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Friday, 5 December 1986
Page: 3543

Senator VIGOR(5.10) —The ABC/SBS Amalgamation Bill 1986 is a thorough disgrace. It shows us what long term planning means under this Government. On 25 March the Government announced that the Special Broadcasting Service was to be replaced by a Special Broadcasting Corporation from 1 July 1987. The Corporation was to co-operate closely with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in the provision of programs and the sharing of resources. It was to get greater flexibility over staffing matters, programming policies and administrative arrangements much more than the SBS had been allowed. This decision was welcomed by those interested in multicultural broadcasting. There was a feeling that the Government was about to improve upon the Fraser Government's initiative from just before the 1980 election. Yet the day after the Government's announcement senior ABC officers were letting all and sundry know that they expected to get the numbers in Cabinet for a takeover of SBS within six months. Sure enough, that is exactly what came to pass shortly before the Budget came down. There was a red herring thrown into the Budget Speech of the Treasurer (Mr Keating) which was repeated at regular intervals by Government sources. On 19 August Mr Keating said:

Gross savings from shared facilities, accommodation, equipment and administration in the amalgamated organisations should be about $2m in 1986-87 and much greater in . . . future years.

This claim has in fact been exposed as patent nonsense in the Estimates Committee proceedings but it still gets trotted out from time to time by people in the Government. In fact the explanatory notes for the Department of Communications had a little insert to the effect that $1m had been sliced off both the ABC and SBS budgets at the last moment. The former ABC Managing Director, Geoffrey Whitehead, explained the whole budgetary process this way when he made his opening statement at the Estimates Committee C hearing:

I would like the Committee to note that the figures were compiled in the expectation that we would receive an appropriation of $418m and when we were advised of a further $5m reduction we had only a matter of hours in which to accommodate this in the booklet.

The sum has therefore been arrived at in this booklet by spreading the $5m on a pro rata basis across all salary codes. Since that has been done we have been advised of a further expected saving of $1m resulting from the amalgamation of the SBS and the ABC, but this has not yet been reflected in the figures.

I made a point of following up the so-called savings during the Estimates Committee proceedings. Neither the Treasurer, the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) nor the Cabinet could shed any light on the matter. The Acting Secretary to the Department of Communications had this to say:

I think the savings envisaged by the Government in the decision were really projected for the future; they are not savings of immediacy in relation to this year's proposed appropriations.

Mr Roger Smith from the Department's Broadcasting Policy and Planning Division was just as sceptical. He said:

The two organisations concerned have been advised that that is the element of savings that is believed to be possible, and they now have to take that into account in the activities they undertake. Presumably at the end of the year, after having made all the efforts they can to achieve those savings, they would be able to report on whether they had been able to or not.

In a written reply the ABC let the Senate know in October:

It has not yet been possible to cost accurately possible savings from the amalgamation. It is clear, however, that savings are more likely to be achieved in the long term rather than in the short term.

Both the ABC and the SBS are actively attempting to order their affairs to achieve savings as soon as possible so that they can live within their `tight' 1986-87 Budget allocation.

Senator Walsh thought it was a policy question. Basically the Government had removed an extra $1m from each budget. Everything was done on the run, as happens so often with this Government in important decisions. The fact that the SBS had its overseas purchasing contracts at a standard rate in Australian dollars was not considered. A larger organisation might be asked to pay a fair bit more if it could still get access to some of the material which the SBS has managed to get because of its poor, almost mendicant, status. We also have to remember that the ABC's contracts are in overseas currency so we get a mention of exchange rates supplementation when the Australian dollar weakens. On top of this, the far more expensive staffing structure of the ABC gives us something to worry about. Indeed I would support Senator Lewis in his contention that it is very much like an elephant swallowing a greyhound, although the metaphor really does leave something to be desired.

The SBS is really a lean organisation which I would like to commend. By the time savings actually appear, the spirit of multiculturalism and innovation might have been snuffed out in all of these proposals. The major problem is that this legislation proposes a new organisation which in no way will satisfy the needs of either of the groups of viewers that we have. In fact the ABC would gain an extra television channel and the 2EA and 3EA radio stations would be on their own and probably not supervised in a very effective way. The television channel would probably eventually be taken over in a number of ways by non-ethnic directed programs. The same type of thing would happen to multiculturalism in our media, as has happened to education, which the ABC was given a charter to handle.

The moment this merger was announced the Australian Democrats tried to get an effective legislative framework on which to base the SBS, because the SBS currently is on fairly dicey ground. It does not have an Act of its own in the same way as the ABC does. We believe that the two organisations should be independent. We will be voting against this Bill by supporting the Opposition's amendment, which removes all words after ``That' and inserts words to the effect that this Bill be not read a second time; that the merger should not be carried out by any other means; and that the reasons that the Government gave for this merger should be investigated by the Senate Standing Committee on Education and the Arts. The Democrats feel that that Committee should also look at the proposals and that the Senate should look at the proposals which were put forward by the Democrats in the Independent and Multicultural Broadcasting Corporation Bill 1986, which was put before the Senate on 24 September 1986.

I seek leave to have called on forthwith orders of the day relating to the consideration of the Independent and Multicultural Broadcasting Corporation Bill 1986 and the Independent and Multicultural Broadcasting Corporation (Transitional Provisions and Consequential Amendments) Bill 1986, for consideration of those Bills together with the ABC/SBS Amalgamation Bill at every stage, and for the questions with regard to the several stages of the passage through the Senate of the Bills to be put separately in respect of each Bill.

Leave not granted.

Senator VIGOR —I am very disappointed that we cannot discuss the really important aspects of giving an independent legislative base to the Corporation, which will guarantee its continued independence. This proposal was based on the Connor Committee of Review of the Special Broadcasting Service which recommended an independent SBS and which the Government, in proposing this Bill, has gone completely against. It is highly disturbing that the Government should put on these types of committees and spend money on committees such as the Connor Committee and the Jupp Committee of Review of Migrant and Multicultural Programs and Services and then ignore the recommendations. This is exactly an example of the Government ignoring those recommendations. I commend to the Senate my private member's Bill.

I would now like to come to the latest annual report of the SBS, which also makes it clear that co-operation and co-ordination between the SBS and the ABC can be fostered through the ABC-SBS Steering Committee which has been operating for two and a half years. Duplication can be avoided between the two organisations through co-operation. It does not require the removal of the independence of SBS to do this. The mechanisms are already in place to co-operate over resources, staffing and facilities without destroying the identity of SBS. The SBS, I believe, should be commended for the way in which it extends its budget through joint production ventures and so on. In television it reflects the many strands of Australian life and it opens a window to cultures and countries with which we are not very familiar. In radio it provides useful information to communities. It is a link for the older people of various ethnic origins back to their own countries and their own cultures. That role needs to be strengthened by the program packaging unit which prepares news and current affairs material for Australia-wide public radio dissemination. I believe that it is important to extend the SBS beyond its current area by offering some type of service which could be broadcast as part of that offered by other broadcasters. It is very important that SBS retains the vitality with which it started and provides the efficient services which it has uniquely carved out for itself. It has a clear and deserved place in the broadcasting system.

At one stage the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) raised the chestnut of expansion of multicultural services to regional Australia. His Department should be aware that in those areas where band two clearance is happening and second regional radio network facilities are going in UHF television service can be provided at around 10 to 15 per cent marginal costs. Most of the infrastructure, apart from the transmitter, is provided as a result of the band two and second regional radio network activity. There is no excuse for services not being extended. When I put this proposition to the ABC in Estimates Committee C, I received a very cagey response that neglected television altogether. No additional transmitters were proposed to carry the current EA services of SBS. I quote from further along in the answer:

The board of the ABC had agreed that stations of the second regional radio network might carry some multicultural information material in those regions where there were significant numbers of ethnic listeners.

It needs to be remembered that the ABC's failure to embrace multiculturalism or even to talk sensibly about it to communities led the Fraser Government to establish the SBS. The type of unimaginative answer I have just dealt with stresses the importance of the independence of the SBS. Other Estimates Committee material shows just how little has been done to improve SBS reception in Sydney and Melbourne in recent years. I commend this Government for extending television services to other capitals and regional centres, but it remains a fact that no money has been spent in Sydney and Melbourne since 1983-84 even on rearranging the UHF transmitting antennas. Only $165,000 was spent on in-fill translators in these capitals between 1981-82 and 1985-86. Further funds are being made available this year and the next, at long last. I believe the Government should be congratulated on this. Quite a deal more work needs to be done so that more people actually have access to the SBS television programs.

In summing up, there is no merit in allowing the ABC to take over the SBS. There would not be $2m in savings this year from a merger under any type of model that we have been able to get. Such savings can only come by government decree and that will result in decreasing of services. If the Government and the Department of Communications show some initiative SBS television services can be extended relatively cheaply to various regional areas. On past performance the initiative and imagination are likely to be lacking. However, there is possible hope. Ideally we should be giving SBS radio and television a chance to bring the world back home over the whole of Australia. That would require a statutory charter which brings some guarantee for its future. A responsible government would do that, and I commend the Government to pick up my Independent and Multicultural Broadcasting Corporation Bill and to modify it to suit its particular policy needs so that we can have a strong and independent SBS which will actually serve a strong independent Australia. The Democrats, as I said, will be supporting the Opposition's amendment which rejects the Bill and the concept of a merger and refers the whole idea to a committee to try to establish what reasons the Government had for this merger, because no satisfactory explanation for this merger has been given.