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Wednesday, 25 February 1987
Page: 625

Senator RICHARDSON(5.26) —I oppose the motion of the Leader of the Australian Democrats (Senator Haines) not because I am worried about whether media barons--

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Jessop) —Order! The motion deals with the suspension of Standing Orders. Does the honourable senator realise that? I just remind him of that fact.

Senator RICHARDSON —Thank you, Mr Acting Deputy President. I think Senator Haines has some misconceptions about the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation; about why it was set up, and about its role. Most importantly, she has some serious misconceptions about the relationship of my Party with media barons. I will get to that in a moment.

The Committee on Television Equalisation has been meeting over the last month and so far has had four full days of taking evidence from the public. It sat last Monday morning and will probably sit four or five hours this evening. It has been dealing almost exclusively with the question of aggregation, about whether that is the appropriate method of delivering better services to regional and rural television viewers. That is what the Committee has been about. To the reference by Senator Haines about the changes to cross-media ownership as being the reason for the Committee being set up I say that as a reason it must have been way out on the periphery. If one looks at all the submissions-there were nearly 70 of them-one will see that it was something touched on only marginally and only in a few. The Committee has almost exclusively dealt, so far, with aggregation.

In looking at the submissions that came in-part of the terms of reference can apply to this aspect as the honourable senator probably realises-they are almost exclusively to do with opposing the concentration of media ownership in newspapers. Almost exclusively they look at newspapers, not at television and not at radio. As most of us are fully aware, the powers of the Commonwealth in respect of newspapers are, to say the least, limited. If we were to set up another committee, if we were to extend this Committee, were it to go another six months to look at the changes to ownership, particularly in the Press, one wonders just what the Parliament could do at the end of six months.

Our powers are severely limited in that respect; they rest with the States. In resting with the States I suspect that perhaps we should ask them to set up a committee because there is precious little power here. Peppered right through the speech of Senator Haines there were references to it being too late. The phrases that I wrote down were `do it today, or it is too late', `it may well be too late' and `it is almost close to being too late now'. The reality is that it is not five minutes to midnight for an inquiry into media ownership; it is five minutes past. The realities are that if one looks at what has occurred over the last three months one would have to say that it is far too late now. The truth is that in respect of the announcement made by the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) last November, the players in this game all acted pretty quickly. The changes have occurred. We have seen television stations change hands at a frantic pace.

The reality is that this Committee can spend six months looking at it, but if it in any way holds up legislation that deals with those changes, if it in any way inhibits, for example, any change in the legislation involving the two-station rule, what we do here will bear absolutely no relationship to commercial realities. We have to have some responsibility in the Senate, just a skerrick of responsibility, not, I might say, to a handful of media barons but at the very least, one would think, to their hundreds and thousands of shareholders, many of whom are small shareholders, and more importantly to a public that is not breathless about the issue.

In my view, the concentration of media ownership that is being talked about is largely outside the powers and responsibilities of this chamber or indeed the other place. The lack of Commonwealth power in the area of newspaper ownership is manifest; no one really disputes it. A six-month inquiry into it is, in my view, a waste of time, a waste of our effort. The Committee that has been set up has already been extended until 23 March-or, at least, I gave notice of that intention this morning-because we could not finish in time even the relatively small task of inquiring into aggregation. We are going on for an extra month. If we were to accept what Senator Haines is saying now and inevitably hold up the Government doing anything about the two-station rule, we would throw the Australian media into total confusion, and with it the Australian people, and I suspect that the low esteem in which some of us are held by them would only grow.

If there is one fear I have never had, it is that of someone referring nastily to me in an editorial. All the media barons have referred to me in such a way at one time or another over the last couple of years. I have learned to live with it, I dare say that it will happen again. But we are all over 21 and we are big enough and ugly enough to take care of ourselves. That ought not to be, and is not, the motivation for anyone on the Government side, nor I would think for anyone at all in the Senate. As far as the Government is concerned, it is too late. The Committee inquiring into aggregation will report in a month's time.

Senator Haines —You have let it be too late.

Senator RICHARDSON —We have not let it be too late. The reality is that events have overtaken all of us, including Senator Haines. It is not the first event to have overtaken here, nor will it be the last. For most of the time during which these changes took place I was on holidays, and I cannot be blamed for that either. Those changes occurred with such rapidity that, in my view, it is beyond the power of the Senate to deal with them now. It is a waste of time.