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Tuesday, 12 May 1987
Page: 3011

Mr SAUNDERSON(6.10) —I must say that I rise to speak in this debate a bit bemused, having listened to the two speeches from the Opposition. With the Broadcasting (Ownership and Control) Bill, the Communications Legislation Amendment Bill and the previous legislation introduced into this House regarding regional television, television, which began in 1956 in Australia, is going through the most revolutionary change since its introduction. Given the fact that during those almost 31 years of television the Australian Labor Party has been in office for only seven years and this Government for only four years of those seven years, we have to look at what happened during the rest of the period when the present Opposition parties were in office. What we really saw then was basically no change, or minimal change, in the rules governing ownership, particularly in relation to regional areas. The status quo remained for the whole of that period.

For many years people had argued that the two-station rule did not work not only in terms of breaking down the influences that minorities might have had in terms of television production and programming but also in the sense of limiting some people to very small areas while others had a very large areas. It had been argued for quite some time that change was needed. That argument certainly was not echoed by the Opposition parties when in government. They made no effort to change things. They made no effort to look at the problems of cross-media influences. It is interesting to note that there are so many experts within the Opposition. We have already heard from two of the experts. We have been assured that we will hear from a couple more experts from the National Party of Australia. I know that there are a couple of experts on the back bench of the Liberal Party of Australia. Ian Macphee has been talking about his policy. So it appears that there are lots of experts and I am sure that some of them will certainly know more about the industry than does the shadow spokesman from the Liberal Party, the honourable member for Deakin (Mr Beale).

I do not think that my position on television ownership is any secret. I have certainly made it clear and I doubt whether people would be surprised to know that I was one of those members of Caucus who had a different view on the level of ownership. That is my personal view. But the majority within the Caucus opted for 75 per cent as the rule to apply.

Mr McVeigh —Did you get done?

Mr SAUNDERSON —It certainly is nothing new for me to get done. I see the question of ownership as something that has always been fluid and ought to remain fluid in terms of the regulations.

I believe that the problems that we face today about television ownership and the distribution of television stations arise because we were stuck with one rule for too long. The two-station rule was left in place. The problems were recognised but nothing was done about them by the Opposition parties when they were in government. In correcting those problems a lot of factors have had to be taken into account. We have ended up with a figure that some people might argue is too high-certainly that was my view in Caucus-and others argue is too low. But it is a bit hypocritical for the Opposition parties to start talking about how they are experts and about what they believe is the right figure. It seems to me from recent Press reports that the Opposition parties, when they were together and since they have been broken apart, have espoused figures that vary from 100 per cent to 22 per cent, the 43 per cent which is being pushed by the honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd) and now 75 per cent as long as there are more licences. For the Opposition parties to argue that they have a clear cut policy is just nonsense. We have seen at least five figures bandied around. We have the National Party saying that the figure should be 43 per cent and the Liberal party saying that 75 per cent is okay as long as there are more television stations.

We need to look at the position of the Liberal Party because that is where we strike the greatest sort of hypocrisy. In recent times we put up changes for regional broadcasting. We looked at ways of increasing the choice for the viewers in the regional areas. The Opposition-in particular the Liberal Party-says that what we should do is just give more licences. It has failed to look at the problems that exist in regional areas. There are many small broadcasting areas which are based around regional centres but which represent no real logic in terms of the numbers of people in the area. The Opposition fails to recognise that, if there is to be competition in an area, there has to be a large enough base from which that competition can gather revenue and have a share of the market. In a small population area one cannot just introduce more competition because in effect that will make the existing television stations, and any proposed new ones, not viable and bring about chaos and uncertainty in the industry.

With our proposal for regionalisation we did two things. One was to increase the size of the broadcasting area for each of the television stations that currently existed and by doing so to introduce the possibility for increased choice by having three stations instead of one in those areas. So, what we did in a very rational way was to provide for greater choice for the community-the thing that people had been asking for-but we also ensured the viability of the stations concerned so that there was consistency within the industry.

When the Opposition rejected in the Senate the regional television provisions, the shadow spokesman-I recognise that he had only just been put into the position, so perhaps he spoke with a bit of haste and did not realise what he was saying-put out a Press release saying that by rejecting the legislation, which provided three television stations in the regional areas where there was currently only one, it was providing the opportunity for the Government to give greater choice. So, the Opposition rejected the provision for three stations and committed everybody to stay with only one and he said that by doing that the Opposition had given people greater choice. Now he says that what we should do is grant more licences.

I am afraid that the poor shadow spokesperson, the honourable member for Deakin, has licences on the brain. He does not understand the rest of the problems. His solution to the national broadcasting situation now is to say that he will support our notion so long as we issue more licences in the capital cities. So, we will have more licences in the regions and more licences in the capital cities. We will have licences everywhere; everybody will be copping one. If people want a licence, they can come along and we will give them one. If they want to broadcast, we will give them a licence. If people want pay television we will give them a licence. Everyone can have one. We will have no regulation; we will have licences everywhere.

What about the Opposition's concern to ensure that we have a rational industry that can survive and can provide permanent broadcasting for the people in Australia? The things that are taken into account are not just the spectrum, the frequency range. With VHF and UHF we probably can put more television stations on air, but in doing so we would probably drive a couple of others bankrupt. They would all go broke.

Mr Beale —Why?

Mr SAUNDERSON —I suppose the honourable member for Deakin would argue that they would not go bankrupt because there is an unlimited supply of advertising revenue and that people are prepared to pay and pay. He would maintain that people would be prepared to keep saying that cigarette and beer companies and everyone else will just put out more money for advertising on all these stations. It is quite obvious that some of these television stations are operating on the marginal levels already. In recent days we have seen Channel 7 before the Tribunal talking about a low profit of only a couple of million dollars, given the large investments that it has made over the 12-month period. It seems to me that the one way to bring about disaster in the industry is to start issuing willy-nilly licences without any consideration for the sort of continuity in service and concern for the community in ensuring that a permanency of programming is maintained.

Under the regime proposed by members opposite-if, God help us, the Opposition did get into government and if the honourable member for Deakin were in fact the Minister for Communications-we would probably find that there would be 20 television stations and that one would be able to flick a knob and go to UHF and VHF, but the problem is that they would be there one day and gone the next. When one tuned in, one would wonder whether Channel 28 was there or whether Channel 27 was still there; although there yesterday it might be gone today, while lo and behold Channel 26 might now be on air. There would be no set programming. There must be programs; it might get a bit boring watching the old muzak and the test pattern. So, there must be programs and there must be enough of them to ensure that the programs screened by one channel are different from those screened by another or that it is not a repeat of what was screened yesterday, in which case people would not be likely to watch it. So, I think that the honourable member for Deakin needs to go away and think about the matter a bit more. The situation is a bit more complex than simply saying: `We will support your legislation if you give us another television station in Melbourne or Sydney in two years time-no later; you put out the licence and get someone up'. It is a bit more difficult and complex than that. I am sure that a few people out there in the industry would like to get the ear of the Opposition and just tell it what the problems will be-if it ever has the opportunity to implement this type of legislation.

Mr Beale —You can say that again.

Mr SAUNDERSON —I am sure that the honourable member for Deakin has a few telephone messages back there asking that he ring Channel 9 or Channel 10 or Western Australia. The other problem that we have is that the honourable member wants to bring in pay television. I am a bit surprised that the honourable member for Murray has indicated that he wants to bring in pay television for the remote areas. I would have thought that one of the things that people ought to be proud of in Australia is that we have free television, excluding the fact that we probably pay for it through the cost of advertising and through taxes. However, basically we have free television from the point of view of people able to buy a television receiver, of turning it on and watching a bit of television. I think that is a fairly good principle. I think we ought to do whatever is in our power-and this Government has tried to do it-to ensure that people in remote areas who currently do not get television enjoy that same opportunity. They are out there in the remote areas, trying to develop Australia-and they are providing a lot of wealth to Australia in terms of the work that they do, coming from exports and so forth-so why should they suffer making payments? Why should they have to put in two bob or pay the bill?

Mr Robert Brown —The National Party wants them to.

Mr SAUNDERSON —Yes, the National Party of Australia wants them to; it thinks it is a good idea, and so does the honourable member for Deakin-he wants everyone to pay for television. He wants pay television everywhere. First of all one must recognise the historic circumstances concerning pay television. Pay television came in at a time when no video machines were around. It was introduced in America because there were problems with poor broadcasting and some people maintained that with pay television there would be some sort of suitable reception. It is not sensible to suggest that we should introduce pay television in Australia, considering that we have one of the highest concentrations of ownership of video machines, with a proliferation of entertainment available that way. For example, I can go out and rent three movies for the evening for $1.50 each or $4 or something like that. To suggest that as soon as members opposite introduce pay television I will rush down and pay a $300 subscription for the year or something and watch the same movies that I can get for a dollar down at the old video shop does not make sense. Members opposite are behind the times. In my view pay television is something that is just not on.

At the moment we should concentrate on the benefits available in Australia from free television. There may well come a time when we will have four or five television stations in Sydney and Melbourne. However, such expansion ought to occur by natural growth. It ought to come at a time when it is perceived and accepted by people, not just by government or legislators but by the industry as well, that sufficient viability is there for a city to sustain another television station. Growth should occur by that sort of progression. It should not be forced on people, as the honourable member for Deakin is trying to do, by means of a bit of regulation-although I thought that the honourable member for Deakin was against that. However, I think that natural progression is the way to go.

The honourable member for Deakin referred to some other matters. For example, he said that the cross-media controls that we had were fatuous nonsense and all that sort of stuff. I would say that if the honourable member were to speak to John Fairfax-although there is probably a ring back message for him there already concerning these other things that he is proposing-he might actually tell the honourable member that he is not too impressed with the Government's cross-media controls in relation to newspapers and television. Currently, Mr Fairfax happens to own the Age in Melbourne, with more than 50 per cent of its circulation in the area where he owns Channel 7 as well. Under our regulations he will have to reduce that ownership from 100 per cent to 5 per cent. What is more, he knows that even under our current provisions of going out and searching and making sure that he does not try to create other companies or have directorships and all that sort of thing by interlinking he will not really be able to keep control. So, Mr Fairfax is not very impressed with the cross-media controls-the measures that members opposite think are a bit of nonsense that will have no effect.

I was a bit disappointed by the attitude of the National Party. In listening to the speech that was made I thought that a fair amount of knowledge was expressed concerning the whole basis of the situation, with details given of why the percentages were wrong and reference made to the American scene and the 25 per cent, and so on. Following those remarks I thought that a principal position would come out. However, when it came to the regional area-the one area where there is one radio station, one newspaper and one television station, all owned by the same person, who is a leading member of the National Party-we find that the members of the National Party are opposed to cross-media controls. So, apparently the 43 per cent is okay, because out there in the regions the old television stations are lucky to get over 10 per cent-so 43 per cent does not really matter to them. But the leaders in the National Party who happen to own the television station, the radio and the newspaper are not too impressed by the cross-media controls, either. All I can say to the honourable member for Deakin is that, if he really things that our cross-media controls are not important, I suggest that when he is talking to the people in this area about this other new idea that he has about licences he should raise the matter of whether they think that the cross-media controls are nonsense. I am sure that they will tell the honourable member that they are not too impressed with them.

A couple of other things have come out since the legislation was introduced. I had hoped that the Government would have moved further on these issues than is the case at present. One thing that has become clear is that people in the community generally accept that the media in all its forms is something that ought to be within the controls of the Australian community. I think that some people were a bit surprised that the legislation relating to newsprint ownership in fact did not really prevent foreign nationals from owning it. I am not having a go at Rupert Murdoch as an individual, as I recognise that he is a person who was an Australian who changed nationality. But obviously it made people think that the real situation exists in which someone who perhaps is not in that position perhaps might come and purchase newspapers in Australia. We would find that a very influential part of our media would be under the controls of nationals who may not have the same sort of links with Australia that, say, Rupert Murdoch has. So, I would hope that at some time within the next few sessions the Government will do something to bring into line that situation as it exists with the electronic media.

The other thing that has been highlighted by the changes is the fact that the amendments moved by the Fraser Government in 1981, the ones that abolished the requirement for prior approval, have in fact been shown to not really work very effectively. We have seen the situation where the challenge in relation to the Channel 10 ownership continued for four years or so, the end result being that the rules that existed were upheld. However, basically the whole question of ownership had been dragged out through the courts. In more recent times we have seen the problems created by the transfer of ownership within Channel 7 in Melbourne and the ownership not being approved by the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal. In most instances the Tribunal is in fact being faced with a situation of a fait accompli. I think that that is totally unfair from the point of view of the viewers, owners and the Tribunal. I think that a re-think and a return to the original position are probably what is required. But, in hindsight, I support this legislation, because it is significant.

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

Sitting suspended from 6.30 to 8 p.m.