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Friday, 5 December 1986
Page: 3542

Senator LEWIS(5.04) —The Opposition parties are opposed to the Government's proposal that the Special Broadcasting Service be absorbed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The Opposition parties, however, believe that the ideal goal would be to have one national broadcaster. But the condition of the ABC at present is such that that ideal could not possibly be achieved without the SBS and its viewers being very substantial losers. It would rather be like a slow lumbering elephant swallowing up a lean efficient greyhound. All the evidence suggests that the ABC is not currently in a position to absorb the SBS. There would be no overall cost savings and amalgamation could result in increased expenditure and reduced service to SBS viewers.

The SBS is a modest, efficient and cost effective organisation now operating on a shoestring budget in sharp contrast to the ABC which is beset with problems. The SBS was created by the Fraser Government which believed that multicultural broadcasting was needed and that the ABC was both unwilling and unable to provide it at that time. The report of the Dix Committee of Review of the Australian Broadcasting Commission has shown that it is still in that condition and the report of the Connor Review of the Special Brodcasting Service told the Hawke Government last year that this was still the case. The Connor report thought that the question of creating one national broadcaster, whether by merger or otherwise, should wait until 1990. The inquiry based that view partly on the ABS's admission that it had its own problems-massive ones, I might add-in improving operations and that it did not want further change before it had completed its own restructuring. The Government correctly accepted that advice at that time.

Evidence given at Senate Estimates committee hearings over the past two years and the devastating finding of the Auditor-General almost certainly confirm that 1990 was the earliest possible date for re-examination. We now have the views of Mr David Hill, the new Managing Director of the ABC. He said recently that the ABC has more problems than any other organisation with which he has been involved. He also said that what the ABC needs most of all is a period of consolidation.

The Government has had one of its characteristic sudden rushes of blood to the head and decided in a sudden and unexplained reversal to ignore those recommendations. I suspect, as happened in a case earlier today, that the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) has once again been rolled by Cabinet and has had his advice ignored because of what seemed to Mr Keating and Senator Walsh to be a good idea at the time. Senator Walsh seems to be following his colleague Senator Evans in saying: `This will be a good idea. It will at least look like we are doing something about the Budget deficit'. The idea was to try to hoodwink--

Senator Walsh —The opportunists in your party rolled you.

Senator LEWIS —Call him into line, Mr Acting Deputy President. We are not going to have Senator Walsh going on like that in this chamber and misbehaving.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Jones) —Order! The Minister will refrain from interjecting.

Senator LEWIS —Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. Senator Walsh's idea was undoubtedly to hoodwink people into believing that the Hawke Government was doing something about its massive deficit. All of the available evidence suggests that both the SBS and its viewers would be disadvantaged at present by the proposed merger. The Government has now entered into a massive propaganda exercise to sell this merger on the ground that it could no longer afford a separate SBS and the only road to retention of multicultural programs would be a merger with the ABC. Of course, that is not acceptable. Because of the Government's sudden and unexplained reversal which appears to ignore all the reports and the expert advice to the Government, the only proper solution is for there to be an examination of the real reasons for proposing to amalgamate the ABC and the SBS.

The Opposition will be moving an amendment that the Bill be not read a second time-that is a clear rejection of the Bill; that the Standing Committee on Education and the Arts report on the Government's reasons for proposing the amalgamation; and that the merger not proceed without explicit legislative authority. I would like Senator Walsh to respond to the concern that the Government may proceed to amalgamate these bodies without legislative authority. Accordingly, our amendment includes the demand that the merger not proceed without that authority. I move:

Leave out all words after ``That'', insert:

``(a) this Bill not be read a second time;

(b) a merger of the ABC and the SBS not proceed without explicit legislative authority; and

(c) the Standing Committee on Education and the Arts report on the Government's reasons for proposing to amalgamate the ABC and the SBS''.