Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Tuesday, 12 May 1987
Page: 3022

Mr ROBERT BROWN(8.43) —It had been my original intention to speak on the Communications Legislation Amendment Bill. However, now that it is linked with the Broadcasting (Ownership and Control) Bill, which is vastly more important, I will speak to both. I use that term deliberately because I do not believe that any legislation this Government has dealt with or any legislation that this Government will deal with will prove to be more important in the long term than the legislation with which we are dealing at present. I know that recognition of that fact has been given by a number of people who have spoken on the legislation. I would be less than honest if I were not to suggest that I share many of the reservations that have been expressed about the provisions of this legislation. I do not believe it is a question of just television station ownership, about broadcasting programs, and owning and operating cameras. This legislation is involved intimately with the whole question of the acquisition and exercise of power in our society, in the formulation of attitudes, and in the direction of thinking of the community.

Thirty years ago when the television industry in Australia was born, a policy was adopted which has been referred to as the two-station rule and which, of course, should not have persisted until today-it had to go. It was inappropriate, and I doubt whether it was appropriate at any stage. Others have also indicated that the two-station rule made it possible for one television interest, for example, to own a television station in Sydney and Melbourne thus having access to 43 per cent of the total viewing audience. It restricted at the same time some other owner to television stations in Mount Isa and Broken Hill each having about 0.4 per cent of the total national viewing audience, thus having access to a combined viewing audience of less than 1 per cent of the total national viewing audience. This policy was incoherent and incapable of achieving any sensible television policy objective. But the 75 per cent on the other hand means that one television owning company could own a television station in Melbourne and one in Sydney plus three other metropolitan television stations together with one regional television station. Networks of that kind have access to a very significant proportion of the population. I accept, and I think it is important to keep in mind, that provision has been made for the retention-at this stage at least-of three stations within each of the metropolitan cities and, of course, through the aggregation system for regional television, which is really a sister proposal to this one to ensure that people throughout regional Australia also have access to three, hopefully competing, programs.

Probably one of the most important elements that came from the Government's present total media ownership approach was its attitude towards cross-media ownership. I am glad that consideration finally has been given to this. I also understand that there are grounds for a possible constitutional challenge against that. If such a challenge is successfully mounted it will be necessary for the Government to go back to base one because the package which the Government has devised and which the Government is in the process of putting into place could not and should not reasonably be allowed to stand without the cross-media ownership provisions. If it is later shown to be unconstitutional it would mean not only that a single television interest in Australia would have the right to get access to up to 75 per cent of the total national viewing audience, but also that it would have the right to buy into newspapers, which would I believe provide such an interest with an unconscionable degree of control, influence and power over the thinking of the Australian community and over the Australian media.

I do not believe that anyone would deny that one of the great protectors of the integrity of democratic processes, democratic structures, democratic procedures will continue to be free, independent, competitive, courageous and diverse media. To a very large extent we have that in Australia. I have not been satisfied, nor would any other single person be satisfied, with the policy which has been adopted, but I do not think that I have ever challenged the right of private ownership of the media. I am pleased to see that it is tempered by a significant degree of participation by the public sector. I would like to see that extend to newspapers as well instead of just to radio and television.

I have never supported any proposition that would cause serious and significant constraints being placed on the free exercise of the power that comes with the private ownership of media. But it does, and it should, concern me that individual significant owners of media in Australia reflect their attitude towards the media when in answer to the question `What do you think freedom of the Press means?' they say: `It means that I am free to put in the Press what I like and I am free to leave out what I like'. In terms of private ownership that is precisely what it means. I accept that there are some qualifications of the beneficial effects that flow to communities from private ownership, but I have never challenged it. I have been listening closely to the contributions to this debate by members of the Opposition, from both the Liberal party of Australia and the National Party of Australia, and I have attempted to identify a coherent theme and a coherent approach.

Mr Cohen —How did you go?

Mr ROBERT BROWN —Not very well, although I tried hard. Really, if this evening's performance is going to reflect the approach of the two Opposition parties to policy formulation and to determining attitudes of great national importance, it does not augur well for them when it comes to any degree of sensible support from the community.

Mr Cohen —It doesn't come as any surprise to you, does it?

Mr ROBERT BROWN —It did not come as any significant surprise. The honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd), representing the National Party, indicated that it supported the concept of 43 per cent audience access. He said 75 per cent was too high. The National Party also objects to the cross-media controls that are an integral and essential part of this Government's approach. The National Party, the honourable member for Murray says, will oppose the second reading entirely.

On the other hand, the Liberal Party brought forward a proposal that I think is upside-down. It wants the Bill to be withdrawn and redrafted to provide, firstly, for one additional commercial television licence in each of the metropolitan cities. In addition, it has indicated its support for the 75 per cent audience access provision. I believe that the Liberal Party would have been more coherent and sensible had it put forward a reverse proposal, opposing the 75 per cent access provision and abandoning the idea of an additional television station in each metropolitan city, at least at this stage. On what basis the Liberal Party could possibly conclude that what it proposes represents a sensible and coherent approach to this question completely eludes me. The National Party has decided to oppose the second reading entirely. It is supporting some aspects of the legislation which one might have thought it would oppose and opposing other aspects that one would think it was more coherent, sensible and intelligent to support.

In conclusion, I am also surprised that the Opposition spokesman, the honourable member for Deakin (Mr Beale), has not yet retreated from the Press release he put out for regional television. Other people have drawn attention to this matter. He said that the Government's aim, by aggregation and providing people who now had access to one television station with access to three, hopefully, competitive television stations, was to stifle viewers' choice by forcing a rigid three-station arrangement on the community. That is three stations instead of one. This statement was made by the Opposition spokesman on the media. Earlier this evening I asked the honourable member for Deakin whether he would retreat from that statement. Since he has not yet responded, presumably it stands. He also said that this further regulation would prevent new entrants to the television industry. It might have been useful in relation to some regional areas-one of which I am associated with-for consideration to be given to the proposal for supplementary licences. However, that has gone by the board and I accept that. The aggregation system is in place. Nationally, the Government's attitude towards metropolitan television is much more coherent and sensible, and will be more acceptable to the industry and the community, than this nonsense served up by the National Party and the Liberal Party. For regional television, the Government's policy is also more coherent and sensible than the nonsense served up by the Opposition.