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Friday, 5 December 1986
Page: 3545

Senator SHORT(5.27) —I rise briefly to support the comments of my colleague Senator Austin Lewis who led for the Opposition in this debate and in particular to support the amendment that he moved on behalf of the Opposition, which reads as follows:

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''.

The reasons for the Opposition's opposition to the amalgamation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service as proposed by the Government are fairly clear and fairly simple. The basic reason is that, whilst in the longer term we support the concept that it may well be an appropriate thing for both organisations to be merged, if that is going to be done it must be done in a carefully thought out and rational way and for reasons associated with the overall well-being of both organisations, in particular the SBS. The problem with this proposition is that it has been undertaken purely for budgetary reasons. It was announced as a Budget measure in August. In the second reading speech that was made quite clear when it was said by the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) that the decision to amalgamate the two broadcasting organisations was announced by the Treasurer (Mr Keating) in his Budget Speech and that, accordingly, the Government saw the amalgamation as a Budget related matter.

We on this side of the Senate have constantly argued the need for restraint in government spending and for government savings wherever possible, but we believe that, if that is going to be undertaken, it has to be undertaken on a rational basis and with regard to the particular programs, organisations and projects involved. The heavy-handed way in which the Government has proceeded with this proposal is, we believe, contrary to the longer term interests which both the Government and the Opposition, I assume, would see as in the interests of the ethnic communities of Australia and is contrary to the interests of an Australia which, whilst giving full allowance for and recognising the value of a mixture of cultures and the multicultural nature of our society, at the same time wishes to be a society which has common values and a common attitude towards the world. It is quite possible to have that combination of a multicultural approach and acceptance of different cultures and values in our society, whilst at the same time have a commonality of interests and attitudes within our nation.

This amalgamation proposal is the latest in a number of heavy-handed attacks the Government has made on ethnic communities in Australia. We had the abolition of the Institute of Multicultural Affairs; the major cuts-admittedly they have been reversed to some extent now, but only under pressure-to the English as a second language program, which I believe is a critical program of value to the Australian community; and now the amalgamation of the SBS. It has all come together in a way that I think is greatly resented by most of the ethnic communities in Australia. I think that is bad for Australia and is, therefore, bad government.

The Government has argued that there will be cost savings from the merger in the longer term, but the short term savings are very dubious indeed. If there had been going to be significant cost savings this year, one may have taken a different attitude towards the proposal, but to have a Budget measure put forward with virtually no savings in the short term seems to be a rather extraordinary state of affairs. The question of the SBS and its relationship to the ABC has been the subject of examination over several years. We had the report of the Connor Review of the Special Broadcasting Service which was commissioned by the Government to look at the financial matters affecting both. That report did not recommend a merger of the SBS and the ABC. While in the longer term the Connor Review did consider this as a desirable objective, it certainly did not in the short term. The Connor report recommended:

. . . the first priority is to establish a statutory authority better designed than the SBS to develop a more effective ethnic radio and multicultural television service.

We recommend that the ABC and the new Multicultural Broadcasting Commission should increase co-operation between them, sharing resources, co-ordinating program planning and exchanging personnel.

We recommend that the Government should appoint a further inquiry in 1990 of both the ABC and the MBC with a view to considering their integration. In the meantime, both organisations should be encouraged to work towards the aim of a single national broadcasting authority-

I add: But to work towards the aim of it as a longer term objective. That is an objective that I and the Opposition fully endorse. Both the coalition and, until the August Budget, the Government endorsed these recommendations. The rationale for the recommendation against an immediate merger has been clearly put on various occasions. The Price Waterhouse report on the amalgamation put it as follows:

. . . administratively difficult, requiring short term legislative solutions and producing only limited benefits. It would be difficult for the ABC to effectively absorb the SBS at this stage.

The recent report of the Jupp Review of Migrant and Multicultural Programs and Services did not go over the same ground as earlier reports; nevertheless it strongly endorsed the view that the ethnic and multicultural media are vital to the establishment of multicultural and migrant services in Australia. Reservations about the merger of the ABC and the SBS have been voiced by a large range of people in the community, not just by the ethnic communities, but also, for example, by members of the Government. Senator Childs, for example, was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald of 4 September as saying:

The ABC is not ready for the merger, and there is certainly strong across-the-board opposition to it.

In essence, the reservations for the Government's budgetary decision to merge the ABC and the SBS are that the principles of moderation and careful planning necessary for a successful merger have been ignored. In the annual report of the SBS tabled earlier this week, on 3 December, Sir Nicholas Shehadie, in his letter to the Minister for Communications conveying the report, summed up the relationship between the SBS and the ABC in the following way:

The SBS maintains an open approach in the mutual co-operation of the two organisations, seeking to maximise a sharing of human and technical resources while at the same time retaining each organisation's distinctive qualities.

That is certainly the concern the Opposition has at this time about a merger of the two organisations as proposed by the Government. We are not convinced that either organisation, but particularly the ABC, is in shape to allow that amalgamation to go on in a way which will preserve the unique qualities and values that the SBS has portrayed to date. We all know that there has been great concern about various aspects of the ABC's activities over many years. Criticisms have been levelled at it for many years on a whole variety of grounds of efficiency, program balance, bias or lack of bias, and the like. I think the great problem is that with this legislation we have a proposal going forward to try to force-feed the ABC into taking more of an interest in multicultural television in particular when for more than 20 years as an organisation the ABC was derelict in its responsibilities in the multicultural and multilingual areas. Perhaps if it had done its job there would have been no need in the first place for a separate national channel. The SBS was created and, once established, it came closer, despite all its shortcomings, to the ideal of what a national broadcaster might be than had the ABC for a long time.

If the Government had really wanted to save money with this latest proposal, perhaps it should have merged the ABC into the SBS, and not the other way round. That is the view of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia Inc. which, in a news release of 18 November, expressed and re-endorsed its very strong opposition to the merger. It said:

Given the track record of the ABC, the Conference-

that is, the Conference of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils-

expressed its lack of confidence in the Corporation as the vehicle for effective communications with all Australians, and particularly those of non-English speaking backgrounds.

. . . .

If the Government wants to improve the ABC let it do so-but not at the expense of the much more efficient SBS.

I think that sums up very well also the Opposition's concern about the proposal at this time. There may not be major differences between the Government and the Opposition on the longer term view of the relationship between the SBS and the ABC, but the short term situation is a very different one. It is one of great concern to the ethnic communities and we fully understand the concerns they have. It is for that reason that we oppose the Government's proposal and it is for that reason that we have moved the amendment we have. We must get the ABC right first. This proposal simply puts the cart before the horse.

Debate (on motion by Senator Grimes) adjourned.