Not a tender, just tendentious

Apr 5, 2012

" McPhee's report is a gift to the Coalition".

" McPhee's report is a gift to the Coalition". Photo: Andrew Meares

EDITORIAL

EVEN by the Gillard government's chaotic standards, its handling of the Australia network tender process was a remarkably botched job. This week's findings by the Auditor-General, Ian McPhee, were damning. While many Australians may approve of the government's final decision - to leave the contract to run the nation's official overseas television service in Asia with the national broadcaster, the ABC - they will have been appalled at the bungled, wasteful and devious path the divided cabinet followed to arrive at that decision.

The rival consortium that bid against the ABC for the $223 million (over 10 years) contract was shabbily treated. The McPhee report has confirmed that the joint venture between Nine Digital, Seven Media and Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB was twice judged by an independent review panel to have put up the best bid. Yet, apparently partly as a result of a power struggle between the then foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, and the Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy, responsibility for the decision was taken from Foreign Affairs and handed to Conroy.

After much messing about - the goalposts and the rules were changed, so were the umpires - Conroy, with Gillard's support, dismissed the findings of the review panel and handed the contract to the ABC permanently. Sensibly, though presumably through clenched teeth, the government has apparently agreed to compensate the joint venturers for the considerable money, time and effort they wasted. So it should.

McPhee's report is a gift to Tony Abbott and the Coalition. It will further undermine the public's already shattered confidence in this government's competence and good faith. The Auditor-General has found the episode has "brought into question the government's ability to deliver such a sensitive process fairly and effectively". Confidential information, far from being safeguarded, had been widely and unnecessarily circulated to ministerial staff and public servants, and Conroy's role had raised "perceptions, at least" of a conflict of interest, given his portfolio responsibility for the ABC.

This is not to say the decision to leave the Australia Network service with the ABC is a bad one. Indeed, as the national broadcaster which has for years run Radio Australia and maintained bureaus throughout the region, it may seem the obvious choice, rather than a commercial consortium. But, if that is the government's view why was the job put out to tender in the first place?

The drug debate we have to have

WE AGREE with the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, that drugs harm people. As she said this week, they "kill people, they rip families apart, they destroy lives". Like her, we want to see less harm done through drug use. So we cannot agree with her outright rejection of decriminalisation. On the evidence, that position is inconsistent with the goal of minimising harm. It is inconsistent too with the government's claimed support for evidence-based policy.

This week a number of eminent Australians called time on the so-called war on drugs. In a report from the think-tank Australia21 they call for a fresh debate on drug reform. They argue that the tough-on-drugs policies long favoured by many governments around the world including Australia's are a demonstrable failure. In this they echo a 2011 report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy which included former presidents, prime ministers and the former UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan. Despite the huge investment in drug law enforcement since Australia's National Drug Strategy was formulated in 1985, illicit drugs remain easy to get and their use is widespread. About 400 opioid-related deaths occur here every year.

Under this failed regime of prohibition, drug production and consumption are pushed underground and a criminal industry that corrupts and kills thrives. As the report observes, when personal use and possession of psychoactive drugs are criminal acts, governments avoid the responsibility for regulating and controlling them. Tobacco and alcohol do harm, but are at least subject to government regulation concerning quality and safety. We do not suggest that any drugs should be available to anyone who wants them. But in places where decriminalisation has been tried, such as Portugal where possession in quantities consistent with personal use has not been a criminal offence since 2001, evidence suggests fears that drug harm will increase are unfounded. It is not a perfect solution. None is. But on balance, individuals are safer; society is safer.

It is a difficult political conundrum that tough drug policies may be popular though ineffective compared with a more rational, evidence-based approach. Yet there are signs that popular opinion may be prepared to consider alternatives. Parents need the best available proof that changing the laws will not expose their children to further harm. Reform would need to be cautious, incremental and supported by evidence. But it is a debate that should no longer be avoided.

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