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Thursday, 19 March 1987
Page: 1197

Mr CHARLES(9.40) —Mr Deputy Speaker, until the remarks were made by the previous speaker, the honourable member for Warringah (Mr MacKellar), you may have been a little confused about what the Radio Licence Fees Amendment Bill, the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill (No. 2) and the Broadcasting Amendment Bill (No. 2) were all about.

Mr MacKellar —Not at all.

Mr CHARLES —I said: `Until you spoke'. As the honourable member said, the legislation is about radio and television licence fees. As the honourable member also mentioned, last year those licence fees raised around $68 million-just under $61 million for television and $7.3 million for radio. I am informed that the figure for this year is projected to be in the vicinity of $100m. The legislation before the House not only relates to annual radio and television licence fees, but also it also reorganises and cleans up the legislation in a number of very significant administrative ways which I think will be beneficial to everyone in the industry and which will in fact save the Government money in administrative costs. Having said that, I wish to get back to the subject of the one hundred or so million dollars that will be raised by the fees. The honourable member for Warringah said that the legislation related to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I inform the honourable member that it does not relate to the ABC. The moneys raised by these licence fees go into Consolidated Revenue. These moneys have always been collected by governments, conservative or Labor, and have been put into Consolidated Revenue. They have never been offset, and no one has ever suggested that they be offset, against the ABC. Maybe someone can think about that at some stage. We may have raised a point that we can think about. But this never has been the case and I am quite sure that this Government will continue to collect the fees and not offset them. The next conservative government when it gets elected in 20 years time will probably continue to do the same thing.

I think there are a number of people in this Parliament-I must say on both sides of the House-who seem to have a great paranoia about the ABC. I find this behaviour never ending. The honourable member for Warringah quite rightly picked up a particular incident that happened on the ABC. But we never really hear about what happens in respect of the commercial stations. I could bring into the House a list as long as one's arm about the incidents that have occurred on commercial stations. In fact, four or five years ago when we were in opposition I made a speech in this House relating to a 60 Minutes program in which Jana Wendt compared Telecom in Australia with Telecom in Canada. She conveniently told half the truth. She conveniently forgot to tell the other half of the truth. I remember quite vividly that she claimed that local calls in Canada were free. She forgot to say that local calls in Canada are very suburban. Basically the calls are free only within a suburb and if one goes outside a suburb one gets into subscriber trunk dialling calls. So in Canada the individual finishes up paying twice as much as people pay in Australia. But she forgot to say that. She totally misrepresented the truth and the facts of the matter when engaging in what was at that time a Telecom bashing exercise.

The list goes on. But we do not hear too much about that. Honourable members from both sides of the House scream if something happens on the ABC. We talk about whether the ABC should be funded and whether or not licence fees should be introduced. I think that is all a load of nonsense. Wendy McCarthy is the Acting Chairman of the ABC at present. The complaint which the honourable member for Warringah raised went to her and it was dealt with. The Government will be announcing the name of the new Chairman in the very near future. I would like to get away from the situation where people think of the ABC as some arm of the Government, that we should be controlling it or some such nonsense. That is not the case. It is an independent authority which operates out of taxpayers' funds in contrast with the commercial operators who operate commercially. But in actual fact in the broadcasting industry the ABC is no different to the commercial broadcasters. I have said in this House many times that we should be trying to pull the ABC out of the Public Service sector. We have done that to some extent. But this should happen to a much greater degree because it is not part of the Public Service sector. It is part of the broadcasting industry. If I have one complaint in this respect it is that it will be detrimental to the ABC as a whole if people in that organisation think of themselves as long-term public servants.

I would like to make a couple of other points. We have seen recently a great revolution within the broadcasting industry. We have seen companies buying and selling each other, which is not bad in itself. Some of the prices being paid are astronomical. I think the smartest person has been Kerry Packer who has sold out for $1 billion. I suspect that within another 12 months he will probably buy back in for about $500m. I think the new owners probably will be in financial strife trying to finance the operation. I have heard of a radio station that has been bought for about $8.5m and which at the moment is probably not worth any more than $2m or $2.5m. The arithmetic does not add up, and what is happening is quite insane. However, the free marketeers have to live with what is going on. They have to make money. If they cannot they should not come screaming to the Government. They have made their own bed and they should lie in it.

I am concerned about the way in which all of the networks do or do not respond to the aspirations and expectations of people. Earlier in the debate we heard the comments by the honourable member for Stirling (Mr Ronald Edwards) about Channel 9 not putting on the final of the Sheffield Shield Cricket-I think it starts tomorrow-when obviously many people want to see it. I believe that that channel has changed its mind to some extent. But many of the networks do not supply appropriate programming over the full 12 months of the year. I think the ratings should be taken over the entire 12 month period. If television stations cannot supply adequate programming they probably should not scream when others say `We will supply it' or when people start talking about cable television or radiated subscription television. They cannot scream about hotel or club television.

I would like to make a bargain with them in some respects. I have not mentioned to the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) before that I am not too happy about hotel and club television. This type of service worries me to some extent. Today or yesterday I read in a newspaper that someone had sold the football rights to show the last half of Victorian Football League games of a Friday night. One has to go around to the hotel or club or hospitals-about two hospitals in Australia would pay the money for that-to see the games. Basically, the program will be taken by hotels or clubs. Theoretically, we are saying to people: `You can go and watch the football live or if you go down to the pub and get half sloshed you can see it on the big screen and that will be terrific. On the other hand, if you want to stay home with your family you cannot. You have to watch the fifth re-run of Starsky and Hutch'. I think there are dangers in the proliferation of direct broadcasting into hotels and clubs, because in some respects, these outlets provide unfair competition to the normal television channels. On the other hand, as I have mentioned, the television networks must supply adequate programming. If they do not, they will have to cop the competition from elsewhere, whether that be from the clubs or from services such as cable television. Cable television will come along if the networks do not supply adequate programs across Australia and local programs to people in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney or wherever the place may be. I think cable television will be a while down the track but it could be enhanced if the networks do not wake up to themselves.

I agree with the quite substantial changes in television that we have seen. The Government made a decision on that last year and we will see the quite extensive legislative changes implemented in the next couple of months. One thing I would like to see is a little more regulation from the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal with direction from the Government in regard to programming with a possibility of separating program production, particularly drama program production, as has happened in some places in America where the networks themselves are not allowed to undertake program production. They must buy from outside, from independent production companies. In this sense, having made the networks basically more profitable and stronger, as the new legislation will, I think we should be regulating a little more; demanding a little more from the networks in Australian content and Australian drama; enhancing the program production arena; and helping the very good people in that industry by insisting that much more comes from outside the networks themselves.

If the networks are able to bring most productions from birth right through to the finish from within their own set-ups, in the long run we will stifle employment. If basically the entire employment structure is centred around three commercial networks and we are off sides with one or two people within the industry we will basically be out of a job. A number of production companies in Australia will grow if they are given a chance to produce. This will be much better for the industry and it will also flow on to our film industry. In this country and in many places around the world most of the top directors and writers have come into films from television. Some of the great directors of the world have gone down that path.

The Bills before the House rearrange the licence fee collection. They are a part of a re-organisation which makes it much better administratively for the Government. In essence, the fees collected are relatively the same under this legislation as they were under the old legislation. This legislation will make their collection administratively better and clean up the Act so that we will be in a much better position to collect these fees in a more appropriate way in future. I do not agree with the honourable member for Warringah who spoke before me about relating these fees to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I think that is a total nonsense. That is a separate issue again which raises the whole question of licence fees which were abolished by the Whitlam Government. As I have said, that is a matter for another debate and one which I do not think I will start this evening. I commend the Bills to the House.