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Wednesday, 25 February 1987
Page: 628

Senator MACKLIN(5.44) —Senator Haines, the Leader of the Australian Democrats, has moved that so much of Standing Orders be suspended as would prevent her moving a motion relating to the conduct of the business of the Senate. The Liberal-Labor coalition has now opposed Senator Haines bringing on a motion that she has on the Notice Paper that the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation report not only into the areas it already has in its terms of reference, but also on:

(a) current levels of media ownership and control in Australia;

(b) the effects of current levels of ownership and control on:

(i) the diversity of information and opinion available to the public, and whether the supply of information and opinion is compromised, or potentially compromised, by wider commercial interests of media owners, and whether the supply is compromised, or potentially compromised by foreign ownership of Australian media;

(ii) programming, with particular reference to overseas content and the measures needed to maintain appropriate content reflecting local community and national interests;

(iii) levels of employment in the media industry;

(iv) cost of advertising, particularly to casual and low volume users, e.g. small business.

(c) an acceptable level of concentration of media ownership and control in the light of matters ascertained in (b);

(d) the measures necessary to reduce current levels of concentration of media ownership and control if these are found to be above acceptable levels;

(e) the measures necessary to maintain media ownership and control at acceptable levels, and to prevent foreign ownership and control of Australian media;

(f) the measures necessary to encourage community-based and controlled media outlets designed to provide a wide variety of information and opinion, and assess to what extent government support should be given to alternative community-based media;

(g) direct communication media (VAEIS, cable services and satellite distribution services) and determine what, if any, controls and licensing regulations are needed;

(h) the legislative and other measures necessary to implement the Committee's recommendations.

(2) That the Committee commence its inquiry into the matters referred to it by this Resolution upon the completion of its inquiry-

I emphasise that part for Senator Richardson's benefit-

in relation to the Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1986 and the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1986.

Senator Haines has moved for the suspension of Standing Orders to deal with that motion. A motion for the suspension of Standing Orders is moved in the Senate in an attempt to create priorities other than those laid down by the Government. In other words, we are asking the Senate to express its view of the importance of foreign control of Australia's media with regard to other items which we have on the Notice Paper-other exciting items such as the Liquid Fuel Emergency Amendment Bill 1987, which as I understand it has been floating around in the bureaucracy for five or six years! Indeed, Senator Mason raised this issue first over six years ago. It is exciting, important, urgent and at the top of the list! That is a matter of priority that we are talking about in relation to the motion for the suspension of Standing Orders. We want to establish a new priority in this chamber, a priority which gets things right, which looks at the important things, those things which are confronting the Australian community today.

In this case, it is not emergency stores of petrol; it is the ever-increasing ownership of our media. That is what we are talking about when we move to create a new priority for discussions in this chamber. The Leader of the Opposition, Senator Chaney, on behalf of the Opposition, has raised the argument that this is not a matter of urgency, that the Australian Democrats have the possibility to bring on the matter on 2 April under General Business. I do not know whether the attentive audience listening to the broadcast around Australia-people would have to be attentive to listen to Parliament-would know that General Business notices of motion are generally talked out. It happened to an Opposition motion last week. I understand that in an endeavour to overcome this problem the Opposition parties will bring on Senator Messner's motion again tomorrow to try to get a vote on the matter. That is a legitimate tactic for the Opposition to use, but of course Opposition senators have access to far more General Business time than other senators in this place. That is proper because of the numbers that the Opposition has in this chamber.

When we seek to create a new priority by moving for the suspension of Standing Orders it is not good enough for us to wait until our turn on 2 April, when it will be talked out, and then to take our next turn probably in the Budget session. That is not a way of getting a new priority for this chamber, because the motion would undoubtedly suffer the fate not of being voted on but of the rather innocuous operation that goes on with people talking and talking.

Senator Chaney, when speaking to Senator Haines's endeavour to suspend Standing Orders, raised a couple of other matters as to why there should not be a priority, one of which seemed to suggest an implied criticism of his own people for speaking earlier this week ad infinitum on a procedural motion. They spend far more time than we have available to us today, even if this motion were discussed until 7 o'clock. They went on and on, on a procedural motion, to make a particular point. It hardly seems to be to be fair of Senator Chaney to criticise his own people for that. The reason they did that was to make a point. We are proposing the suspension of Standing Orders now to make precisely the same point, and that is what the priorities ought to be and what types of motions ought to be debated here at this time.

Rather than take the Government's priority-a Bill which has been floating around the bureaucracy; those people having only now managed to get off their backsides to bring it into the chamber-we should look at a high priority issue. I speak of a high priority not just for the people in this chamber, not just for politicians, but for parliamentarians representing their electorates-that is, senators representing the States in this country, where the media is a vitally important issue. The ownership of the media is a vitally important issue. It is really not good enough to say: `This is not important. We can do it some other time. Let us leave it to 2 April. Let us put it off'. It is not good enough to use Senator Gareth Evans's defence of some of his celebrated operations: `It seemed a good idea at the time'. I think Senator Richardson's defence was a sophisticated version of that. It was: `I was on holidays at the time it all happened, so don't blame me'.

For the first time we have an opportunity in an inquiry to look at the ownership of the media in this country, if it is to be treated as a priority by this chamber. There is undoubtedly a great deal of sensitivity on the part of honourable senators about making this a priority item, and we can well understand that. We are not the only people who have suffered at the hands of the media. I am sure that every senator in this place has suffered at some time or other at the hands of the media. But, quite frankly, if we allow that type of threat to get in the way of our duty, to get in the way of what we ought to be debating in this chamber, we are not worthy of the support of our constituents. I know it is a delicate matter because that control is basically our conduit to the electorate. If we get a sufficient number of people offside by making this a high priority, what will happen? We will lose our seats. But it is about time that we in this place, who have been elected by the constituents, stood up and fought for their interests-not just for ours and not just for a safe seat in this place until be get our superannuation. We must not bow down to the media barons. We must not be told: `Don't touch them, leave them alone. Let us not make the matter a priority for debate in this chamber because we might get a bad editorial and we might not be re-elected'. That seems to me to be the coward's way out when it comes to a debate on this matter. I acknowledge that it is a delicate matter, but it is a matter which we have to take on. It is not something which we can put aside. It is vital, and a top priority. We must rearrange our program to make sure that this issue is brought on now. There are a variety of other ways of doing it, and we have been stopped at every avenue. This is our last avenue to try to get this chamber to debate this issue, and to debate it sensibly.

We are now debating a procedural motion to enable us to have this genuine debate, but we are being frustrated even in having that genuine debate in this place by people who are running scared of the owners of the newspapers because they may get a critical editorial; they may be attacked day in and day out. So what? Their task is to do precisely that. That is why we need that type of priority. That is why we need to suspend the Standing Orders to make sure that we can have that debate. We would welcome it. We are quite happy to put our cards on the table. All we ask is that the other honourable senators also put their cards on the table in terms of what we have to debate and our priorities for debate.

I think it is a pity that the Government has expressed its opposition to the suspension of Standing Orders to allow this debate to occur. The debate would be about the reference of this matter to a parliamentary committee, and we believe that that is probably the most appropriate way in which to handle this type of thing. It removes the onus from political parties to front up, so it takes the pressure off them. Individual members are able to be disowned at the end of the exercise if they bring in a critical report but at least we and the members of the community would then have that report in our hands.

I draw the attention of honourable senators to a previous suspension of Standing Orders, following which a particular reference went to a committee. A number of members of the now Opposition parties signed a majority report against their own Party's policy. I am sure honourable senators can remember that happening, and it has probably happened on a whole range of issues. That is why it is very important for us to have that debate. If we have it I am sure we will get that reference sent to the Committee. Once we have it before the Committee I am positive, given the quality of our committees, that we will get an excellent report back.

I entirely reject the proposition put by Senator Robert Ray and Senator Richardson which, I believe, cast aspersions on the way that the committees of this chamber have operated. They mentioned how we were all on numerous committees, and I was going to count the ones I was on. Senator Ray did the same thing. We tend to meet in committee after committee. It is difficult, but that is part of our task, part of our job. Let us stop whingeing about having to do our job, for goodness sake. Other people out there have far worse jobs than we do and they do not get paid anywhere near enough. Why do we whinge all the time because we have to work? That is what the population pay us to do. One of the places in which this chamber has shown that it works best is in its committees, and this type of activity is best undertaken in the Committee to which I have referred.

Senator Haines's contingent notice of motion, which she has taken up, to move for the suspension of Standing Orders, quite rightly was directed towards getting those terms of reference to a committee. So let us stop all the whingeing, let us stop being cowards. Let us confront the issue head on and acknowledge that the media in Australia is vital to the health of our democracy. The control of the media is vital to the health of that media, and hence the control of the media is vital to the health of our democracy. I do not care whether the Government at this time feels relatively happy because Murdoch et al are being nice to it, because it should know that the wheel turns and when he is no longer nice it will want this inquiry and so too will the Opposition parties.

We are all in this together, not just as members of the Parliament but as representatives of the people. That is why we should suspend our Standing Orders. That is why we should get on to the substantive debate on the motion which Senator Haines has on the Notice Paper with regard to items as important as-I remind the Senate that the Government does not want to discuss it-the current levels of media ownership and control in Australia. That is what the Government has said to us by saying that it will talk and vote against the suspension of Standing Orders. The Opposition has said that it does not want a debate. They are all running scared of Murdoch et al. They do not want to upset anybody who owns the media. But look! Those types of media barons like people to stand up to them, quite frankly. They do not mind a bit of healthy opposition. How about the politicians of this country giving them a bit of healthy opposition? How about our expressing what we believe is in the interests of this country and of the people of this country when it comes to who controls our media and who provides the information upon which governments are elected? Surely we can at least do that. If we cannot do that, we are not worthy of the pay that we receive or of the seats that we occupy in this place.

We should at least be willing to confront the very hard issue of the people who control the media by which we get to talk to the electorate, whether it be the newspapers, radio stations, television stations, satellite channels, cable or any other means of communication that we as members of parliament talk to the electorate. We need to know who owns the media. We need to know whether it is owned in the interests of this country or in the interests of other countries. I know of no other comparable country that would be happy to allow its media to be controlled by an outside power. That is what we are happy enough to do. Senator Graham Richardson said: `It's all over. I am sorry that I was on holidays and I cannot do anything about it. It has all gone.' This chamber and the other place have the power to do something about it if we can at least get into the debate.

Many eminent Australians have expressed themselves in the media in recent times, saying that they believe that this is an absolutely vital issue for us to be debating at large. If we could get into this debate and get a reference to a committee, those people would come forward in droves. Quite frankly, it is an embarrassment to have people stand up in this place and suggest that we should not take this to one of our committees, which have done so well. It is a further embarrassment because what is really being said is this: If we took this reference to a committee, it would receive more submissions than any committee has ever received in the whole history of the operation of our committee system. That is how important it is to our community. That is how important it is to every group and every individual who wants to make his or her views known, who wants to say something or to communicate. People may want to tell the rest of Australia: `These are the facts that you should be concerned about'; `look at this'; `pay attention to that'.

A committee would be absolutely inundated with submissions. I accept that and that there would be a massive work load. But unfortunately, the stance that the Government and the Opposition have taken in not agreeing to our procedural motion is to say: `Yes, we know that that would happen and we do not want a bar of it because we are happy with the situation of foreign powers owning our media because at the moment they are on our side'. Well, the wheel will turn. It will turn and they will be offside and the Government and the Opposition will really whinge about that. But that is not the important thing. I do not care if they whinge later on, as they undoubtedly will. It is like trying to rig electoral laws; they will eventually turn back on you.

The important thing is that, by not allowing people to express their views about media ownership in this country by having a committee inquiry, we are cutting off one of the only avenues left to people to express those views. If they want to express their views about ownership of the media outside, who will carry that message to other people in Australia? Will the media have such largess as to attack themselves and their ownership? Come off it! There is only one other place where these types of community concerns can be aired. It is in the Parliament. It is the historic tradition of the Parliament to do so. It is an historic abnegation of the role of the Parliament in this country for the Opposition and the Government to combine to crush this motion and not to allow the people of Australia to express their views about who owns the most vital communication channels by which Australians talk to Australians.