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Wednesday, 10 November 1976

Dr CASS (Maribyrnong) - I welcome the elaboration by the Minister for Post and Telecommunications (Mr Eric Robinson) of some of the plans which up to date have been rather sketchy. That simply highlights our criticism that the Government at least might have done the Australian community the service of tabling the Green report before it came up with these proposals so that we could have enjoyed digesting and thinking about it while the Government was making up its mind. Maybe then there would have been much less confusion and hostile reaction to the announcements. Given all that, I still would like to analyse some of the points the Minister has made. He talked about one of the basic principles on which the Green report is based being maximum public participation. It seems strange to say something like that and yet not to allow the public to discuss the report. I do not believe that the way in which the Minister is approaching this matter is realistically increasing public participation.

Let me deal with the 2 major bodies that are really concerned in this discussion, namely, the Australian Broadcasting Control Board and the Australian Broadcasting Commission. The Control Board has its functions listed on page 16 of the Green report. I will not detail them, but in essence they are fundamentally the same as the functions the Minister is suggesting for the licensing tribunal but minus some of the technical requirements such as the policing nonsense on which I completely agree with the Minister. I had been saying things like that when I was the Minister responsible for this area. I objected to the policeman-censor approach of any government agency. The Control Board is responsible for the granting, renewal, revocation and suspension of licences, and this is the sort of function to be performed by the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal. So, in that area it is not a question of more participation. There was no need to change the legislation in such a way as to completely restructure that Board in order to involve the public.

We had been talking about public hearings for licence renewals, and the Government has taken up that suggestion. It is true that we did not get to it- for many obvious reasons, not the least of which was that we did not have the numbers in the Senate, and the Minister well knows it. However, the point remains that what he is proposing will not necessarily give the public much more say in the challenging of licences, because on page 76 of the Green report where it talks about the renewal of licences we find the following sentences:

The presumption at hearings for renewal of licences should be that the licences will be renewed. Only if a prima facie case is established for denying renewal should the licensee be required to defend his performance during the preceding period.

Harking back to what I said when I first commented on the Minister's statement, that may be all right but it depends on how the Government implements it. I said that much of what the Minister is proposing is basically similar to what I have been proposing. The Minister quoted that but forgot to mention a significant qualification which is, to quote from an earlier speech of mine: 'Really the rub is how it is finally implemented'. With those comments in the Green report about the need to have a case established before the hearing goes further, it may well be that the public hearings will be as difficult to organise as they have been under the present legislation. I knew quite well that I could challenge a licence, but only on the condition that there seemed to be enough evidence to suggest that that licence should not be renewed. However, how could we know of that evidence without a public hearing? Therefore we could not get to first base. We could not organise the public hearing unless we had enough evidence, and we could not get enough evidence of community dissatisfaction unless we had public hearings. Therefore we could not have public hearings. It was as miserable, as that.

Whether we open this matter up depends on how we implement the proposals in the Green report. I hope that the Government does open it up, but it may not do so. There is room in the recommendation to leave it as tightly closed as it is right now. So, when we take away from the Broadcasting Control Board some of these functionssomething with which I certainly agreeand leave it with its main function of licensing, one is forced to ask: Why bother restructuring it at all? Why not just take some of those functions away rather than use the occasion as an excuse to get rid of certain people? The Government, oddly enough, still will have to appoint roughly the same numbers to the Tribunal- three to five people. The Control Board now has 3 full time and 2 part time members. It gives me the feeling that the Government is using the whole manoeuvre as an excuse to get rid of people it may not like. It may be that it will not get rid of them, but I can only say what my feeling is, because I do not see why the Government has taken this approach. It may be seeking this change in the legislation to suddenly get a completely new group of people on the licensing body to do the same sorts of things as the present Control Board is doing. After all, the Government already has appointed someone. Also, there are vacancies due and I understand that someone wants to retire anyway. In the course of a couple of months the Government could, without any legislation, have dominated the Board anyhow. Two of the present appointees are this Government's appointees and at least one member wants to retire. If that is what the Government has in mind, it does not have to go in for this subterfuge. If that is not what it has in mind, I do not see why it needs to change the legislation in this way. All it has to do is bring in amending legislation to take away some of the functions at 1>resent performed by the Control Board and leave the Board basically as it is.

In relation to the Australian Broadcasting Commission there is the same sort of approach. The Green report suggested some restructuring, in the sense of reducing the number of people on the Commission from nine to seven. Wisely the Government has decided to leave the number at nine, but there is nothing in the present legislation which precludes what the Government wants. In fact, the practice in past years has been to try to ensure a wide distribution and representation from all the States. When we were kicked out of office every State except Tasmania was represented but I had already found someone from Tasmania to fill a vacancy. It was a female. Hopefully I would have finished up with 2 females on the Commission, and that would have fulfilled the requirement that this Government proposes to put into the legislation. There is nothing in the legislation to preclude all the commissioners being female. If I might dare suggest it, to specify 2 females is rather sexist. There should not be any need to do it. It should be up to the Government to appoint more females because obviously they represent a larger section of the community than one would gather from the representation of only one female on a body of nine.

If there was distortion in the State distribution, it is the Government's own fault. It has had a couple of vacancies available to it. It could have filled one of the vacancies with someone from Tasmania. It could have replaced Dr Hackett with somebody from Adelaide. Then all the States would have been represented. This again calls to mind the fear that the Government is using this as a pretext for doing something else. I accept the Minister's assurance that all the Labor Government's appointees are not to be sacked. I hope that they will not be sacked, because that certainly would be a very serious reflection on the Government. However, it does suggest to me that the Government is using the occasion to go back on an innovation we introduced, whereby we allowed the staff of the ABC to elect somebody and we undertook to appoint that person to the Commission. The Labor Government did not change the legislation to enable an ABC staff representative to be appointed. Such a provision is not contained in the legislation. The appointment was made simply because we agreed to that proposition. The Government could still follow that example. It is not necessary to change the Act to do so. The legislation does not need to be changed in order to prevent such an appointment. I fear that the Government is using this manoeuvre as an excuse, in fact, to provide some legitimacy to finding suddenly, when it appoints the 9 Commissioners, that it does not have room for somebody to represent the staff of the ABC. I think that is a shortsighted approach on the part of the Government. It will encounter a lot of opposition not only within the ABC but also within the community. The Government is concerned about productivity. It has appointed a Minister for Productivity to look into this area. This inevitably will entail more worker participation in the management of various undertakings. This was the motivation of the Labor Government in appointing to the ABC someone elected by the staff of the ABC. The staff did not elect a person to the Commission; it merely elected someone whom it then proposed to the then Government. The Labor Government took up the option and appointed that person as an ABC commissioner. This Government should continue to make such appointments. I fear the motives of the Government because if what it has in mind is not an intention to scrub this appointment, I see no reason why it should bother to change the legislation in the way in which it appears to be bent on doing. I accept from what has appeared so far that nothing else is to be done to the ABC. What is the reason for the change in the legislation? What is the reason for making these silly specifications in the legislation about the need for a commissioner from each State? It has the power to achieve this result now. It was the fault of the Government if in the past the ABC Commissioners were dominated by representatives from the State of New South Wales.

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

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