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Monday, 27 June 1994
Page: 2016

Senator COLLINS (Minister for Primary Industries and Energy) (4.03 p.m.) —I am surprised that Senator Alston actually sat down without making out his case. The terms of the debate this afternoon are the alleged lack of morale in the ABC because of the `confusing' signals being sent out by the government. The only other matter raised by Senator Alston was the lack of morale compounded by what he considers to be inappropriate appointments to the ABC board. Let us tackle the first matter.

  The ABC, as Senator Alston said, is a cherished Australian institution which no-one cherishes more than I do. Indeed, I include SBS in that ambit. In terms of the country they serve and the services they deliver, the two organisations together are unique in the world. They are unique services because of the wide spectrum of the Australian community—particularly the regional community—that they serve, and the wide spectrum of community purposes that they serve. Therefore, there is a need to have on the board of the ABC people who are capable of reflecting that wide range of interests in the Australian community. I refer particularly to rural and regional Australia, people with particular disabilities—for example, people who may be disabled in some way and who rely very heavily on the services of the ABC, whether it be on television or radio, to get information about what is going on. Also, organisations such as Radio National have a particular brief in providing invaluable information to a whole range of community groups.

  To paraphrase the last paragraph in a letter recently written by Senator Gareth Evans to Mr Downer, `Spare us at least the hypocrisy of this debate', I wonder how anyone in the opposition can stand up with a straight face and talk about lack of morale in the ABC and actions of the government that might contribute to it. How could anybody who has defended, as Senator Alston has done, and promoted the policies which the opposition took to the last election—and I am not going back into ancient history for this; this is the last federal election—talk about lack of morale in the ABC? The Opposition's proposals to cut $50 million off public funding for the ABC would have resulted in the removal of about 800 employees from the ABC. How would that have contributed to morale?

  Nothing could boost morale more than knowing that one is on a triennial funding base, which the government has just guaranteed—as Senator Alston said correctly—to the tune of $515 million this financial year. That is a great boost to morale. The stark contrast to that are the policies that this coalition—and Senator Alston was a public advocate of them—took to the last election. In the view of the ABC board, this would have had the result of `significantly reducing Australian content on ABC television and closing down state based production.' As Senator Panizza knows full well and as I know full well, the local regionally based editions of the 7.30 Report and so on, which reflect local news and which are extremely expensive to provide, would have been the first casualty in these cuts that were proposed by Senator Alston and his colleagues at the last election.

  Senator Alston has the hide, the po-faced hypocrisy to stand up in here and run a debate on lack of morale. His policies would have absolutely decimated morale in the ABC—policies on which Senator Alston took his party to the last election. So I do not think we need to spend much more time in this 10 minutes that I have to expose the absolute hypocrisy of the opposition, of Senator Alston in particular, in moving an MPI that talks about `confusing' signals. There was nothing confusing about what the coalition wanted to do.

Senator Alston —What about the appointments?

Senator COLLINS —I will talk about that. In fact, I will quote my colleague from the South Australian government, the minister for primary industries, on his view about that appointment. So, in comparing contributions to morale, I think the government can hold its head up for having just completed the next triennial funding for the ABC with, as Senator Alston says, $515 million to the ABC and, I think from memory, $75 million to SBS in this current financial year. Nothing could boost the morale of an employee more than knowing that the organisation for which he or she works has that guaranteed base of funding for the next three years.

  Senator Alston interjects and says, `What about the appointments?' What about the appointments and the qualifications? I note the letter—the little stunt—that Senator Alston incorporated and which he has written to the Governor-General. I am sure the Governor-General will be delighted to hear from Senator Alston. I am sure the Governor-General will, as he is obliged to do, rely on the advice of his ministers in this regard, as Senator Alston would expect him to do if he were in government—and I notice Senator Alston nodding in assent.

  Mr Bannon is a distinguished South Australian and a distinguished Australian. Is Senator Alston seriously saying that being premier of a state and a minister holding the portfolios of community development, local government, recreation and sports, state development and the arts and also being a qualified lawyer and so on does not qualify one? Let us have a look at what a current South Australian conservative minister—Mr Dale Baker—had to say about Mr Bannon's proposed appointment. I was interested to see this comment because he is a colleague of mine in the sense that he is the South Australian minister for primary industry, and, of course, a former opposition leader. He said publicly that John Bannon should have the ABC job if he has the ability and the appointment should not be looked at politically.

Senator Alston —He said `if'.

Senator COLLINS —Of course he said if. I am saying that Mr Bannon does have the ability to do the job in spades. Mr Baker said:

. . . I'm only just commenting on the ability of John Bannon to do a job that he's been asked to do quite obviously, and I don't think it should be looked at in a political terms, in party political terms. If he's got the ability, he should be able to do the job.

As I commented the other day by way of interjection, did we hear complaints or criticism from the opposition when we reappointed Sir Nicholas Shehadie to chair the SBS board, an appointment that I took to cabinet when I was minister for communications? No. The fact that he was a Liberal lord mayor of Sydney did not matter to us. He had the ability to do the job and we appointed him.

  Did we hear any screams from the opposition when we recently appointed the former Liberal lord mayor of Brisbane, Sallyanne Atkinson, as a trade commissioner to Paris? No. There were no screams from the opposition or complaints then. Did the opposition express any concern when the government supported the appointment of Warwick Smith to the position of Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman and Ian Macphee, a former frontbencher from the opposition, as a special adviser to Telecom? Warwick Smith was 40 votes away from being Leader of the Opposition—how tragic that must have been for him—and it cost him his seat. He would have been Leader of the Opposition. But we had no difficulty in supporting him to that appointment. Why? Because he was qualified to do the job. Did we hear any screams from the opposition when we appointed Dame Leonie Kramer as the chairman of the board of the ABC? Nothing could reveal more dramatically the complete po-faced hypocrisy of Senator Alston and the opposition on this matter.

  What about with the appointment of Wendy Silver? That is raised in this stunt letter—that is what it is, and everyone knows it—to the Governor-General. I advise Senator Alston to have a look, which he has not bothered to do, at the record, the qualifications and the publications of Ms Silver. She has been executive director of the Association for the Blind in Western Australia since 1988 and a member of a raft of organisations, all appropriate to community affairs. She is, without question, qualified to be a member of the board of the ABC.

  I want to save until last the final piece of nonsense, the major piece that Senator Alston has based his complaint on—the alleged brawl between the Manager of the ABC, David Hill, and the minister. Mr Hill has a totally workable relationship with Mr Lee, as I have. Mr Hill is a robust advocate for the ABC and I hope he will always remain so. (Time expired)