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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1449


Senator PUPLICK(3.19) —Government responses to complicated Senate committee reports are occasionally known to have taken quite some time. In relation to a very complicated, technical inquiry, such as that into the future of regional broadcasting in Australia, when a Senate committee has taken a considerable amount of time and effort to develop a response and make recommendations to a government, it is not unusual for a government to take three, six, nine, 12 months, or, in the case of reports on plant variety rights and such matters, two years, before its response is presented. Yet here we have a report which is tabled one week and answered by the Government, in terms of its formal response, the next. It is not, as Senator Gareth Evans would have us believe, a Press statement; it is a document entitled `Government Response to Senate Select Committee Report on Television Equalisation'. That has been presented within a week.

The reason, of course, that the Government can do that is that prior to the commencement of the inquiry by the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation the majority report had already been written and prior to the publication of the majority report the Government response had already been drafted. Interestingly enough, the Government's legislation, the Government's submission to the inquiry, the briefing that the Chairman had, the briefing that Senator Robert Ray had, the speech that Senator Richardson made on the tabling of the report, the speech that Senator Robert Ray made on the tabling of the report, and the Government's response to the Committee report all bear indelibly the mark of the same hand. I do not believe that the Government was ever likely to be prepared to take the recommendations of the Senate Committee seriously to the extent that they ever departed from the grand strategy that the Government had laid down as a result, as we well know, of the discussions which had taken place to make sure that the mates of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and their interests were properly accommodated in terms of the Government's long term policy on the development of television services in Australia.

The recommendation of the Government majority basically was this: `We agree with the Bill as it is proposed; we agree with the two station abolition rule; we agree with 75 per cent ownership; we agree with the rules on cross-media ownership; without being specific about them; we think there ought to be three commercial television services as soon as practicable'. The Government having got all the significant parts it wanted from the Senate Committee and having got them from the Senate Committee only on the basis of the casting vote of the Chairman being available to fulfil the correct recommendations from the brief that the Committee was originally given, in order to tart the whole thing up the Committee majority was minded to make a series of additional little recommendations-one about services in Tasmania, one about services in Geelong, one about the services in Cairns, and one about the abolition of the one-in all-in rule. All of those were taken by the Government and monumentally considered. These are all important recommendations-they are important for the people of Geelong, the people of Tasmania and the people of Cairns, and they are important as far as the path of aggregation is concerned-and it took the Government all of five or six days to consider all of the evidence, all of the material and all of the recommendations and to reject them out of hand. Of course, it is very easy for it to do that because they were always going to be rejected out of hand. They were never part of the Government's original package.

The Government was never serious about allowing this matter to be investigated by a Senate committee. It was never serious that it would allow itself to be deviated in any respect from the plan which had been laid down by the Cabinet on the basis of all of the shabby deals that had been done with the proprietors and the mates around the place. The Government made sure that the Committee was well corralled. It had found its two most effective number crunchers, one to sit as Chairman of the Committee and the other, Senator Ray, to make sure that there was no repeat of the Australia Card fiasco when the Government learnt its lesson in regard to a committee which actually attempted to deal with a matter and on which one of the Labor members, having seen the light on the basis of the Committee's investigations, combined with members of the Liberal Party, the National Party of Australia and the Australian Democrats to recommend again the introduction of the Australia Card. The Government was not going to allow that to occur. It certainly was not going to allow the weight of evidence to persuade anybody on the Government side. So when it had waiverers on the Government side, it made sure that Senator Richardson and Senator Robert Ray were there to make certain that the line was held, and the line indeed was held. It would have been broken if we had had a little more time for the evidence to come forward and be properly analysed, but the Government did not intend to take the risk it took when it let poor old Senator Aulich chair the Joint Select Committee on the Australia Card. He did not manage to hold the Government's majority together. The Government was determined from the outset to get this legislation, come hell or high water.

The Government managed to produce within the space of less than a week a government response and in order to try to pre-empt the debate on this-the Government wants this matter dealt with on Wednesday, because it wants both the Australia Card dealt with and the tele- vision legislation dealt with this week-the Government thought that it could sneak into the chamber and drop the Government response by way of a sort of throwaway line in answer to a dorothy dix question from the Chairman of the Committee, nonetheless. One thing one must say about Senator Richardson is that he carries a brief very well when it is given to him. When he is given a piece of paper by the Minister or whoever acts on behalf of the Minister, he knows precisely what he is to do with it. He is supposed to come in here at Question Time today and ask Senator Walsh-whose monumental disinterest in all matters of communication is well known-whether he can be told when the Government might respond. Lo and behold, there it is, Senator Walsh has an answer which says `Well, I have a piece of paper'-it is a bit like Senator Ryan-`Here it is. It is entitled ``Government response to Senate Committee Report on Television Equalisation'', and I will table it'. That was terrific. The Government might have thought it a wonderful way to avoid any debate on the Government's response.

Then Senator Evans had to come in here and plead that it is a terrible mistake, it was supposed to be a Press release. The Government's response was not to come down until Wednesday, in order to give us the time to look at it and to debate it at the same time as we were to debate the legislation. In other words, we had to respond to both the Government's response and to the legislation itself, all in the one day, all in a matter of a few hours, presumably. It was to happen on a fairly short sitting day, on Wednesday, in order to get the Government's legislation dealt with, in the expectation that it would be able to force a situation in which perhaps the Bill would be defeated. Then the Government would be able to run around the country wringing its hands about what the Opposition had done to regional television, that it was a terrible plot, setting out what had to be done as a response, and how the cross-media ownership rule, the 75 per cent coverage, and the one-in-all-in rule could not be put into legislation which would be brought forward in order to look after the Government's mates in the media, to butter up all the necessary bosses and magnates prior to the calling of an early election. Suddenly, the Government found that the strategy went off the rails because, once again, Ministers were not smart enough to know that one does not just drop things at Question Time and hope that people will not notice them. Here as a result we have the opportunity to look at the Government's response to the Senate Select Committee report. On page 2 it states:

The Government endorses the substantive recommendations on the majority report . . .

Of course that comes as an enormous surprise to everybody. Here was a Government majority relying on the casting vote of a Government-appointed chairman, one of the most skilful, articulate and well known number crunchers in the Labor Party, who basically says `Of course, we should support the Government's recommendations'. We are then supposed to be vaguely surprised when the Government comes forward and says, `The Government believes that this is a wonderful massive endorsement of the plan we have put forward, and we are prepared to indicate that we endorse the substantive recommendations. We are prepared to abolish the two-station rule and replace it with a 75 per cent rule with concomitant cross-media ownership limitations'. We do not know what that means. We have no idea until such time as the Government comes clean with precisely what it is that it means about those cross-media ownership limitations. The definitions which were given in the Department of Communications submission to the Joint Select Committee were thoroughly inadequate. When we pressed the Department as to whether scenario A or scenario B was the correct interpretation, we got from Mr Westerway, in the most marvellous of the Sir Humphrey moulds: `I am sorry, senator, that is a matter of policy. You will have to ask the Minister'. When we made inquiries of the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) through Senator Richardson and asked what the Government meant in this respect, Senator Richardson was put in the position of saying: `Well I am sorry, but the Department is working on it'. We had this marvellous Yes Minister approach. Yet these rules are supposed to be ready to be brought forward in what the statement says is appropriate legislation in the current session of the Parliament. Presumably, this must be fairly close. We should have been told what these rules were. We were not told; we pressed, but we got no satisfactory answers from Mr Westerway.

Then we turned to the question of the one-in all-in rule. Here we had an attempt by Senator Richardson to hurry things along a little. Here we saw once more some marvellous interplay of the internal politics of the Australian Labor Party. It will be well remembered-and it is documented in my dissenting report-that there were disagreements between Mr Duffy, on the one hand, and Mr Hawke, Mr Keating and their media friends on the other. Senator Richardson, in attempting to pull the last teeth out of the Duffy proposals for any degree of choice in the matter, decided to slip in a recommendation that had been missed when all this was at Cabinet level and move directly to aggregation by abolishing the `one in, all in' rule and speeding up the timetable for aggregation. In one last ditch stand, Mr Duffy, like General Custer, was at least going to try to save something of his honour out of the whole thing, so the Government has recommended that particular sleight of hand. In the statement it continues with the mythology that there is actually an option. It says that it rejects the majority recommendation because the effect of this would be:

. . . to deny this option to licensees in approved markets.

In effect, it is trying to tell us that there was a real option available-to proceed either by direct aggregation or by the multi-channel service route when we know in fact that the MCS route was already a poisoned chalice. It had been poisoned by the maintenance of the two-station rule on the one hand and by the 28-day `submit your plans for ministerial veto, rule on the other.

Then we come to the question of the independent consultant on the VHF-FM frequencies for radio, the VHF-UHF problems which we have been discussing and the process for band 2 clearance. Here at least the Committee threw out a lifebelt to the Minister. Here is the poor Minister with the Department of Communications determined to have its band 2 clearance program, and the independent operators, particularly WIN4 in Wollongong and NBN3 in Newcastle clearly going to be disadvantaged by these proposals. The Opposition members on the Select Committee came up with the recommendations that we should look at the whole thing again and perhaps appoint an independent consultant. We know, of course, that the trick about independent consultants is that if one picks an independent consultant from Great Britain one will get one answer; if one picks an independent consultant from the United States, from the Federal Communications Commission, one will get an entirely different answer. At least the Government was given the option of picking the expert to give it the advice that it wanted to hear in the first place anyway. That would have remained an option and the Government is happy to pick that up although it says that it will be sympathetic to the suggestion of engaging a consultant `to assist in resolving this complex issue'. In the meantime there will be `further discussions'.

At least in relation to Mildura and Griffith the Committee was able to come to some recommendation to do something about those poor stations which had been double-crossed by the Government. It is very interesting to see just how unwise it is to trust this Government because when the first aggregated market plans were published in the first draft indicative plan, both Mildura and Griffith were put in a position where they had the opportunity to make enormous windfall gains out of the aggregated market. So they rushed off to the media and said `This is terrific. The Government has put together the greatest draft indicative plan we can think of and we want to make a public and ringing endorsement of this marvellous government plan'. The Government touted it around the regional television industry and said: `Look, we have these wonderful letters of commendation, these wonderful statements from Mildura and Griffith saying how great the plan is'. Then the Government re-did all the plans and both Mildura and Griffith were absolutely steamrolled in the whole process. Instead of being in an aggregated market with a chance to make millions, they suddenly found that they had been dropped right out. The reward that they were given for actually endorsing the government strategy was to be left absolutely in the lurch. Those two stations then had to come along to the Committee and plead that they had been left in the lurch. The Committee tried to pick up their concerns and now the Government thinks, `Terrific! This is a way to get those regionals off our backs; we will at least try to pick up part of the Committee recommendations'. That was not the majority recommendation, but a unanimous recommendation, because the dissenting reports also go to the question of the Mildura and Griffith licenses. As my colleague, Senator Lewis said, Cairns gets no joy out of the whole thing the regional broadcasting in North Queensland will be substantially disadvantaged if the Government proceeds with these plans.

The final points in this rather feeble statement include the endorsement of the situation that the Government had always proposed for Tasmania. We agonised over Tasmania and at the end of the day we had to come up with the all-in compromise. The one Tasmanian representative on the Committee was very concerned that people in Tasmania should be properly looked after, so with a great deal of reluctance, with his hand over his heart and a smile on his face-which is a fairly unusual thing for him-Senator Richardson settled upon the all-in compromise to look after Tasmania. But even that trick did not work. Even that sleight of hand did not work because the Tasmanian recommendation has in effect been rejected by the Government. As a result the ENT Ltd interests in Tasmania will be handed a windfall which will probably net them some $30m to $40m. There has been an attempt to say: `Well, they really will not be able to sell one of their licences to a friendly party because the proposed transfer would be subject to the approval of the Broadcasting Tribunal in the normal way pursuant to the provisions of the Broadcasting Act'. There is nothing at all in the Broadcasting Act which prevents the licence being sold to a person who fits the pure technical requirements of being technically competent, financially viable and a fit and proper person. It does not matter what sort of deal is entered into because there is plenty of scope for the Tasmanians to drive a horse and cart through the provisions of the Broadcasting Act.

We come now to the recommendation on cable television, which will not be endorsed because it is too expensive, despite the fact that the Government's preferred option will end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars to the Australian economy and to individual licensees. The transponders, the translaters and all the new broadcasting equipment have to be bought in order to make the system work, yet at the same time we are given this feeble excuse that cable television cannot be proceeded with at this stage because it is probably too expensive and not feasible. In the meantime the best way to provide the highest number of new services to people-that is, by the introduction of pay television-will be subject to a four-year moratorium. Indeed, according to this statement legislation will be introduced in order to make sure that for the next four years that pay television, which the Government would be endorsing if it were actually serious about providing additional services in regional areas of Australia, will be put to one side. We at least get a throwaway line about Aussat's new satellites replacement program being under current consideration by the Government.

Finally, we come to the statement:

Accordingly, the Government remains determined to see the passage of the Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1986 and the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1986 as soon as possible.

It is a case of put up or shut up. The Government says: `We want this Bill by Wednesday: We do not care what the rest of the program is; we are determined to see the passage of this legislation'. That will be an interesting debate. It will go on for a considerable time, both in this chamber and outside. The idea that this provision will be steamrollered through this place on Wednesday in order to fit in with the Government's timetable and in order to keep its mates in the media happy as it twists and squirms on the question of an early election will provide some very considerable amusement within this chamber and within the television industry as a whole.

The Government may remain determined to see the passage of this legislation as soon as possible, but I put it to you, Mr President, that it is going to find that that road is a great deal harder than it thought it would be. Perhaps it will also once again have learnt its lesson that one does not treat this chamber with contempt by trying to sneak in government responses to select committee reports in the course of Question Time and think that one can get away with it. Even Senator Gareth Evans, who has been driven out distraught by the whole thing, can see his legislative program for this week going down the drain pretty quickly. It is going down because, just as the Government has attempted to put together a shabby deal on regional television, it has attempted to put together a shabby deal in its treatment of a Senate committee by bringing down a response to its report in this fashion. Once again, the shabby trick has not worked.