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Wednesday, 10 October 1984
Page: 1584

Senator CHANEY (Leader of the Opposition)(5.46) —by leave-I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I wish to make a couple of comments about the report. It is not a report of great substance. I do not say that critically; it is not of great substance because, although the Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings is dealing with major issues, it has been overtaken by the calling by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) of an unnecessary early election, and therefore , the work of this Committee will have to stand over until the election of a new House of Representatives. The Committee is in the course of examining the whole question of the televising of the proceedings of the Houses of the Parliament and of the radio broadcasting of the proceedings of the Houses of the Parliament . That is a matter on which there are, I think, very mixed feelings in the Australian community.

The national broadcaster is required to broadcast the Parliament while it is sitting, other than the adjournment debate. It is required to use virtually the whole resources of one of its radio channels for that purpose. It alternately broadcasts the Senate and the House of Representatives. That is a matter which causes some people edification and causes others enormous annoyance. I am somewhat surprised at how often, as one moves around Australia, one meets people who say: 'I heard you say something on the broadcast the other day'. So it is clear that there is a listening audience. Much of that is perhaps a captive audience, people in their cars travelling to or from work, or commercial travellers and the like; but there is a listening audience for the broadcast.

The difficulty for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is that it is such a pre-emptive arrangement. I can understand that there would be a very strong wish on the part of the ABC for a little more room to move in this area. At the same time, while the law requires the ABC to extend so much of its facilities in broadcasting the Parliament, there are also restrictions on the availability of those broadcasts to broadcasters other than the ABC. We have the rather peculiar situation in Australia today in which there are limits, on the one hand, for commercial broadcasters which are not able to use extracts from the parliamentary broadcasts, and yet, on the other hand, we find that extracts from the parliamentary broadcasts in the United Kingdom are available.

Senator Grimes —And ours are available over there.

Senator CHANEY —Yes. So it is an oddity. I also find it odd that for the whole of the time that the Parliament sits we are presided over by members of the Fourth Estate, the journalists who sit up in the gallery above us and who write down some of what we say, leave out all the good bits I think most of us feel, and report the bits that we often would least like reported. We allow the print media absolutely free access to this place and the right to report wholly or in part what we say and do. I would hate to be thought to be criticising that arrangement. I think it is absolutely essential that we should be subject to the scrutiny of the Australian people. It is clear that the people will not sit down and read Hansard every day, and it is clear that most of them will not sit and listen to the parliamentary broadcasts. It is utterly essential to the operations of democracy in Australia that there should be the access to us which the print media enjoy.

I speak now personally rather than giving a total party position or a position from which I can speak on behalf of the official Opposition, when I say that I find it logically strange that we allow one section of the media such total access and we restrict so heavily both radio broadcasters' and television broadcasters' access to this place. Under your Presidency, Mr President, there has been some slight opening of the place to television. I think it was during your period as President that television cameras were allowed into the chamber to take stock film which is used as part of news broadcasts. But in the main television cameras cannot come into this place. Indeed, many honourable senators and, I think, many members of the House of Representatives believe that television cameras should not be allowed in the chambers. There are severe restrictions on commercial broadcasters in regard to the use of the broadcasts or sounds which come from this place. At the end of the life of this Parliament I simply ask: Why do we restrict some sections of the media and not others? I pose that question not in the interests of introducing further restrictions on the print media, but rather in the interests of seeing us more open to the public.

There are very good reasons why we should give this matter careful and, in my view, favourable consideration. All of us in political parties are careful students of what influences the electorate, of where it is that people get the information of which they take notice. It is common ground in this place that television is an enormously important medium for the transmission of information in Australia. The evidence that I have seen suggests that people rely very heavily upon television news for their view of the world and what is going on. It seems to me that if the parliamentary chambers remain insulated from direct access for the medium of television we will continue to render Parliament less and less relevant to the debate which goes on in the community.

The fact is that if one wishes to make a political point or if one has an interesting report to make it is probably more productive to go out and call a Press conference and to have one's say in a room which is crowded with nobody but reporters, television cameras and radio microphones, and then to appear, for better or worse, in the lounge rooms of literally millions of Australians, than it is to come into this place and face the Opposition if one is in government, or the Government if one is in opposition, and put a view and seek a debate on it.

As one who thinks that the institution of parliamentary government has many advantages, I think we need to consider very carefully how we can keep this chamber and the other chamber as places which really matter, whose debates are an important part of both informing and forming public opinion. So on this occasion I am putting something of a personal view which is that it is only by opening up this place to television and radio in a broader sense that we will continue to ensure that the Parliament is a relevant part of public life in Australia. Many commentators now see the present Government as, in a sense, a non-parliamentary government which is based on the media performances of some of its senior members and its Prime Minister in particular. I, for one, think that, if that is part of the developing reality in Australia, it is a pity.

I touch upon the real concerns of many of my colleagues on this side of the chamber about access. There is the understandable concern that the atypical picture can be picked out, that the non-representative portrayal of Parliament on the television screen will, in fact, worsen our reputation, lessen our influence and diminish the quality and standard of debate both in this place and in the country generally. I say only that of course that is possible. It is just as possible for me to be embarrassed by a partial broadcast or television shot of part of what I say as it is for any other senator. I accept that that is a risk. But it is an equal risk speaking here whilst members of Australian Associated Press, who are usually the only people present for the bulk of the debates, take down what they regard as the significant elements of debate. It is in the hands of a single journalist what he or she chooses to put on to the wire services which will appear in the papers around Australia. Quite frankly, I think that is just part of the system that we have to accept, that the members of the journalistic profession will, in fact, pick what they think portrays what is happening in this place. My view is that in the long haul they exhibit a balance which most of us, who are partisan politicians, do not. In other words, whilst one is occasionally outraged and offended by what one sees as their failure to be objective about something which is important to us, in reality it evens out over the long haul and we take our share of good and bad reports. The important point is that this Parliament, which represents the will of the people , a place in which different opinions are exchanged and arguments are held trying to get to the rights and the wrongs of situations, is in danger of become less relevant. I think that is a pity. It is not in the interests of the long term health of government in Australia that that should be so.

The last thing I say, and again I must say that this is very much a personal view, is that the standards of both behaviour and debate in this place probably would be improved if we were subject to the scrutiny of television cameras. I say that because I think most of us accept that whilst if one goes to a large public meeting people will accept a lot of the roughhouse of politics, when one is actually being portrayed in people's living rooms they expect a slightly different presentation. If one looks at the way most political interviews are conducted on television, one will find that they are generally of reasonable standard. People behave politely and exchange views. Usually, unfortunately it is all too constricted and potted for the true merits of the situation to be drawn out and debated properly. But all of us who feel that our wide open mouths as we are shouting across the chamber might be portrayed in our own living rooms would feel some restraint. I confess that there would be occasions when I would not particularly want to be televised. It would act as something of a guide to us all as we think about the people who might be watching us in the course of the debates, interjections and exchanges in this place. We would very quickly relax.

Senator Peter Baume —Would you want to have it edited or complete?

Senator CHANEY —I think that should be up to the media. In other words, I do not believe that it is possible for politicians to put in controls and to say one can televise this or televise that. I do not mind the sorts of experiments which broadcasters undertook with respect to the Budget broadcast where there were strict limits. But my view, and I stress the fact that I am expressing a personal view at the end of a parliament, when I feel I can have some small leeway, is that we should not seek to control that coverage any more than we seek to control the coverage which AAP or any other print media might exercise.

I acknowledge the fact that the Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings has sought to advance this matter. Senator John Watson , who is a very enthusiastic member of that Committee, is here. You, Mr President, would have been a senior member of it. I acknowledge that the Speaker wrote to me and other party leaders some time ago, on 20 August this year, suggesting that we experiment in freeing up the controls on radio broadcasting. That is a matter on which there was a delayed response from me and, I suspect, from other party leaders because in my own case and, I think, in the case of others we felt that it was a matter not for a personal opinion but for some party view to be formed. I wrote to the Speaker, Dr Jenkins, only in the last few days telling him that following that party discussion we were agreeable to see the proposal tried out as an experiment. Unfortunately our response was too late for this Parliament. I had a brief oral exchange with Mr Speaker about that . Even though, of course, I hope that there will be a President from another political party in the chair in the next Parliament, I hope that the Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings will pick up the same experiment next year so that we can try to liberalise the arrangements on an experimental basis for the radio stations. I believe that would be a valuable guide to us and would indicate that we would make parliament more relevant by giving it wider exposure. Mr President, I welcome your report. I am sorry that your work was cut off by the precipitate rush to an election by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke). I hope that we can pick up where the Committee left off when the Parliament resumes.