial interests within his portfolio?

The decision to open the Australia Network service to competitive tender was, for some, contentious, and for others, bold. Whatever the viewpoint, the onus is on the Government, having made that decision, to act with absolute probity and transparency on the tender process. With the decision now referred to Cabinet, both the process and the role of DFAT's tender evaluation board are under a cloud.

There are other issues with this tender, issues of substance rather than process. More on that in a follow-up post later today.

Photo by Flickr user lefthandrotation.

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