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Tuesday, 25 March 1997
Page: 2369


Senator FORSHAW —My question is directed to the Minister for Communications and the Arts. Minister, do you recall your statement on the Meet the Press program on 16 March this year in which you claimed that Radio Australia operated a declining technology and that `even Foreign Affairs has very serious question marks about the effectiveness of the service'? Can you confirm that the Minister for Foreign Affairs wrote to you on 2 February this year—that is obviously prior to 16 March—expressing concern at the failure of the Mansfield inquiry to take proper account of the genuine foreign and trade policy implications of the closure of Radio Australia?

Is it true that the foreign minister advised you that Radio Australia is a cost effective means of projecting a positive image of Australia and of countering negative images which have been reinforced in our region by last year's racism debate? Did the foreign minister also highlight the effectiveness of Radio Australia in supporting the marketing of our education services in tourism?


Senator ALSTON —I am not here to publicly canvass private correspondence. What I am here to do is to regret the fact that Senator Forshaw appears not to have read—


Senator Cook —You have just misled.


Senator ALSTON —Listen, son, you're on very shaky ground at the moment.


Senator Cook —I am not `son' and I am not on shaky ground.


Senator ALSTON —If you want a character reference, we will give it to you. We are barracking hard for you. We want to see you preselected because you are doing a great job for us right where you are.

If Senator Forshaw had read the Mansfield report, on pages 41 and 42 he would see the reservations that were expressed by the department of foreign affairs. They made it clear that they had significant doubts about the effectiveness of the service. They said that a number of matters needed to be addressed. As we know, they have never at any stage—

Senator Carr interjecting


Senator ALSTON —Are you interested in Radio Australia? You would not know how to spell it. Get back to North Korea.


The PRESIDENT —Senator Alston, I invite you to answer Senator Forshaw's question and direct your remarks to me and ignore interjections.


Senator ALSTON —What Mansfield did was indicate that short wave is a declining technology. The figures quoted in that report, I think, underline that fact. As Senator Forshaw well knows, the department of foreign affairs has consistently declined opportunities to be forthcoming with funding to support the service. It ought to be quite clear that it is one thing to point to what the BBC world service does and to perhaps stand on the sidelines and say, `Wouldn't it be nice if we were able to maintain the status quo?' The fact is that it costs in excess of $20 million a year.

If the ABC is to meet its budget reduction of $55 million, as you well know, the $28 million from the One ABC policy, announced in December last year, goes about halfway towards meeting that target. If you want to argue that somehow you ought to preserve Radio Australia in its entirety and, as a result, force the ABC to discontinue a number of programs, to slash and burn in regional Australia, to cut back dramatically on news and current affairs, then it is a very interesting set of priorities that you have, because I do not think the Australian public agree with that.

The Australian public wants the Mansfield report adopted. It wants guarantees of entrenchment in relation to news and current affairs, rural and remote services and children's television. It wants all of those built into the charter, which you have consistently refused to do and which Mansfield says is well overdue. I am delighted that Senator Schacht has finally come around to the party. He is obviously having a big lie down after last night's debate. The fact is that the ALP has belatedly realised that the ABC is vulnerable unless the charter entrenches those sorts of protections.

If you are going to entrench them, the money has to be there to deliver the goods. If you want to see Radio Australia preserved at the cost of $20 million, then you are inevitably going to force the ABC to get into slash and burn mode for the rest of its services. That is not what we want to see happen. That is not what the Australian community wants to see happen. Indeed, they want it fully protected. So you cannot have it both ways. You have to be a bit responsible. I am delighted you are chairing the committee, and it is a pity you could not get yourself a proper time frame that would have enabled you to give us some recommendations that were relevant to the budget.


Senator Faulkner —You're a liar.


Senator ALSTON —The fact is that you still have an obligation to look at this issue in a responsible fashion and decide what the priorities ought to be. If you think they are offshore rather than domestic, you are right out of touch.


The PRESIDENT —Senator Faulkner, would you withdraw that remark?


Senator Faulkner —I withdraw, Madam President.


Senator FORSHAW —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. It is Radio Australia that is on shaky ground here because of the decisions of your government to rip $55 million out of the ABC budget. What you have done is you have given Radio Australia a death sentence and then said, `What do you want—death by hanging or death by a firing squad?' Minister, the point is that Minister Downer wrote to you on 2 February. Given that Mr Downer had already written to you on 2 February expressing his serious concerns, why did you—assuming you were aware of the letter—make the comments that you did on the Meet the Press program on 16 March? Minister, did you read the letter from Mr Downer—and I point out that it is now available on the Internet so, if you would like to go surfing, you will find it there—or is it the case that you treated Mr Downer like the rest of your colleagues treat him; that is, you just did not take him or his letter seriously?


Senator ALSTON —That is a very cheap and sleazy comment. It is clearly contrary to standing orders. I think, as I have already said, what you would expect a responsible government to do is to canvass a number of important issues between ministers and to make sure that all the arguments stack up before the decisions are taken.

There are a number of colleagues that need to be consulted in respect of decisions of this significance and, quite clearly, I respect Mr Downer's views. He has a very important role to play in judging Australia's place in the region. But that does not give you the sort of glib answer that you want.

The fact is that there are people in the region who can get access to information, news and current affairs, that was undreamed of when short wave was in its prime. It has been declining consistently over the last 15 years, as Mansfield points out, and there are other means of ensuring that people are able to get access to the information they require. (Time expired)