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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1453

Senator POWELL(3.41) —I was a member of the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation which, along with Senator Puplick, I consider has been treated in a most cavalier way today by the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh). I am somewhat reluctant to speak. The last time I saw an expression such as that which is now on Senator Chaney's face was when a cat swallowed a canary. The Manager of Government Business in the Senate (Senator Gareth Evans) has offered to us the excuse that there have been some ministerial crossed wires. It seems to me that there are at least a couple of Ministers in this Government who obviously do not have their electrical trades union ticket. As a member of the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation, I think this is par for the course. It was obvious from the beginning that the Government's response to the report of the Committee was somewhat inevitable.

As a member of that Committee who was not bound by the inevitability of that response, I found the work undertaken by the Committee a most challenging experience. In fact, as a relatively new member to this place and this being my first Senate select committee, my view tended to be confirmed that somehow or other Lewis Carroll must have done considerable research in either this place or one very much like it when he was writing Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, which have made such a contribution to English literature.

It is very disturbing that legislation which a chamber of the significance of the Senate sees as important enough to send, at great expense and time, to a committee-a committee which has had to be established-is to be treated in this kind of cavalier way. I point out, however, that in the response which, I suggest, was quite improperly tabled during Question Time today, the Minister said that Committee members had to consider issues raised, particularly technical matters of considerable importance and complexity. This Committee certainly had before it very important matters of extreme complexity. I remind the Senate that the two relevant Bills-that is, the Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1986 and the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1986-are designed, in the Government's view at least, to bring a broader range of television programming to country people. The Committee had to look at those specific Bills in an environment in which the Government had tabled its intention to change dramatically the rules pertaining to media ownership and control. Before the Committee even sat, there was an enormous amount of movement in the market. In fact, the whole area of ownership and control was moving towards extremely increased concentration. It was moving in the direction of many rather dubious situations pending up-coming Government legislation which, of course, is not the particular legislation that the Government says that it intends to bring back to us in terms of the two Bills I have mentioned.

In that context, the Australian Democrats were particularly concerned about these issues, not just the technical matters which are stressed in the Government's response that was tabled today. The Australian Democrats attempted to extend both the terms of reference and the time of this Committee so that it could properly deliberate on those proposals for changes in ownership and control of Australia's media. In spite of Senator Puplick's protestations about the importance of this issue and some of the responses of the majority report, and despite his feelings about these matters, I remind the Senate that the Australian Democrats stood alone in wanting to extend those terms of reference and the time. Senator Puplick himself said the Committee needed more time, that its terms of reference were limited.

It is not unimportant to say that it was quite obvious right from the beginning that the Committee was constrained by the fact that all of the evidence presented to it on behalf of the Government by the Department of Communications rested on the fact that the Government had decided that three commercial services would be provided. That was the magic number; there was no room at all for any other considerations. It was a matter of Government policy. So the Committee's hands were tied to that extent.

As I said at the beginning, I rose with some reluctance to speak although I was prompted, of course properly, by my feeling that this Committee, and certainly the dissenting reports of the Committee, has been treated in a very cavalier way. I would also underline the point made earlier by Senator Puplick that, while the majority report is just that, it rests on the casting vote of the Chairman. I do not wish to take up too much time of the Senate. As I have said, one can see the glee of the Opposition as a result of sparks flying from the crossed wires of certain Government Ministers. That is the very thing which the Opposition is looking for this week. The Opposition is looking for a delay in the Senate's business because obviously there is some concern that the Opposition's ranks-whatever the ranks are at the moment-might not hold. I have not heard a newscast for the last hour or two about the future business of this chamber this week. Certainly the Minister has stated that the Government wishes to have the Bills which the Senate Select Committee was considering before the Senate this week. While that might be the Government's desire, I am equally certain that it is the Opposition's desire not to have the Australia Card legislation brought to a vote because the Opposition is not sure what its members will do. There is no problem at all with what the Australian Democrats will do. We will throw out the Australia Card legislation.

I wish to say, however, in terms of the response which was tabled, inadvertently or whatever, at Question Time today, that I am not ecstatic that the majority recommendation concerning the appointment of an independent consultant actually to give independent advice on the very complex technical issues, which I think all members of the Committee agreed needed to be done, is simply noted by the Government. That is certainly one of the very few recommendations that were unanimous, yet it was only noted by the Government. We cannot advance on the technical matters when there is so much dispute between the Department and outside experts who came before the Committee and who were all in the employ of people in the industry with understandable interests. It is essential that the Government take up that recommendation which, as I said, was a recommendation of all of the Committee members.

I would also like to refer to the Mildura and Griffith situations. Senator Puplick has already made some reference to them. I note that the Government's response says, in relation to Mildura and Griffith, that the specific recommendations of the majority report will be canvassed with respective licensee companies. Just this morning I spoke with a representative of the Mildura licensee company. There will be those senators who have not yet read the report in the short space of one week because of their busy lives and perhaps because they did not have an advance copy. But obviously, to get it through in one week, some Government members must have been very up to date. The majority report came down with the most outrageous decision in relation to Mildura, which, as Senator Puplick said, was quite left out and totally isolated by the proposals of the Government.

I remind the Senate that Mildura is a major centre in the far north-west corner of Victoria-only just in Victoria-and is a very important primary industry production area with a relatively small television viewing population. But in the majority report, the Government members, in order to toss something in, said: `Let us suggest that at some time in the future it be linked to an approved market, probably in South Australia'. As a Victorian, I reminded the Committee that in fact there are even different time zones between those two States and that I felt that the people of Mildura would find that quite inappropriate. I can tell the Government that it might want to canvass the majority report not just with the licensees of those companies, but certainly from the point of view of the population in that area. It may be a small population, but it is clearly recognisable that that is a token gesture on behalf of the Government, and something better will definitely have to be done.

As I said, I do not want to take too much of the time of the Senate. However, I also wish to refer to the comment made in the paper before us on the question of video and audio entertainment and information services and other services which are currently authorised under the Radiocommunications Act and/or the Telecommunications Act rather than the Broadcasting and Television Act. One of the recommendations in my dissenting report was that these sorts of services should all come under the Broadcasting Act. I am disappointed to see that the Government clearly has no intention of making that rational kind of change to what is really an important part of the upcoming aspects of technology. In this response the Government claims to have some understanding of what is before us. The Government in its response says:

The Television industry is of vital importance to the nation and to individual Australians, an intrinsic part of their social and cultural environment.

But the failure to address such issues demonstrates that what we in fact have is a government which is paying far more attention to what it believes to be in the best interests of the major owners, few in number, of the major portions of our communications media and which is totally ignoring the best interests of the Australian community as a whole, in particular the best interests of those people in the Australian community who live outside major urban centres. I am certainly encouraged in the knowledge that the legislation will not pass-that is, if once again the ranks of the Liberal-National coalition Opposition are able to hold together on this matter as on any other-because I believe that, if it were to proceed, because of the technical difficulties which bring into play considerable economic difficulties and because the magic number three equals the magic number of major network owners in Australia, the whole of regional television services would be in the hands of those people. As a Melburnian whose home town is currently suffering from the networking system out of Sydney, I have no desire to see the people of Horsham, Bendigo, Ballarat, Mildura, Shepparton or any other regional centre in my State or any other State delivered into the hands of any of the major capital cities. We are already seeing that it is not good enough to be Melbourne against the might of Sydney. I suggest that, if this procedure continues, it will not be good enough to be Sydney against the might of Los Angeles.

I think there is a sense of inevitability about this. That has actually been confirmed by the arguments, for instance, of Senator Richardson when the Australian Democrats were arguing for extension of the terms of reference and the time of this Committee. He simply said: `There is just not time'. I apologise to Senator Richardson; it was actually Senator Chaney who, in leading the Opposition's opposition to our motion for the suspension of Standing Orders in order to proceed with the extension of the terms of reference, said: `It is too late. It has all happened'. Again, in the debate when the Senate Select Committee's report was brought down, Senator Giles unfortunately, in arguing her case for supporting a 75 per cent ownership rule, actually said that she believed that in fact it was too late to do anything anyhow.

I believe that it is up to this Parliament to stand up. I certainly hope that this chamber will at least stand up when the new legislation which we are promised on ownership and control does come before us. I note with concern that, of the other members of the Committee, only Senator Puplick stands with me in opposing the 75 per cent ownership rule. He has proposed a 43 per cent rule. I believe that it should be, at the most, a 35 per cent rule. Whatever it is, I certainly hope that, between the time that we are having this debate and when the Government does come up with its media ownership and control legislation, Senator Puplick and his spokesperson colleague in the other House, Mr Macphee, are able to muster their forces, although at the moment they appear to be few in number and even less in strength. In the same way as the Australian Democrats and the Opposition will see to it that the aggregation proposals of the Government which would deliver country and regional television into the hands of the media moguls will fail in this House, I hope that when the ownership and control rules come up we will not allow all of Australia's media to fall into the hands of very few people and that we in fact get strict ownership and control rules. If the Government's proposals in the area of cross-media ownership, which is fairly well fudged at the moment, are not good enough, I hope that the Opposition can join with the Democrats to ensure that we really do have good and very strong cross-media controls.

I turn from cross-media to crossed wires. It is unfortunate that we are taking the time of the Parliament, but I believe, as a member of the Senate Select Committee, that it was important that I put on the record the fact that I think there has been a cavalier attitude taken to the Committee, to its report and to the tabling of the Government's response in this manner. I again encourage the Opposition to listen carefully to many of the things which Senator Puplick and I have said in relation to all of these matters.