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Thursday, 8 September 1983
Page: 564

Mr DUFFY (Minister for Communications)(12.29) —Firstly, I thank those honourable members who participated in this debate. Last night the honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd), on behalf of the Opposition, dealt with the substantive matters to a greater degree than most honourable members on the other side of the House did. They dealt largely with matters which justifiably concerned them in respect of the areas that they represent. However, I would like to reply briefly to a couple of matters. Last evening the honourable member for O'Connor (Mr Tuckey) raised the question of television in the Mount Marshall area. He indicated that the matter had been referred to in the Budget for many years and had been removed this year on the basis that there were not too many votes in that area for the Australian Labor Party. The fact is that the Mount Marshall matter has never been in the Estimates. It has in fact been in successive three- and five-year plans and it is still in the current five-year plan. I think the honourable member for O'Connor will now understand that what he claimed last night was not correct.

The honourable member for McPherson (Mr White) raised various matters related to the backlog in planning. I make it quite clear that the backlog in planning in the Broadcasting Division, which is at the heart of much of the difficulty we have in the broadcasting area, together with the almost permanent paralysis of the previous Government in making decisions in this area, has caused considerable difficulty. This Government has carried out its election commitment to make available $1m-$550,000 this year and the balance next year-to start clearing that backlog. Of course, that will meet many of the problems raised by the honourable member for McPherson, who has a very genuine concern, as do all other honourable members, for the local matters they raised. I also feel that the honourable member for McPherson was really talking about a different type of licensing altogether. It was interesting to note his views on that matter, but it seems to me to be something we will have to consider sometime in the future.

The honourable member for La Trobe (Mr Milton) again raised problems about the Dandenong Ranges. I refer, as he did, to the question he asked in this House the other day. Although I cannot give a specific date for the commencement of construction there, the Department of Communications is proceeding with the utmost speed and I hope that more definite information will be available soon. I must say to the honourable member for La Trobe that the problems there involving the Department of Communications are not matters for which the Department of Communications can be held responsible. They relate to the miserable, penny- pinching attitude of the previous Government in relation to making resources available to that Department.

The honourable member for Maranoa (Mr Ian Cameron) always enters such debates because of his concern for people in remote areas in his electorate. I would like to correct one matter that he raised. He said that Telecom Australia tried to stop the satellite system. I make it quite clear that Telecom did not try to stop the system. There was some opposition from Telecom unions, but I suggest that the honourable member for Maranoa ought to distinguish between the organisation itself and views which may be expressed by unions in the area. He also raised what I found a rather interesting concept for a member of the National Party of Australia. He seemed to be contemplating direct broadcasting from the satellite by the networks, a view which I would not have thought would be shared by very many of his colleagues.

The honourable member for Grey (Mr O'Neil) also raised the backlog problems in his electorate, which is another vast electorate. The backlog in planning in the broadcasting area is something we are doing what we can to meet as quickly as we can. The concern expressed by the honourable member for Grey for the regional stations has been noted.

I thank the honourable member for Indi (Mr Ewen Cameron) for his kind remarks. I know of the problems in his area. Many people do not realise that it is not only the very remote areas that have difficulties with respect to television and radio. I would not think that Wangaratta would be described as remote, but I can remember over many years the difficulties there, not with television because it did not exist in those days, but certainly with radio reception. I appreciate the matters raised by the honourable member for Indi.

The honourable member for Stirling (Mr Ronald Edwards) spoke about matters more directly related to the Bills. He raised the issue of the third television station in Perth. Of course, this is a matter that the Government will address in the near future. I also thank other honourable members who spoke on the Bills last night for their contributions, including the honourable member for Isaacs ( Mr Charles) and the honourable member for Deakin (Mr Saunderson). The honourable member for Isaacs dealt with the question of Australian content in television and the honourable member for Deakin dealt with the instrumentalities involved, particularly Telecom.

I do not propose to go over again the matters set out in my second reading speech. But in view of the issues raised by the Opposition, particularly the honourable member for Murray, and repeated by other Opposition members this morning, it is necessary to emphasise certain matters because it is clear that the Opposition does not understand the facts with regard to these Bills. The honourable member for Murray quoted from my second reading speech where I said:

The main purpose of imposing a fee on companies licensed to earn income from broadcasting is to contribute to overall Commonwealth revenues.

This is a fact, and the Government does not make any apology for this statement. From listening to the honourable member for Murray one would think that these fees represented a new measure for raising funds. In particular, he and other members of the Opposition were critical of the fact that fees are assessed on average gross earnings. It is necessary to remind those opposite-and let us hope it gets through to them eventually-that this system has operated since 1964. It is nauseating nonsense to hear those opposite whinging about a method of assessment introduced by them and maintained by them from 1964 to 1972 and from 1975 to when they were finally thrown out of office in March this year.

In respect of that matter, I refer to the fact that in 1981-82, when the last major increases took place under the Fraser Government in licence fees for radio stations and television stations, the Bills were classified as tax Bills. I think that is something that particularly the honourable member for Murray should take account of. In those years the licence fees payable far exceeded the cost of administration allocated to the Department of Communications and the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal. It is therefore nonsense for those opposite to pretend that the licence fees during that period related to cost recovery. They did not relate to cost recovery-they far exceeded the administrative costs involved-and in that period it was clearly a taxation measure. In order that this matter might be clarified once and for all for some who seem to have some difficulty in comprehending, I would like to refer to the debate that took place on the Broadcasting Stations Licence Fees Bill in 1981. On that occasion the right honourable member for New England (Mr Sinclair), referring to his proposal to amend the Broadcasting Stations Licence Fees Act and the Television Licence Fees Act 1964, said:

Honourable members will be aware that those Acts impose fees in the nature of a royalty charge, thus following the practice common to all governments of ensuring that the public gains some benefit from the commercial utilisation of public resources.

I refer the honourable member for Murray to page 2,292 of Hansard for 21 October 1981 in order that he can be clear on that issue. Further, in the Senate on 27 August 1981, in respect of the same Bills, Senator Peter Baume showed his great flair and originality by quoting the exact words used by the right honourable member for New England when the Bills were introduced into this chamber.

The issue is clear. The radio frequency spectrum is a scarce natural resource on which the community is entitled to expect a fair return when it is used for monetary gain. I repeat: The measures contained in these Bills will affect only one radio station-the one with the highest turnover-out of 134 stations and will affect 16 television stations with the highest turnover out of a total of 50 commercial television stations. There will be a small increase in licence fees for television stations with average gross earnings in excess of $9m.

It was appalling to listen to Opposition members attempting to paint themselves as supporters of public enterprise when their actions in government represented public sector bigotry dressed up as economic rationalism. In fairness it must be said that the honourable member for Murray conceded that the previous Government required the Overseas Telecommunications Commission to pay dividends, and he should be reminded that such dividends were above a prudent level. Telecom Australia and Australia Post during the period of the Fraser Government were subjected to the Davidson Inquiry into Telecommunications Services in Australia and the Bradley Committee of Inquiry into the Monopoly Position of the Australian Postal Commission. They recommended taxation levels on these authorities which would have had a devastating effect. Had these recommendations been implemented it would have been impossible for Telecom or Australia Post to have a profit situation. It is also necessary to refer to a Press release of 25 August by the honourable member for Murray. He said:

And now that Australia Post has announced a profit for 1982-83 of about $89m, will it be next on the Government's hit list for taxing?

The profit figure of $89m was repeated by the honourable member for Murray in this debate. I thought it might have been a misprint in the Press release but he repeated it last night. This claim is absolute humbug. The actual profit of Australia Post was $8.9m, not $89m. It is hoped that the honourable member for Murray will be a little more careful in his analysis of the financial affairs of Australia Post. While I am discussing Australia Post I think it should be pointed out that the Government has confirmed that following consideration of the Bradley report the basic functions and duties of Australia Post will remain untouched. We as a government are committed to the development of an efficient postal system on the basis of a publicly owned national utility. We have endorsed the following proposals: The extension of postal services such as Australia Post Express courier; the use of electronic mail; the use of post offices for additional agency services in both the public and private sector, and a revision of leasing provisions of the Postal Services Act to allow Australia Post to use and develop its property to maximum potential. Those matters gave considerable delight to Australia Post because we were giving it what it wanted to improve its performance and to avoid the position in which it was left during the period of the last government when those services were not available to it. I remind honourable members opposite that the Australia Post courier service was ripped off Australia Post as one of the decisions taken by the infamous razor gang of the Fraser Government. Telecom can now plan without having hanging over its head fears of profitable areas being hived off to private enterprise, leaving it in a position of having to carry the unprofitable areas. I find it very strange that members of the National Party particularly do not fully understand that had many of the recommendations of the Davidson inquiry been put into effect it would have been impossible for Telecom to continue to provide services in country areas at the cost at which it was able to provide then in the past. I understand that the honourable member for Murray has foreshadowed an amendment, which no doubt he will move in due course, to the Television Stations Licence Fees Amendment Bill.

Amendment negatived.

Original question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.