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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 11412


Senator TCHEN (5:19 PM) —In the matter of public importance before the Senate which states that there is a need to protect the independence and integrity of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from political interference by the Howard government, and in particular by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Alston, I wonder whether Senator Mackay means that the ABC does not need to be protected from political interference from anyone else. This matter of public importance is politically very biased. Before we look at it, let us have a look at the ABC's independence and accountability to the Australian community.

In the current budget, 2003-04, the ABC receives $780 million from the Australian people. That is about $38 per head of population—$38 from every man, woman and child in Australia. We know that $38 is not a large sum of money. True, it will get you a lot more than a hamburger and fries; in fact, it will get you a gourmet steak dinner in most places in Australia, with more than enough left over for a generous tip. But $38 is not a large sum of money for a quality, national broadcasting service. I think we can all agree on that. When the ABC accepts this public money—and let it be noted that this money was not thrust upon it; the ABC actively went out and sought it and indeed sought a lot more of it, $200 million more—the ABC must also accept a responsibility to be fully accountable to the people of Australia for that money, and that means accountable to parliament, the legal and constitutional embodiment of the Australian public.

Under section 8(1)(c) of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act, the ABC is required to provide an accurate and impartial news and current affairs service. This is a statutory responsibility that has been laid down by the parliament, which provides the ABC with this funding. I do not think anyone would disagree that a quality, national broadcasting service is synonymous with an accurate and impartial news and current affairs service. It is surely only proper for the ABC to be fully accountable to the parliament for adherence to its statutory responsibility to provide an accurate and impartial news and current affairs service.

Senator Mackay, in her opening speech, complained that the reason she raised this matter of public importance for discussion was that the ABC is not accountable to the government—it is only accountable to the parliament. Let me make two important point about this: firstly, constitutionally, a government must have the confidence of the parliament and, as long as it has the confidence of the parliament, it acts for the parliament. If it does not act properly for the parliament, then it loses its confidence. I would put it to Senator Mackay, were she here, that in this context parliament and government are synonymous. The second point I would make about Senator Mackay's complaint is that Senator Alston has not in fact asked the ABC to be accountable to the government; he has asked the ABC to be accountable to the parliament—that is all—not to government.

Senator Cherry, in his speech on behalf of the Democrats, complained that we should not be complaining about bias in the ABC. Presumably that means that Senator Cherry accepts the ABC's bias. He said that we should not complain about the ABC being biased, because what about the Murdoch media? According to Senator Cherry, they are consistently biased. But has he not missed the point completely? The Murdoch media do not receive any public money and therefore are not accountable to the Australian public. Senator Cherry also made a great point about the ABC being accountable to the parliament. But, as we have already said, if the government does not have the confidence of the parliament, it cannot govern.

What do Senator Cherry and Senator Mackay actually mean? Perhaps they think the ABC should be accountable to the Senate—because the Australian Democrats are only represented in the Senate, the ABC should not be accountable to the parliament, only to the Senate. Where in the ABC statute does it say that the ABC should be accountable to the Senate only?


Senator Santoro —It is accountable to the people via their representatives.


Senator TCHEN —Very good, Senator Santoro. It is accountable to the people through their representatives, which is the parliament as a whole, and the government which holds the confidence of the parliament. Let us now consider how and whether the ABC's reporting of the recent Iraq war meets its statutory responsibility, which is the crux of Senator Alston's recent complaints about the ABC's consistent bias in reporting, which presumably led to this discussion.

Senator Alston has released an Iraq dossier listing 68 cases of biased reporting by the ABC within 25 days. I find it strange—and I am not sure whether you find it strange, Mr Acting Deputy President—that no-one, not one speaker from the opposition and the Democrats, made any reference to that dossier. Should we take it that they all agree that the dossier represents an irrefutable case? Of course we should and, of course, they do accept in their heart of hearts that the dossier is a true record of the ABC's biased reporting, because no-one has come up and said that it was wrong. Therefore, the issue Senator Alston has raised—an issue that very properly should be raised—is the accountability of the ABC in providing accurate and impartial reporting. (Time expired)


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Cook)—Order! The time for discussion on this matter of public importance has expired.