Peter Tonagh

Does a key figure in the government’s ongoing war on the ABC have an emerging conflict of interest? A few weeks back, former Foxtel head Peter Tonagh was flagged as the likely head of the government’s latest attack on the national broadcaster, yet another “efficiency review”, to be conducted with former senior ACMA executive Richard Bean.

So far, so standard — the government has already slashed ABC funding by hundreds of millions, filed reams of vexatious complaints about accurate journalism, and handed News Corp $30 million dollars with no strings attached. 

Unlike other Murdoch retainers on the outer, News couldn’t find a bolt hole for Tonagh after Foxtel — as it has done for former editors, executives and retainers, such as Richard Freudenstein and Hamish McLennan, a former head. Both are now on the board of REA Group, 61% owned by News Corp. There was no room at the inn for Tonagh. So the Turnbull gig is a nice opportunity for him or, you might interpret it, just one part of the Murdoch-Liberal empire doing what another part couldn’t. Frankly we’re surprised he didn’t get a gig at the Business Council.

But Tonagh has another role: according to the Financial Review’s Myriam Robin, Tonagh is heading up a consortium, AVP, that’s in the running for a potentially huge visa processing system contract for Home Affairs — possibly worth a billion dollars or more. Home Affairs have been copping grief for its visa processing system for some time now. The consortium, Robin notes, has both political bases covered — one key member, Scott Briggs, is a confidant of Malcolm Turnbull, while Labor powerbroker Stephen Conroy is also on board. Nothing wrong with any of that, although the consortium has minimal relevant experience compared to the major partner of another consortium, Australia Post. But good luck to them.

However, one would hope that the decision on the tender would be made before Tonagh commenced the ABC review, if indeed he’s to lead it. But the decision on the bid has been delayed until August. Delays, of course, are a part of Home Affairs’ traditionally rotten handling of major tenders, although the department is moving to try to improve its oversight and handling of both tenders and contracts. But it would be a poor look if Tonagh was running the ruler over the ABC at the same time he was part of a group hoping to win a billion-dollar contract from a government hellbent on neutering and defunding the ABC.

And the consortium plans to list on the ASX if it wins the contract. So what happens to investors if it loses the contract next time around? That’s quite an incentive to keep the government onside.