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Tuesday, 6 December 1983
Page: 3304

Mr DUFFY (Minister for Communications) —by leave-The Special Broadcasting Service-SBS-is a statutory body established under the Broadcasting and Television Act 1942, which commenced operations on 1 January 1978. Its charter at that time was to provide multilingual radio services through stations 2EA Sydney and 3EA Melbourne. In January 1980, acting on the recommendations of the Ethnic Television Review panel, the previous Government announced that a permanent multicultural television service-MTV-would be introduced by October of the same year. It proposed to expand the SBS into the Independent and Multicultural Broadcasting Corporation-IMBC. In February 1980 the Government further announced that an IMBC Implementation Committee had been established to liaise between the SBS and the propsoed IMBC; the Committee was to oversight the activities of a task force especially created to establish the multicultural television service.

The Fraser Government introduced legislation to establish the IMBC in May 1980, but the Senate referred the Bill to its Standing Committee on Education and the Arts, where it quickly expired. Although the Government then announced that the SBS would be restructured to enable it to handle MTV, at this point it simply ran out of steam and no further legislative action was taken. One can only have sympathy for the people from the SBS, Telecom Australia and my Department who, despite a totally unrealistic timetable and this legislative and administrative shambles, put multicultural television to air on time, in October 1980. It should be noted that it normally takes at least 18 months to put an English language television station to air. Faced with defective legislation, restricted resources and muddled directives from the Government, the SBS nevertheless managed to commence broadcasts in several languages in both Sydney and Melbourne right on target, just eight months after day one.

However, it is clear that the pressures under which SBS has had to operate have taken their toll. There has not been any sustained or serious attempt to consult with ethnic communities, or the community generally, about the nature of the SBS , its programming philosophies, and its long term goals. As a result, there are very few people of ethnic background in senior management and the Board is not adequately representative of the ethnic communities. Despite the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars, the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, and the well -meant contributions of its staff, the SBS is an unhappy organisation.

During the recent election campaign, the Australian Labor Party made all of these points in its policy statement, entitled 'Ethnic Radio and Multicultural Television'. We said there that ethnic broadcasting has been a valuable development in our society. Whether it be through multilingual radio, allowing the communities to talk among themselves, or multicultural television, allowing us all to understand and appreciate a little better the richness of the cultures our migrants have brought with them, ethnic broadcasting recognises that Australia is a multicultural society in which people of various backgrounds are accorded equal respect and consideration. Substantial groups with similar ethnic , cultural and linguistic backgrounds are entitled to media outlets which are sympathetic to their needs. They are also entitled to independence of government in those media outlets. There are no compelling reasons why the SBS should be more closely controlled in programming areas than the other national broadcaster , the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The purpose of any organisational arrangements should not be to make people of non-English speaking origin second class citizens, but to provide them with the same information and the same access to a diversity of ideas and opinions of people of Anglo-Saxon background. Such services are not privileges to be granted under conditions imposed by government, but the right of all Australians.

Accordingly, we believe that change is inevitable. The Government is still committed to the expansion of multicultural television to all States and Territories and the timetable has already been approved. Although we would like to see a much greater involvement of public stations, we also support the continued expansion of multi-lingual radio. However, some adaptations are needed to existing structures to make ethnic broadcasting more responsive, more efficient and more independent of government.

It is no secret that the SBS has been the subject of complaints. On 28 March 1983, shortly after the Government took office, the latest of these occurred when two film distributors wrote to me objecting to SBS program purchasing practices. I therefore asked Mr J. Oswin, a First Division officer in my Department, to review SBS program commissioning and purchasing policies and to report making recommendations concerning future arrangements. Mr Oswin found no evidence of corrupt practice within the SBS. However, he did identify acquisition practices which he regarded as:

unethical, contrary to established industry practice and discriminatory if not by design then in their effect.

He went on to say:

notwithstanding the substantial level of business directed towards local distributors by SBS, the claims of the local distributors are still of substance .

Those are short quotes from Mr Oswin's report referring to only one particular issue and it would be quite unfair to imply that they are typical of his findings. However, these conclusions, and some equally critical comment regarding the payment of withholding tax, are sufficient to make the Government feel that a full and frank public discussion of the past performance and future role of the SBS is now overdue. Accordingly, I have tabled both Mr Oswin's report and the response from the Board of the SBS. It will be clear from these documents that the Board does not accept many of Mr Oswin's findings. This is its right and it is entitled to put its case to the public and the Parliament.

The Government has also decided to appoint a Committee of Review of the SBS. Briefly, our intention is that the review should examine and make recommendations upon the operational policies, administration, accountability and organisational arrangements of the SBS. We have also asked it to indicate whether other arrangements might be more appropriate and to comment upon the extent to which other broadcasters, such as public broadcasters or the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, might be involved in the provision of multilingual radio and multicultural television services. I expect to name the members of the Committee of Review at an early date. However, it will be obvious to interested members that the men and women who are to serve on it will need to be people of high character and ability. The parallels with the Dix Committee of Review of the Australian Broadcasting Commission are clear; our hope and expectation is that this Committee also will make an historic contribution to Australian broadcasting and Australian society by providing us with the blueprint for the 1980's which the SBS to this point has been denied.

The terms of reference of the review of the Special Broadcasting Service are as follows:

1. Having regard to:

(a) The Government's desire to foster multiculturalism and the provision of multilingual radio and multicultural television services;

(b) the statutory powers and functions of the Special Broadcasting Service- SBS -as set out in the Broadcasting and Television Act 1942 and the Broadcasting and Television (Special Broadcasting Service) Regulations; and

(c) the services provided by other broadcasters;

the review shall examine and make recommendations on the following matters:

(i) The operational and programming policies, administration, accountability and organisational arrangements of the SBS;

(ii) whether other arrangements including, for example, amalgamation with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, might be more appropriate for the provision of multilingual and multicultural services;

(iii) how such services might best be developed in the future;

(iv) the extent to which other broadcasters such as public broadcasters or the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, might be involved in the provision of such services;

(v) the principles which should govern greater community participation in the provision and development of such services;

(vi) structures to ensure sensitivity to ethnic community needs and wishes and to promote adequate consultation with ethnic communities;

(vii) means by which multilingual radio and multicultural television services might adequately provide for the information and educational needs of migrants, including English language learning; and

(viii) consequential changes in legislative or administrative arrangements.

2. The final report of the review is to be forwarded to the Minister for Communications by 30 June 1984 and there may be interim reports on particular issues.