5.01pm. Dastyari wraps things up. He thanks Senator Anne Rushton for allowing him to call Gupta, and Gupta for appearing.
Dastyari hasn’t had any chance to ask the things he wanted to focus on today — namely the allegations about Digital Electronics Corporation Limited, the allegations about JCurve, and information about Gupta’s donations to the Liberal party. Dastyari reminds Clarke to tell him how best to proceed. An anticlimactic — and no doubt frustrating — end to proceedings for Labor. The allegations about Gupta, meanwhile, remain unanswered.
4.59pm. On Twitter, Oz media editor Sharri Markson says Gupta confirmed to her he was the sole employee of Digital Electronics Corporation Limited. This could be important, because Gupta is refusing to answer questions about what he did before being appointed SBS chairman. But if he’s already confirmed part of his resume to Markson after being appointed, perhaps it’s possible to ask him about this conversation, and why he told her why he did.
4.53pm. It’s back to Dastyari. He asks more about the board meeting where Gupta allegedly tried to remove Michael Ebeid (Gupta denied he did so earlier). It appears the dates given at the last estimates and this estimates about the day Ebeid was notified do not match up. SBS Corporate Affairs director Peter Khalil promises to clarify things — the question is put on notice. What follows is a long discussion about how meetings are called, and when a meeting date is set.
Dastyari is trying to ensure the story in The Oz is wrong. “At no point did you express the view that Mr Ebeid’s contract should not be renewed?”
“Correct,” Gupta responds.
4.48pm. Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos asks why Gupta was attracted to the SBS chairmanship. He asks for Gupta’s background in making a contribution to multiculturalism.
“I have done a lot of work there, but I don’t really want to go through my resume,” Gupta says.
Sinodinos asks what Gupta’s vision for SBS is.
Gupta: “SBS is a wonderful institution … and since it was established, there’s more need for it. … I think that one of the most important thigns for SBS is to be very relevant to changing communities in this country. And Australia is very multicultural, and we are broadcasting and appearing to all of Australia.”
Sinodinos prompts Gupta to comment on his vision for Indigenous broadcasting.
“I think that we’re very proud of NITV as part of our family. I think we have a responsibility to not only promote what that community does — I hope we’d be a conduit to preserve the language and culture of our first peoples.”
Sinodinos asks for the challenges facing SBS.
“We live in a world where people are consuming content on a pull basis — people choose what content they want and on what platform. The biggest challenge is the multitude of different types of content that can be broadcast on [different devices], to keep up with platforms.”
4.43pm. Dastyari moves back to Gupta, confirming the chair won’t address the allegations made about him in the media.
“You’re not concerned, Mr Gupta, that part of your role is to have public confidence in the position you hold? There’ve been long-standing allegations in the public domain that you’re choosing not to answer?”
“I don’t want to comment on speculation …” Gupta starts.
“You’re not answering anything,” Dastyari interjects.
Fifield wants to know if Dastyari is making allegations about Gupta. “Yes I am,” he says.
Fifield says Dastyari has made “serious allegations”. “The onus is on you to justify your allegations.”
Dastyari says he’s putting them to Gupta, but Gupta won’t answer them. “There a whole series of questions I would like to test.”
Rushton says what Senator Dastyari is doing “is to suggest the selection panel has not undertaken due diligence”. “The selection process under which Mr Gupta was appointed was put in place by the previous government … This process, according to Mr Clarke, was followed rigidly and to the letter. The information put by Mr Gupta was obviously checked through the selection process by that panel. I think it’s unreasonable to ask Mr Gupta to do a job interview in front of an open Senate hearing.”
Dastyari says he wants to know if false and misleading information was made to the selection panel.
4.38pm. We’ve moved onto how non-executive directors at SBS can be removed. It’s a five-year term, which can be terminated earlier if the communications minister believes he or she is not performing. Clarke insists on reading the section of the act into Hansard, which seems like a waste of time. Crikey covered this here.
4.33pm. Dastyari says he has serious concerns that the information provided was “false and misleading”. “Where can I take that?”
“If you have the concerns that I have, where would you take the concerns?”
Clarke insists that a process that “requires the inner workings of the panel … to be aired publicly will undermine confidence of this process and will affect in the long-run the quality of candidates.”
Dastyari then asks about the composition of the nominations panel. That information’s on the public record, so your correspondent won’t bother typing it out. He then wants to know how often the selection panel met with Gupta, and for how long they met with him.
4.31pm. Dastyari hones on on Malcolm Turnbull’s media release announcing Gupta’s appointment, which appears to have made inaccurate claims. Fifield says he’s not familiar with the release, so Dastyari rehashes it.
“You’re saying to me, Mr Clarke, that I’m not in a position to test the veracity of the information even though the Minister put it out.” Clarke says the minister was quoting from advice put to him by independent panel — advice that won’t be made publicly available “because it would undermine the process I put to you.”
4.29pm. Dastyari argues the outcome of such thinking is there’s no ability for Senators to review the expenditure of a $600,000 taxpayer funded appointment. “[Thus] we can’t test the information put in the public field relating to someone’s appointment,” Dastyari says.
4.26pm. Dastyari wants to know, from Drew Clarke at the Department of Communications, whether Gupta described himself as the managing director of Digital Electronics Corporation. He’s alluding to claims that Gupta said he was head of a company with 200 employees, even though he was the only employee of DEC. Clarke responds by going through the selection process.
“The positions were advertised during March and April 2014. Part of the information we included in that was that information collected as part of that process may be revealed to nominations panel and the minister for the sole purpose of the process.
“So I’m not going to answer your specific question about the content of Mr Gupta’s application, and I wouldn’t answer that about any candidate.”
“I believe what’s at stake is the integrity of the selection process … Our concern is if the ins and outs was presented publicly, it would have a clear chilling effect on the willingness of Australian citizens to apply for these positions. By encouraging the privacy of this process, it encourages full disclosure and a strong field to come forward.”
4.24pm. Dastyari says if he’s not able to ask questions, he wants a 3-week Senate inquiry into SBS matters to get to the bottom of things.
“I thought we could do this in half an hour and be done.”
4.21pm. Dastyari asks Fifield to clarify why it’s not appropriate for him to ask Gupta questions about his appointments.
Fifield says: “The role of Gupta in the appointment process is he was a candidate. Mr Gupta … as a matter of logic, was not an officer of the Commonwealth, if we deem the chair to be that, he was not paid according to the remuneration tribunal, he’s not someone who had a role or responsibility under the Commonwealth until the time of his appointment. It’s perfectly legitimate to ask questions as to his role at SBS. But there’s no justification for a committee of the Senate to inquire into an individual before they actually took on the particular role under the Commonwealth.
Dastyari says that if a role was appointed on false or misleading evidence, why it shouldn’t be appropriate for Senate to ask about that role. Fifield asks if that’s an allegation. Dastyari says he can’t make one until he gets the information he needs from Gupta.
Fifield says questions about the due diligence process around Gupta’s appointment should be address to the government.
4.17pm. Take three. Dastyari asks whether Gupta has contacted former politicians in relation to today’s Senate hearing.
Gupta says: “I speak to a lot of people … I did make general inquiries as to the proceedings.”
Rushton pipes in that she’s been in contact with Gupta to make sure he’s aware of the process of the committee.
Dastyari asks whether Gupta has told anyone his appearance was inappropriate.
“I said I don’t believe I should have to come to this committee and substantiate my appointment,” Gupta said. He confirms he found out about the appearance last Friday.
Dastyari asks whether Gupta asked current or former politicians to ensure he didn’t appear at Estimates. Gupta says he did not.
“You’re saying the only point you made that you felt was improper was that you’ve been asked to substantiate your appointment,” Dastyari asks. “Correct,” says Gupta. Dastyari asks whether Gupta said it wasn’t in Dastyari’s “political interest” to appear before the committee. Gupta says that’s not true. “And that’s in evidence. Fantastic,” Dastyari says. It’s not clear where he’s going with this.
4.16pm. Dastyari asks again, asking when Gupta became aware there was a vacancy for the chairmanship of SBS.
Gupta says he’s there as the chairman of SBS, and shouldn’t answer that.
“You’re kidding,” Dastyari says. He asks for the question to be taken on notice.
“Questions I’ve been asking have been clear, specific, and are questions of fact, and he’s clearly made a decision he’s not going to answer questions. This is ridiculous. This is a complete joke.”
4.12pm. Labor Senator Sam Dastyari, the one who wanted to call this meeting, takes the floor.
His first question is to clarify Gupta has been appointed to a five year appointment, for which Gupta is paid $125,000 for five years.
Dastyari then asks when Gupta applied for the job. Gupta says it’s not appropriate for him to answer that. Dastyari’s not taking it. “It’s not appropriate for you to be telling us what is and isn’t appropriate for us to be asking”, he says, his voice raised.
Dastyari says he’s not asking Gupta to comment on the deliberations of the selection panel. He merely wants to know “[Mr Gupta’s] involvement in the process”. Senator Mitch Fifield, representing Malcolm Turnbull, says a question of when Gupta applied isn’t a question for Gupta. Dastyari accuses Fifield of “running a protection racket” for Gupta.
4.09pm. Gupta has spent some time explaining the timeline that led up to the board meeting held in early February where he reportedly tried to remove SBS managing director Michael Ebeid.
“I can confirm to this committee that I did not … call a meeting with the intention to remove the managing director. That was not my intention. At all times it’s been my view that we’re fortunate to have a very competent managing director. That was my view when I joined SBS. It was my view when I met the managing director for the first time.”
Gupta flat out states earlier reports saying he tried to remove Ebeid were wrong.
4.02pm. Gupta makes an opening statement.
“I welcome this opportunity to appear before you today in my capacity as chairperson of SBS. It’s indeed a privilege to be asked to serve on the board, and as the first chair of Asian origin. SBS is an enormously important public institution.
Since [my appointment], some questions were raised about the appointment. … I do not propose to make any comment on the appointment … What is appropriate is the productive way the board has been focussing since hte time of my appointment. I’ve been focussed … on making sure SBS can succeed and continue to play the unique role it does in the national landscape.
“I’ve chaired the board a number of times since my appointment. These meetings have been productive, and we’ve been focussed on getting on with this job. ”
4pm. So, Senator Dastyari has got his way. New SBS chair Nihal Gupta is facing Senate Estimates to answer questions about his qualifications.
It’s highly unusual for the chair of a government department to appear in this way. The appearance was requested after SBS managing director Michael Ebeid resisted answering questions about Gupta — his ultimate boss — in Estimates last time, and is part of a bid to pressure the Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull into removing Gupta.
Gupta is expected to be grilled about his work history, how he represented himself in his applications for the SBS chairmanship, and what donations he and his father have made to the Liberal Party. An SBS spokesperson said: “The chair is focused on contributing to the future growth of SBS and is happy to appear before the Senate committee hearing and answer their questions.”