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Tuesday, 24 February 1987
Page: 505


Senator VIGOR(3.40) —I rise to commend the Government in some part for having eventually come up with an apparently acceptable solution to some of the problems facing commercial radio in Australia. The Government's announcement in relation to the provision of new commercial radio services in regional Australia is, as Senator Lewis has said, long overdue. There has been quite a scandalous maladministration of the supplementary licence program since this Government indicated in 1983 that it would go ahead with the plans of its predecessor. Until now, there has been a lot of finger pointing from the responsible policy people in the Department of Communications, but very little in the way of action to provide services for regional Australia. I believe that the actual engineering staff should be commended for what we have at this stage. They have worked as hard as possible within the instructions that have been given to them. This is despite the poor morale in the Department, which is due to the large number of vacancies that exist at any one time and the enormous work load with which those engineers have to cope.

It is little wonder that there has been a high turnover of professional expertise within the Department of Communications. This was exacerbated when the Department jumped ahead of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal in planning for relocation to Canberra ahead of the Tribunal's relocation to Sydney. Many of the Department's most experienced engineers were lost in that process and the Department has really not recovered from the consequences of these internal bureaucratic machinations. In the interim, it has lacked the political and administrative oversight to force it to focus its available resources effectively. The Efficiency Scrutiny Unit, set up with great fanfare by the Government last year, would do well to examine this aspect of the Department's operations. I hold that a lot of extra revenue has been denied the Government because new services have not been provided.

It is very important to sound a cautionary note about the ability of the Department to deliver on the Government's intentions. There are a lot of fine thoughts in the statement. There is a proposed fast track method of getting new licences for certain areas, as has been mentioned by Senator Lewis, including Geelong and Shepparton. But we will still have to see how the Department actually performs in terms of delivering these licences.


Senator Lewis —How fast is a fast track?


Senator VIGOR —Senator Lewis asks: `How fast is a fast track package?' Certainly with this Government all of the fast track packages we have had, whether they have been in this area or in transport, have been very slow in coming about.

In this area I would like to draw the Senate's attention to the buzz words that always appear in such statements-buzz words such as `streamlined planning procedures'. They appear very early in the ministerial statement. I remind the Senate that back in 1982 the relevant Senate Estimates committee was told by Mr Westerway of the Department that new streamlined planning procedures would see 100 or more licences being processed each year. Those enthusiastic predictions were not borne out in practice and there is still an enormous backlog in the pipeline. The people of regional Australia have not got the extra services. We will wait with bated breath to see whether the Government can deliver now. It is our duty in this place to remain vigilant so that there is no repetition of the supplementary licence shambles that we had just recently. Millions of dollars have been wasted by current radio and television licensees and by prospective applicants for new licences. All the Department's planning work produced the reference of only the Mildura and Canberra situations to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal. In this statement they get only a minor mention at the end of the statement, where the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) states that no action will be taken until the legal proceedings associated with those two areas have been sorted out.

Even then the Minister for Communications improperly interfered with the workings of the Tribunal by suggesting that it discontinue its television supplementary hearings because of new Government policy in the pipeline. It is indeed unfortunate that both the Minister and sections of the Department are unable to accept that the Broadcasting Tribunal has statutory duties. The Tribunal must act according to the law as it stands, and not according to how the Government or anybody else thinks things might be in six months' time. I hope that this regional radio statement will mark a change in approach towards the Tribunal. I hope that in future there will be no broadcasting industry rumours that senior officers of the Department have been seeking to influence the Tribunal in the discharge of its duties. I hope there is no substance to these rumours because otherwise it would indicate a perversion of the Westminster principles of government.

Where this statement differs from the Government's approach to television is that the interests of the public have determined the priorities. Deficiencies have been recognised in the current legislation, and I believe sensible remedies have been proposed. I refer, for instance, to the consolidation of the public hearing process where there is doubt about the viability of a competing licence in a particular area. This will certainly expedite the whole process, particularly under the new inquiry procedures available to the Tribunal. The prospect of changes to the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act will allow a much faster processing of licence applications in this area. There will not be the opportunities for delay that have been used so effectively to make it impossible for people to get licences. There will not be the ready opportunity for the entry into legal processes which has exacerbated the work load of the Tribunal and of the Department. There are also useful signs that the Minister proposes to use some public hearings of the Tribunal as a benchmark for decisions about the type of notice he will issue in relation to a particular area which might be similar to one in which the Tribunal has already made a finding. I believe this procedure will also expedite the availability of new commercial services in regional areas.

A more sensible approach to planning is proposed, with the Department doing the technical work before the involvement of the current licensees or of the potential applicants. I believe that will save the enormous amount of time wasted by duplication of effort that has been carried out in the previous process and during the supplementary scheme. This has kept the Department continually going around in circles looking at material that it itself has provided. I believe that we should keep the process under continuous scrutiny and see that it does not get bogged down as before.

It is unfortunate that the Government still has not sorted out just what it will do in relation to radio under its cross-media ownership provisions. The statement states:

It is not possible or sensible to consider in isolation from other questions of media ownership such matters as whether to remove or relax the prohibition on owning more than eight radio stations. Possible modifications to the ownership and control rules in radio will be taken up as part of the current study of ownership and control, particularly cross-media matters, being undertaken in my Department.

The statement shows clearly that the Government has not taken a completely concerted view on this whole issue. Rules will be made on the run. But I commend the Government for having put the public interest first in this issue and I hope that it will try to do the same in the area of regulating television and that, with the speeded up processes, it will soon be able to tackle the enormous backlog of licence applications from community, public and educational radio stations that would like to get on air. Currently there is still a backlog of something like 150 applications in this particular area and the Government has made no statement as to how it is going to clear this backlog. If this plan is put into effect I hope the Department can concentrate more on providing licences for community services in all our cities and in the areas where they are most needed. I commend the statement to the Senate.

Question resolved in the affirmative.