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Wednesday, 25 February 1987
Page: 637

Senator VIGOR(6.35) —It is extremely important that Standing Orders should be suspended now to enable us to debate this matter. When I came to this Parliament I followed Senator Chipp, who used to say that our role was to keep the bastards honest. It is probably much easier to keep bastards honest than to keep wimps honest. If people will not debate with us, we have a real problem. That is exactly the problem we have tonight. The problem tonight is that apparently neither the Government nor the Opposition is willing to debate this matter. Yet it is a significant matter for the whole community. Our media-our radio, television and newspapers-are changing hands like a large game of musical chairs. We do not know who owns what!

The Minister for Communications, Mr Duffy, himself recommends that various people should break the law. He is saying to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal: `Please consider that the Government will make certain through the legislation it is going to put forward that the new provisions for 75 per cent ownership will allow you to own a large number of television and radio stations and newspapers at the same time'. People are acting upon Mr Duffy's advice. There is an enormous problem when a Minister suggests that people in the community and the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal should act to break the law.

If we can refer this matter to a Senate committee and get it looked at in the calm of the committee room, we can determine a long term communications policy for the Australian community based on the current urgent need to solve the problems which are facing us now: The rapidly increasing media ownership concentration; the loss of community input; the decrease in program standards as a result; the increase in the vulnerability of our journalists because there are so few employers around that if they speak out about problems in the community and in the businesses which are associated with the newspapers for which they work, they may end up being sacked; and the eventual possibility of a totalitarian Press.

This is all happening now. Even Senator Richardson has told us that it is too late. If that is the case, we really have a serious problem, and there is a very good argument for the suspension of Standing Orders to debate this matter at length. There is decreasing Australian content in the media. Media conglomerates can do exactly what they want. They are controlled by a few individuals who can dictate to government. It is a very serious matter when the leaders of political parties do not say anything about matters concerning the Press simply because they are afraid of the effect which the Press barons will have upon them at the next election. It is extremely important that this Senate should consider that particular problem, which is a serious threat to open democracy within Australia. One of the most important operations for us to look at is the whole issue of political influence of newspapers, radio, television and the new media coming in. The Government has, through the backdoor of Radiocommunications Act licences, only just recently allowed for the operation of VAEIS-a satellite based video and audio entertainment and information service. That is happening without this Parliament really considering it at all. The owners of those operations are the same as the owners of the main broadcasting stations. They are getting into a grandstand seat to be able to take over cable television and high definition television when they turn up.

We currently have a crisis on our hands, yet both the Government and the Opposition are telling us that we should not spend time debating this issue. To show the type of shambles which the Government is in on these matters, I asked a question last Monday of Senator Walsh, to which I have not received any answer. Senator Walsh, who is in the chamber, told me that he would get an answer to my question. I asked-I believe at this stage I should go through it in more detail-whether the Minister was aware of an item in the foreign investment policy guide of the Department of the Treasury, which states:

Foreign investment in mass circulation newspapers is restricted. All proposals for foreign interests to establish a newspaper in Australia are subject to case-by-case examination irrespective of the size of the proposed investment. Approval is not normally given to proposals by foreign interests to establish ethnic newspapers in Australia, unless there is substantial involvement by the local ethnic community and effective local control of editorial policy.

I went on to ask the Minister why it was that the foreign ownership requirements for the ethnic Press were so much more stringent than those for the mass circulation Press.

Senator Mason —Because they are smaller. Did he say that?

Senator VIGOR —It is obvious that the Government is willing to go into bullying operations, but the Minister has not answered. No answer has been forthcoming, even though he had three days to handle this, including a day's notice of the material. The Minister, who had almost a day's notice of the question, did not know of the particular quote from the foreign investment policy area. It is very urgent that we should debate these matters and that the Government should participate. We are currently being faced with a wall of silence from the Government and the Opposition on this matter. The Government is not willing to come forward and explain why it has not called in the Foreign Investment Review Board to look at some of these issues, or why the details associated with the takeover of the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd and the submissions to the Foreign Investment Review Board have not been released.

There is no way in which Australians can judge what is actually happening, or the interrelationship between the Government and the media or the Opposition and the media, unless they are willing to debate those matters in this House. We can only assume the worst. That is why I urge all honourable senators to vote for the suspension of Standing Orders so that we can debate this most important matter and do the job that we are paid for, which is to make certain that the people of Australia have a properly planned future for the media and are not subjected to de facto censorship by any person or to decisions being made by default. It is important that the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation consider these matters in a cool, calm, collected and tripartisan way and that the decision of the Committee be allowed to come back to this Senate. I urge the Senate to make the decision to allow us to send this reference to the Committee.