Coonan accused of Misleading Parliament over Alston Consultancy

Communications Minister, Helen Coonan, has been accused of misleading Parliament, after being forced to admit former Minister, Richard Alston, had been in contact with her office.

The gaffe comes amid mounting pressure from the Opposition over Alston’s appointment by Austereo as a consultant.

Initially, Senator Coonan told the Senate her office had not been in contact with Alston, but later had to set the record straight, after being informed by a staffer that Alston had been in touch the previous week.

The exchange concerned Alston’s access to Coonan’s office and his knowledge of the Government’s report into Digital Radio Trials.

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL asked Communications Minister Senator Coonan:

I refer the minister to question time yesterday, when she
claimed that Richard Alston would not have any
knowledge of the outcome of the government’s digital
radio study group report. Given that the former minister
Richard Alston formed the study group in mid-2003
and was still in the parliament when the study group
reported to the then minister, Daryl Williams, late last
year, on what basis does the minister assert that Richard
Alston has no knowledge of the contents of the report
and the government’s long awaited response to
that report? Has the minister ordered comprehensive
inquiries to be undertaken to ensure that Richard
Alston has not had access to either the digital radio
study group 2003 report or the government’s draft response
to that report?

Senator COONAN—On my understanding, the report
was received in May 2004. Mr Alston was not in
the parliament then. I doubt very much that my predecessor,
Mr Williams, would have shared with Mr
Alston the contents of a confidential report that is currently
being considered by government.

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL—Mr President, I
ask a supplementary question. I refer again to the minister’s
statements that Richard Alston would have no
knowledge of the digital radio trials. Given that these
trials began in December last year, when Richard
Alston was still in parliament, has the minister also
made full inquiries to ensure that Richard Alston has
not at any time had access to confidential government
information regarding the government’s plans for digital
radio trials? Can the minister also assure the Senate
that Richard Alston has not profited from his inside
knowledge of the government’s radio broadcasting
policies in his new role at Austereo?

Senator COONAN—I will not deal with the imputations
in that question, which I think are entirely improper.
To imply that Mr Alston would somehow or
other behave in any kind of improper way traduces the
reputation of someone who has conducted himself
throughout his long parliamentary career, and no doubt
in his life as a private citizen, with the utmost integrity.
There is absolutely no basis on which to be making
those kinds of imputations. However, Mr Alston left
this portfolio, I think, in October last year. That is almost
a year ago. The results of the digital radio trial
had certainly not been concluded by then. They were
concluded and, as I understand it, handed to my predecessor
fairly recently. There are some ongoing trials. I
would doubt very much whether Mr Alston would have
any way of having access to any of the information in
connection with those trials. (Time expired)

As Labor steps up demands for a 12 month cooling off period to stop ministers going straight into lucrative private sector jobs in their portfolio area, Shadow Communications Minister, Lindsay Tanner,says: “John Howard must get his former Cabvarchar(15) members off the post ministerial gravy train.”

In Senate Question Time yesterday, Senator Coonan was asked about the principle of former ministers engaging in consultancies such as Alston has undertaken with Austereo.

Senator Coonan said:

“The principle is correct, it’s 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.”

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, John Howard rejected Labor’s calls to tighten up the rules in this area.