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Wednesday, 18 March 1987
Page: 915


Senator COLSTON(6.12) —in reply-Unfortunately I was not in the chamber to hear most of the comments that were made by Senator Vigor as I was otherwise engaged at the time. But I heard some of them and I think it is important that I should make some mention of a few of the points that I did hear him raise. It seems to me that a lot of people have closed minds about what the report on the reference placed by senators before the Senate Standing Committee on Education and the Arts should bring down or what the Committee's actions will be.

I do not want to canvass this to a great extent because the Committee is at present taking evidence. It would not be correct for me to make predictions about what the Committee will report or about the actions that it might take from here on. But it does seem to me to be a pity that people might come into this inquiry, or look at this inquiry, with closed minds in regard to amalgamation. Certainly some people are not happy about the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service being amalgamated. If that is the case, they are quite entitled to their opinions, but as the Chairman of the Committee, I have gone into this inquiry with an open mind.

I heard some evidence on Monday which I will refer to in a moment. Some of that evidence has suggested to me that we might report in one way, and some of it has suggested that we might report in another. But I have not gone into the inquiry with a preconceived position, thinking that we are going to report in a certain way in the end. It is very important for the members of the Committee to be of that frame of mind, so that they will listen to the evidence in a dispassionate way and then weigh up the evidence when the inquiry is completed. I think there are a number of people in the community who do have closed minds about the matter. Some of them have given evidence and I do not think that anything that we might report, one way or the other, will change their minds. But we, as a Committee, have to weigh up the worth of that evidence from people who do have fixed feelings one way or the other.

I am not quite sure what Senator Vigor meant when he mentioned some letters. I am not sure whether he mentioned a letter sent to the SBS or to the Committee. If the letter was sent to the Committee, I certainly know that the Committee received a letter from the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy), and he quite properly pointed out some aspects of the proposed amalgamation and what the Government's plans were. I made a comment at that stage, which I do not think was reported in the Press, when I was asked by journalists about that letter to the Committee. I said that we were happy to receive that correspondence but that the fact the Government indicated in the letter that it intended to proceed with amalgamation by 1 July would not sway this Committee one way or another. I said that we would carry out our responsibilities of conducting the inquiry and would report in the normal way. We would hope that we would report fairly quickly and we would hope that we would report well, but we would not be swayed by the particular amalgamation date that the Government suggested. So there was not any attempt by the Minister to make the Committee work in a particular way, and the Committee was not going to be swayed that way, anyway.

Some comments were made about the public hearing that we had on Monday of this week. I am not quite sure that I heard all the comments that were made because, as I indicated in my opening remarks, I was not able to be in the chamber to hear them all. Yet most of the evidence that was given to us on Monday was given in good faith. We heard evidence from organisations which were quite keen to see the SBS stay as a separate organisation, and we accepted that evidence in good faith. But the evidence that was given to us by the Department of Communications and by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation was given to us in good faith. There was only one aspect of the evidence that I was concerned about, and I think I can say that in here without breaching the confidence of what happened at the hearings because I did mention at the hearings themselves that I was concerned about one aspect. I refer to the fact that the evidence in relation to the possible costs of amalgamation was not as firm as the Committee would have liked. I, and some of the other honourable senators on the Committee, indicated this when we were speaking to witnesses who were before us. I just mention that it has not stopped there. I did not quite hear what was said, but I think the comment was made that there was no evidence to say that there would be savings of $1m or $2m. But it has not stopped there, because we are about to ask the Department of Communications, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and, I think, the Steering Committee if they will get us some hard figures and they intend to do so. So the figures will be coming to the Committee at a subsequent stage.

At this stage I would just ask honourable senators to accept that whilst this is a controversial matter that the Committee is looking into, it is doing its very best. The witnesses who have come before the Committee are also doing their best to assist. If we think that we do not have sufficient information, we will ask for and try to get that information. If we do not get the information, we will just try again. If the information is not forthcoming eventually, we will report in such a way to the Senate. But I do not think that that will happen. It would be great if, while this inquiry is being undertaken, the Senate realises that the Committee will be doing its best and that most of the witnesses who come before us are quite genuine in their attempt to help in one way or another.

The actual motion before the chamber at the moment is that the Senate adopt the report. By adopting the report, we will be adopting what the Committee has set out as its interpretation of the terms of reference before us. I would have liked to see this report adopted before we had our public hearing on Monday. We had been working on our interpretation of the terms of reference prior to its having been adopted by the Senate as a whole. We had to do this because to do otherwise would have delayed the inquiry by at least three or four weeks. I commend the report to the Senate and thank those people who have made a contribution to the debate. I suggest that the report be adopted.

Question resolved in the affirmative.