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Tuesday, 18 November 1986
Page: 2435

Senator MASON(10.09) —I want to raise two fundamental points. I have had continual representation from my electorate that Telecom Australia persistently will not allow subscribers to check what they owe Telecom. This is a matter of great basic importance. If we have a public instrumentality which spends the money that it does and persistently maintains that it is not possible for it to afford to tell people the details of their telephone costs, we have something that is very much less than adequate. If we have an organisation which is making something like half a billion dollars a year profit and yet says to the people it is supposed to serve `We cannot afford to tell you whether your telephone charges are legitimate unless you pay us something', we have something much less than adequate.

This matter is of importance to millions of people. Of those millions of people, many have come to us and to honourable members in another place and complained about the situation. They feel, and rightly, that they are being imposed upon by a government-supported bureaucracy which can say it will do what it wants and if it does not want to tell people what they owe it will make its views known, not theirs. In any reasonable society this is not rational, fair or possible.

I ask the Government, through you, Mr Chairman, to change this and to recognise that it has a monster in Telecom which has grown out of all proportion, which is asserting itself and arrogating to itself beyond the normal requirements of this community and which at this stage has to be contained. I am distressed that time and time again members in the other place and honourable senators here have said what I am saying now. The result has been that absolutely nothing has been done. I ask the Minister: Does he regard Telecom as a $5 billion bureaucracy which is more important than this Parliament and apparently does not have to take much cognisance of what this Parliament and its members say? I ask that as a direct question and would like the Minister's reply because there is evidence that that is what Telecom is.

If we allow huge Public Service bureaucracies of this kind to exist and exert this kind of influence, we are taking this society into a very bad and wrong area. I ask the Government seriously to consider this. If the Minister and the Government believe that it is the prerogative of this community to decide by its vote who shall be the Government and what policies the Government should have, it is quite wrong for them to allow a bureaucracy-no matter how numerous its staff and how great its electoral value might be-to develop which usurps that function. That is the first point that I want to make. It is a clear enough question and a plain enough issue. I do not have to deal with it further. It requires a reply from the Minister.

My second concern is about the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. For many years I was an employee of the ABC. I worked in radio and television. I know damn well that it is difficult to turn out a good radio or television program without having the confidence of one's superiors. That is the first point. Point number two is that a good television or radio program is very dependent on the amount of money spent on it. In other words, by inhibiting the amount of money provided to the ABC the Government will, in effect, restrict its ability to compete with the commercial networks.

Senator Grimes —Oh, yes!

Senator MASON —I am glad that the Minister agrees with me.

Senator Grimes —No, the honourable senator should sit down so that I can reply to that. I come from Tasmania, as does Senator Newman. You will hear about that.

Senator MASON —I have not finished yet. I want to make the point that, because of the deductions permissible to private enterprise for business expenses, commercial television and radio services cost just as much as does the ABC. The Minister will find that that can be demonstrated. Therefore, the ABC should not be seen as being in any kind of separate category. It is a service which, without complications, attempts to do something of value for society. Commercial networks do the same. I am aware of the value of programs such as Sixty Minutes. They have tremendous value but they are assessed financially in different ways. All I am saying is that the Government is not seeing the ABC fairly, in right and proper financial terms. It sees the commercial services costing nothing and the ABC as costing something. That is not true. That is not really what happens. I would like the Government to reassess its priorities in those terms.

The second point I want to make about the ABC is that I am deeply concerned about the appointment of Mr David Hill. I have no objection to Mr David Hill as a person. Long ago, he and I were members of the Australia Party. He might not like to be reminded of that, but it is a fact. He is a person of great value in the community but I am concerned that he has been put into the ABC by the Government as a kind of whip to chastise the ABC. This point has not been made just by me. It has been made by other people. The Government ought to take it seriously because if it has done that it should not think that it will get away with it. The Government should not think that there are not people in the community who recognise the value of the ABC and its independence to the community. It should not think that it can destroy the ABC with impunity.

I have more respect for the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes), who is in the chamber, than to think that he could not see that. But he is not the only member of Cabinet. I hope that those troglodytes in Cabinet-and there are those in the Labor Cabinet, believe me-who think that they can destroy something, run over it and steamroller it to make it do what they want, will find out about this. Senator Grimes smiles. He plainly agrees with me.

Senator Grimes —I am a very quiet and smiling fellow.

Senator MASON —I ask Senator Grimes whether he agrees with me.

Senator Grimes —No.

Senator MASON —He does not agree with me. That is the answer that I would have expected. The point is that what I say is true. Some people in the Labor Cabinet think that the ABC properly is a government instrumentality that ought to do what they want. I suggest that that is not good enough. The Government should vary its instructions to Mr David Hill and let him allow the ABC to continue on the course on which it has proceeded for the last three years.

Let us look at that course. Fundamentally, the ABC over the last five or six years has been a much better organisation than it was before. It has produced some extremely valuable and important programs. The Investigators is a good program. It has done something of value for the community. The Minister should believe me that the ABC would not have produced that program 10 years ago when I was a minor executive of it. The ABC has produced some very good drama programs which are much better than those produced before.

The ABC has brought on some very good satire programs, such as the Gillies program. It is healthy, important and useful to the country that the Gillies program be there. From what I have heard from certain people with whom I am still acquainted in the ABC, I know damn well that Mr David Hill has been placed in the ABC to see that programs such as the Gillies program do not occur again. That is a stupid, arrogant and quite incompetent attitude of the Government. Senator Grimes laughs, therefore I invite him when I finish speaking to deny what I have said. At least we will have established a point of some importance that the Government will allow that kind of satire and that degree of independence in the ABC to be preserved. Although the Minister laughs, I assure him that what I am saying will be of some importance to this community over a long time. I invite the Minister's comments on what I have said.