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Friday, 19 October 1984
Page: 2087

Senator BUTTON (Minister for Industry and Commerce)(3.50) —The Broadcasting and Television Amendment Bill 1984, the Broadcasting Stations Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1984 and the Television Stations Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1984 contain two important points. Some honourable senators have addressed attention to those important points and many others have addressed attention to peripheral points, expressing their general views not only about broadcasting but also about the state of the world.

I just make some comment on what Senator Lewis has had to say. I do not dissent from his attacks on radio station 3CR, which was the burden of his speech. In the same way that I do not deny him the right to make those sorts of comments, I hope this society would not deny 3CR the right to make comments within the law. I find some of the comments made on 3CR programs totally repugnant, certainly those made in addressing issues in the Middle East and so on over a long period. I think it has already been called into line before the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal about some of those programs. But that is not the fundamental point of this legislation. I understand Senator Lewis's expression of views, but his speech was, as somebody said in an interview with Senator Peter Rae on Monday or Tuesday, typically Liberal in that it was full of rhetoric and not very good on substance. I certainly share his views insofar as the rhetoric would embrace, I suppose, the particular incidents which I would regard as reprehensible in terms of 3CR programming.

The burden of Senator Lewis's comment was then to go on to say that we should not extend, as he put it, the functions of the Tribunal without being satisfied that it was properly administering its current functions. With that general philosophical underpinning, he then went on to say that the Tribunal was interfering with questions of tobacco and alcohol advertising on radio and television programs. But it was the Fraser Government which introduced the prohibition on tobacco advertising on television, although I believe it was supported by the Opposition of the time. However we should not forget that it was that Government which introduced the prohibition. I think a widespread community view would support that. There are also views as to whether there should be more equity in terms of the general advertising system in this country about what is prohibited, what is not and so on. I understand that.

The matter of alcohol advertising is one of concern to many people. All that the Broadcasting Tribunal has done at this stage is publish a discussion paper on that issue with certain suggested recommendations. That paper has been circulated widely for discussion and it will be widely discussed. I have no doubt that Senator Lewis will have an opportunity to contribute to the discussion at greater length than he has had time to do today. That seems to me to be an essential and important part of the democratic process. If he is suggesting that the Broadcasting Tribunal should not think about these things, I regard that as a most dangerous and unfortunate suggestion coming, even as it does, from him.

These Bills before the Senate first of all deal with licensing fees for commercial radio and television stations in the context of the provision of supplementary services or supplementary licences which would be provided by these stations in particular communities. The Government's view-a longstanding view in Australian broadcasting circles-is that the right to a portion of the radio spectrum, the right to broadcast, is a right in respect of which obligations can be properly expected from broadcasting stations. In our view, the aggregation of gross earnings in that context is considered to be equitable. Because of that factor the supplementary licence is a benefit available only to existing commercial licensees. In other words, people who already have a licence are being given a supplementary licence or right-one might almost say complementary in the terms of the earnings they would be expected to enjoy.

That aggregation of gross earnings is not subject to the ownership or control provisions of the Broadcasting and Television Act. The effect of it would be to allow licensees to operate a dual commercial service using common facilities and staff. In a sense, it is not only supplementary but also complementary. These rights and advantages would not be available to a single independent operator. In other words, if one already has a licence one also gets a supplementary licence. An additional advantage is conferred whereas no such additional advantage or benefit is conferred on a sole independent operator. For these reasons, the Government considers that aggregation of gross earnings is appropriate to reflect accurately the total use made by the licensee of the radio frequency spectrum in a particular area. That operator has a great advantage over a sole independent operator. I thought that argument might have had some appeal to the Opposition, but apparently it does not.

Without aggregation of gross earnings the licensee of a commercial and related supplementary service, because of the progressive nature of the fee scale, would be able artificially to split his revenue between the two services which he now has the advantage of providing to minimise licence fees payable. In other words, it would amount to an income-splitting arrangement which would be inequitable as against other licensees of broadcasting services. That is the rationale behind the Government's amending legislation. I suppose the Opposition's view is that anything that imposes additional burdens on businesses of this kind and ignores the extent to which they are being given particular advantages should not be taken into account by legislation. The Government does not agree with that view. We believe that if one gets additional benefits the aggrandised earnings, that will arise should be treated in the way provided for in the legislation.

Another important point that was raised-I will not deal with it at length-was the concentration of media ownership or control in a particular region or district. The provision in the Government amendment applies only after the Tribunal has decided that a full commercial licence would be a viable alternative to a supplementary licence. That is a very unlikely and uncommon situation. The effect of the amendment would not exclude consideration of print media interests in those circumstances. It would merely make it a non-mandatory consideration. The second important point that should be made is that amendment of the Bill would preclude the introduction of supplementary licences because there is provision for a phasing in of services over five years. That is necessary for the economic and sensible introduction of services. Thirdly, the proposal would leave loopholes in the ownership or control provisions. Those are the objections to the arguments which have been advanced against the provisions included in the Government's amendment to the Broadcasting and Television Act.

I just make the point that for a long time there have been provisions relating to concentration of media ownership in the broadcasting and television legislation. Perhaps they are inadequate provisions. If we all had the chance to begin again it might have been done differently. If one looks at particular situations in particular regional or localised markets one can envisage a situation, and there are such circumstances, in which there is a concentration of media ownership which embraces not only radio and television stations but also newspapers. The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal would be asked to consider that question in dealing with supplementary licence applications only if the Tribunal had previously addressed the question of whether an independent operator should be allowed to operate in that market. We regard the provisions as very important. We do not want to see the Tribunal in a situation of not being required to address these situations in the particular narrow circumstances which I have described. For those reasons we reject the suggestion which has flowed from Opposition speakers. I thank honourable senators who have made constructive and relevant contributions to the debate. I commend the Bills to the Senate.

Senator Peter Baume —Mr Deputy President, in accordance with standing order 420, may I ask the Clerk to read exactly the question that is now before the Senate? I want to know what the procedures are.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Yes, the Clerk will do so.

The Clerk-The question is that the Broadcasting and Television Amendment Bill 1984, the Broadcasting Stations Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1984 and the Television Stations Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1984 be now read a second time.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Baume, we have suspended Standing Orders in order to take these three Bills through all stages together. However, I am prepared to split them. I understand that you wish to oppose the second reading of the two licence fees Bills. I will put them together, separate from the other Bill.

Senator Peter Baume —That is the course I would like to follow, Mr Deputy President.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Is that the wish of the Senate? There being no objection, that course will be followed.

Question put:

That the Broadcasting and Television Amendment Bill 1984 be now read a second time.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Question put:

That the Broadcasting Stations Licence Fees Amendment Bill and the Television Stations Licence Fees Amendment Bill be read a second time.