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Wednesday, 10 November 1976
Page: 2526


Mr E G Whitlam (WERRIWA, NEW SOUTH WALES) (Leader of the Opposition) - The Fraser Government's long-planned and carefully orchestrated campaign to stifle the Australian Broadcasting Commission has been revealed at last. The ABC is to be remodelled according to the political tastes of the Liberal Party and the wishes of the commercial broadcasting industry. That is the purpose of the so-called restructuring of broadcasting which the Minister for Post and Telecommunications (Mr Eric Robinson) announced last week. When the Fraser Government speaks of restructuring broadcasting it means restructuring the ABC. It is the ABC alone, not the commercial broadcasting stations, whose structure and control are to be changed by the Government's proposals. It is the ABC alone whose interests are threatened. It is the ABC alone which will be subjected to periodic scrutiny and review by government inquiries. It is the ABC alone whose independence and integrity are challenged.

The campaign of intimidation against the national broadcasting service has been building up for over a year. It has taken 2 principal forms, the first being cuts in the ABC's budget designed to cripple its services and demoralise its staff. The Fraser Government cut more than $lm from the Commission's budget early this year and refused requests for additional revenues to cover staff costs which have increased with indexation. This has led already to severe retrenchments in ABC staff and heavy cutbacks in local program production. Secondly, there have been direct attacks on the ABC by Liberal and National Country Party spokesmen. During the election campaign last year the present Minister for Transport (Mr Nixon) publicly attacked the ABC and demanded the appointment of a censor to monitor its current affairs programs. That is typical of a long-standing attitude of illiberality and paternalism towards the ABC by conservative politicians. Thirdly, there has been a deliberate attempt to create confusion and obscurity about the future of the national broadcasting service. For 8 months the Government refused to appoint a full-time chairman of the Commission or to confirm the permanent appointment of its qualified and respected Vice-Chairman, Dr Earle Hackett. At a time when the Commission desperately needed a full-time chairman with full authority to speak on its behalf, the Fraser Government did its best to ensure that the Commission was left rudderless and vulnerable to government pressure.

The smokescreen for its latest proposals to reshape the ABC and force it to conform to Liberal direction is the report by Mr Green. The Government is trying to present the report as some sort of justification for its actions. Not only is the report silent on most of the changes now proposed for the ABC; it is in fact opposed to them. Clearly the Government hoped that by announcing its changes first and- after a shameful and totally needless delay- releasing the Green report afterwards, the public would be persuaded to ignore the conflict between the two. There are any number of disagreements between the Green recommendations and the Fraser Government's intentions. Mr Green recommended that a broadcasting planning board be established to undertake research and planning in the policy area. The Government ignores that proposal. Mr Green envisaged a powerful role for the proposed Broadcasting Council which has been downgraded to some sort of advisory function. There was no mention in the Minister's statement of any support staff for the Council as recommended by Mr Green. The one basic matter in which the Government has more or less accepted the Green report is in the establishment of the Tribunal- a body which will be mainly concerned with the commercial stations, and whose establishment in some form or other the commercial broadcasters were openly advocating.

Where the Green report is flagrantly at variance with the Government's intentions is in the structure of the ABC, especially the reshaping of the Commission itself. The report says flatly that 'it does not support the view that there should be a representative from each State'. It labels statutory requirements for female members as being 'at the least anachronistic, and at worst sexist'. What the Government is doing is using these 2 changes- a representative from each State and 2 women members- as an excuse to sack the whole Commission. It is using a sop to primitive federalism and a sop to women as an excuse to disband the Commission and to appoint its own sympathisers. I say 'an excuse' because, if the Government wants to appoint 2 women and a commissioner from each State, there is nothing in the present Act to prevent it from doing so.

The Green report made only one recommendation on the structure of the Commission- that the number of members be reduced from nine to seven. That recommendation has been rejected.

It all adds up to this: The Government's plain intention is to remove from the Commission people it cannot trust or cannot control. In particular, it is determined to remove the person democratically elected by the staff of the ABC- Mr Marius Webb. It wants a Commission wholly sympathetic to Liberal Party ideas and hostile to experiment, to innovation, to challenge, to dissent. At the same time it will be appointing all the new members of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, and thereby removing all members of the old Broadcasting Control Board appointed by the Labor government- especially Dr Patricia Edgar and Dr Geoff Evans. The Government realises that the only way it can control these bodies, the only way it can scrap Labor's appointments and get rid of anyone else it dislikes, is to scrap the organisations themselves and appoint new ones. So with the Government's proposed legislation it will acquire absolute control over all the organisations running the national and commercial electronic media- the ABC, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, the Broadcasting Council. The result will be an opportunity for political surveillance of broadcasting unknown before in Australia 's history, and without precedent in the Western world.

I would not want it thought that the Opposition is attacking the Green report. It is a far more enlightened and sensible document than this Government deserves, or in all probability expected. It is at pains to seek administrative and supervisory machinery for broadcasting which will be as independent of government as possible. It proposes that the Tribunal have power to hold hearings and set standards and directly grant licences rather than merely recommend their granting and leave decisions to government. The Minister's statement last Thursday, vague and sketchy though it was, apparently accepted this recommendation. The Minister insisted, however, that the Government would still undertake what he called 'broadcasting planning'. The difference between the report and his statement is that the report is mainly concerned with matters concerning commercial broadcasting, while the Government is mainly concerned, indeed remains obsessed, with the ABC. For example, Mr Green recommends that the Tribunal hold public inquiries into the crucial question of licence renewal. This would impose important tests of public accountability on the commercial licensees- an opportunity for continuing review of their standards and services. The Government has rejected this recommendation.

The only broadcasting services to be subjected to periodic inquiry are those of the ABC. As the Minister said:

The services provided by the ABC will be subject to a periodic review by an independent public inquiry, with the first such inquiry being undertaken in 1 980.

Why should the ABC be subjected to a degree of scrutiny and surveillance from which commercial stations are exempt? Why should the Government ignore recommendations by Mr Green which are opposed by the commercial interests and prefer changes which are hostile to the ABC? As the Australian Financial Review reported this morning:

Federal Cabinet has ignored many of the substantive changes to Australian broadcasting recommended by the Green Report and in some cases has made decisions contrary to the report's recommendations . . . The report leaves the government open to attack from those critics who believe that it is out to 'get' the ABC . . . The Green Report has recommended that public hearings be undertaken by the tribunal when licences are up for renewal - ... But to date the government has not specifically opted for the notion of public renewal hearings ... So the upshot of Cabinet's decisions is more power over broadcasting planning for the department of Post and Telecommunications, a toothless Broadcasting Council and a Broadcasting Tribunal with marginally more powers and personnel than its predecessor . . . And the government is free to fill every position on the new tribunal if it so chooses.

The machinery for controlling the membership of the ABC and the Tribunal is only part of the story. The Fraser Government is also assuming direct control of the operation of all radio and TV transmitters. At present this is the responsibility of the Australian Telecommunications Commission. It will now pass into the hands of the Department- in other words, from an independent authority to a government department. It is legitimate that the planning and allocation of frequencies should be the direct concern of the Government, but why should the Government be controlling the means of transmission as well? Imagine the outrage if a Labor Government had proposed that the Department of the Media- or any government departmentassume control of the printing presses of Australian newspapers.

Only this morning the Government's intentions were publicly revealed by the Federal President of the National Country Party. Mr Solomons issued a statement commending what he called 'the Government's latest moves to return balance and stability to Australia's broadcasting industry'. It is easy to see which section of broadcasting the Country Party has in mind because Mr Solomons' statement deals almost entirely with the ABC. It refers to the 'obvious need for a wide-ranging review of the activities of the Australian Broadcasting Commission.' I do not mind reading from the statement because I am quite happy to give it maximum publicity. It makes it perfectly clear that the intention of the Fraser Government is to inhibit all ABC news and comment which it regards as hostile to the Government. Here it is spelt out by the head of the junior coalition partner. According to him, 'a great deal of work still remains to be done' to 'correct the imbalance and reduce the bias' of ABC programs. For 'bias' read 'fair to the Labor Party'. Mr Solomon's statement goes on:

The intention of the Federal Government ... is to guarantee, for a long time to come, completely unbiased, Balanced and impartial presentation of ABC news and public affairs programs.

Mark those words- 'to guarantee for a long time to come'. The Government wants to stifle the ABC completely and permanently.

The lesson for all Australians is this: But for the ABC, the monopolisation of the private ownership of newspapers in this country would extend to broadcasting as well. Only the ABC stands in the way of complete domination of Australian radio and television by the major newspaper interests. Not only does the ABC provide the sole objective and impartial source of news and information in this country; it provides a check to the domination of private newspaper owners and a touchstone of quality, of excellence, however flawed, by which all other services may be judged. Weaken the ABC, undermine the ABC, destroy the independence of the ABC, and the delicate fabric of public trust and respect for the ABC will disappear. The tradition of quality and dependability for which the ABC is renowned will be removed. It is not necessary for the Government actually to take over the Commission; it is sufficient merely that it can do so if it wishes, that people are ready to believe that the Commission can be stacked with Liberal supporters and its independence compromised. What the Government appears to be doing, what it gives itself the power to do, is scarcely less important than what it does.

For generations conservative governments have encouraged and connived at the concentration of media ownership in private hands. The Menzies Government in the 1950s handed the control of television to a handful of newspaper proprietors who already monopolised commercial radio and the Press. Under Country Party pressure in the 1960s this monopoly was extended to rural newspaper interests as well, not to mention Sir Reginald Ansett. No attempt was made to create new radio stations or break the iron monopoly of the airwaves established by the commercial broadcasters. When Labor came to office we liberalised and extended the whole range of broadcasting services. We licensed the first new commercial radio stations for 40 years. We allowed the ABC to set up new AM stations 2JJ and 3ZZ. We established ethnic radio and frequency modulation broadcasts, which had been covertly resisted by commercial interests. The Government is still silent or dilatory on the future of these reforms.

Above all we strengthened and upheld the independence of the ABC in accordance with the ideals on which it was founded. We were determined to ensure for it a position of special primacy and honour in our national life; not an unfair competitive advantage, but a distinction and reputation to which all other media could aspire. That is what this Government is challenging. I can do no better than quote the words of Prime Minister Curtin when he appointed Mr Richard Boyer Chairman of the ABC in April 1945:

The intent of the Australian Broadcasting Act is to create a position of special independence of judgment and action for the national broadcasting instrumentality. This is inevitably the case because of its highly delicate function in broadcasting at public expense news statements and discussions which are potent influences on public opinion and attitudes. This peculiar function calls for an undoubted measure of independence for the controlling body of the national broadcasting instrumentality . . .

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (MrLucock)Order! The honourable member's time has expired.







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