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Monday, 27 June 1994
Page: 2018

Senator BOURNE (4.13 p.m.) —The wording of this matter of public importance suggests that the ABC is in the grip of a crisis, or something very close to it. The Australian Democrats do not agree with that assessment. The ABC seems to us to be carrying out its responsibilities as a public broadcaster with a very strong commitment to quality and the courage to break new ground. But there are problems. The ABC is yet to reconcile its role as a public broadcaster with its commercial services, namely Australia Television and the forthcoming pay TV service. To the extent that the ABC is unsure about its direction, that seems to be why.

  In our view, the ABC's public broadcasting role risks being distorted by its commercial activities. The best solution is for the government to fully fund ATV and pay TV to eliminate that risk, but this has not happened. ATV has therefore called on the ABC's core funds through an internal line of credit. The ABC has assured us that its free to air services will not be affected and that sponsors will be found to fund the service.

  Without wanting to pre-empt the government's review of ATV funding, we have no reason to doubt the ABC's word. However, the government could solve this problem in a much more satisfactory way by fully funding this important charter activity itself. Failing that, the government should separately fund any Australia Television shortfall to release the ABC from doing so.

  The Democrats await with interest the outcome of the review of the Minister for Communications and the Arts (Mr Lee) of ATV funding. If the minister wants to insulate the ABC's free to air services from commercial pressures while providing a high quality international television service—and I certainly hope he does—he should consider the options which I have outlined.

  As for pay TV, the ABC has again been left in an invidious position by this government, having been allocated two satellite licences by the parliament but inadequate money to fund them. Inevitably, the ABC is being forced to act as a commercial broadcaster to get this service up and running. It has been argued that the ABC has no role in pay TV and the board may yet decide not to proceed. The Democrats believe the ABC should be in pay TV. Surveys suggest that pay TV could become a serious rival to free to air in the medium term. It will be much more difficult for the ABC to get in on the act at that point. The ABC's effectiveness as a public broadcaster could be seriously diminished if it is excluded from pay TV. Conversely, the quality and Australian content of pay TV would be raised with ABC participation. The government should fully fund the ABC's pay TV activities or at least fund any shortfall as a separate budget item.

  One of the triggers for this debate has been the suggested appointment to the ABC board of former South Australian Premier John Bannon, amongst others. The Democrats believe that any party political appointment requires a very strong justification and should under no circumstances be a reward for political service or a way of making the board more receptive to the government. While we do not suggest that Mr Bannon's appointment has been made for those reasons, we are not sure on what basis it was made and we will look forward to the answers provided by the Governor-General to Senator Alston.

  The Democrats are very strong supporters of the ABC and, as Senator Collins said, of SBS. We believe they are two of the very best national broadcasters in the world. We also believe that the ABC's commercial broadcasting ventures have left it with real problems, largely as the result of government penny-pinching. The solution, though, is in the government's hands.