Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Full Day's HansardDownload Full Day's Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 28 April 1932

Mr PATERSON (Gippsland) .- The provisions of this bill were under discussion when the House went into recess about six weeks ago. The Government proposes under this measure to place wireless broadcasting under some form of national control. The PostmasterGeneral (Mr. Fenton) in his secondreading speech on the bill said that the field of broadcasting was so wide that the exercise of some form of control on behalf of the nation was legitimate, and he pointed out that the scope of broadcasting was ever widening* Indeed he became enthusiastic when dealing with the possibilities of intraempire programmes at no very distant date. The honorable gentleman gave his imagination full play in that regard when, he drew a word picture Of dark skinned peoples with somewhat scanty sartorial equipment listening ecstatically to grand opera* In fact he dilated .more upon that aspect of the subject than Upon the provisions of the bill'.

Admittedly it vs impossible to divorce the technical transmission services from the post office, particularly in relation to trunk line transmission, and I offer no objection to the national control of experiments in this regard. But national control Of broadcasting does not necessarily imply ministerial control of it. Unfortunately this bill as it was originally introduced, was designed to hand over the control of broadcasting to a national commission which would have been absolutely in ministerial leading strings. It was apparently intended . by the Government to place the proposed commission under a greater measure of control than that suggested by the honorable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr. A. Green) when he was Postmaster-General in the previous Government. I am glad that the bill may be improved, to some extent by the amendments foreshadowed by the Minister for Trade and Customs when it was previously under discussion. The amendments indicated at that time related to clauses 5 and 16 in particular, but also to certain other clauses. Clause 5, as originally drafted, provided that the commission was to be entirely subordinate to the Postmaster-General. It was also provided in sub-clause 2 of clause 16 that the approval of the Minister had to be obtained to certain things.

The amendments which have been foreshadowed have removed some of the objections which a number of honorable members had t6 the bill in its original form; but in my opinion the measure can still be very greatly improved. For instance, it is provided in clause 19 that the propo"sed commission may not spend more than £5,000 without the consent of the Minister-. Is that a reasonable limit in view of the fact that the commission will have an annual income of about £200^000? Twelve shillings per licence on the number of licences at present in existence would yield about £200,000, yet under the provisions of this bill the commission may not spend more than two and a half per cent, of its annual income without the consent of the Minister. In other words it will have complete control of only the equivalent of nine days of its income. It should be given a much freer hand than that.

Sub-clause 2 of clause 20 also makes the commission subject to the Minister in certain respects for it reads -

The location of any studios to he provided by the cOmmission in pursuance of this section shall bc subject to the approval of the Minister.

We ought to repose confidence in the commission to the same extent as we trust, for example, the Commonwealth Bank Board. The first sub-clause of clause 21 appears to be dangerous. It reads -

The com mission shall transmit free of charge from all of the national broadcasting stations, or from such of them as are specified by the Minister, any matter the transmission of which is directed by the Minister as being in the public interest.

Surely we should trust the commission to broadcast anything within reason that the Government of the day believes desirable without actually stating in the bill that this shall be done. It appears that we' should bc whittling away the authority proposed to be given to the board by leaving clauses such as that in the bill. Clause 52 alfords another example of unnecessary ministerial interference. Clause 53 alone would be quite sufficient, if clause 52 were deleted.

The subject of the term for which the members of the board are to be appointed being inseparably associated with the matter of ministerial control, I ask honorable members to turn back to clause 7. It will be noticed that it is proposed to appoint five commissioners, the first, the chairman, for five years; another for four years, and the three remaining commissioners, for a term not exceeding three years. That would make it possible for a subsequent government to change the personnel entirely within the life of one Parliament, and I do not consider that to be desirable. One recognizes, of course, that the political views of succeeding governments will be reflected in the appointments made by them, but it is undesirable that any one government, in one term of office, should be able to make a clean sweep of a board of this character, as would be permitted under clause 7. One of the members of the board would sit until 1937, another until 1936", and three would go out of office not later than 1935, all of which dates come within the term of the next. Parliament, assuming that the present Parliament continues for The normal period.

In making appointments to the Common wealth Bank Board, current political control of that body lias been minimized to the utmost possible extent. The board consists of eight members, comprising the Governor of the Bank, the Secretary to the Treasury, and six appointees of the Government. The latter are appointed for seven, six, five, four, three, and two years respectively, in the first instance, and thereafter they hold office for seven years. Thus a sudden, wholesale change in the personnel of that board would be impossible, and there is a reasonable prospect of continuity of policy. Of course, it is true that a government which lasted foi' six or seven years could gradually change the character of the board ; but no government could remain so long in office unless it had the complete confidence of the people. We might well adopt the mct hod followed in appointing members of the Commonwealth Bank Board in dealing with appointments to the Broadcasting Commission. Five gentlemen are 10 be appointed to this body. Just as the Secretary to the Treasury is appointed to the Commonwealth Bank Board, and a useful liaison is thus obtained between the Treasury and the Commonwealth Bank, it is desirable to appoint the Director of Posts and Telegraphs as » member of the Broadcasting Commission. This gentleman has had wide administrative experience, and he also possesses a great deal of technical knowledge and tact. I believe that he would be n very valuable member of that board. If he were not appointed to it, it is to be presumed that he would attend meetings of the board, in order that he might be consulted, and, if so, why not make him a member of the board at the outset? I suggest that in lieu of the terms of office laid down in clause 7, the Government might well accept an amendment providing that - assuming the Director of Posts and Telegraphs is to bc on the board - the members shall be appointed in the first place for five, four, three and two years respectively, and thereafter for periods of five years. That would make it impossible for any one Parliament completely to change . the character of the board. If the Government cannot agree to the Director of Posts and Telegraphs being appointed to the board, I submit that the five members should be appointed in the first place for five, four, three, two and one years, and thereafter every five years. That would minimize the extent of possible current political control.

Because of the part-time character of the work, I do not condemn the Government's proposals for low salaries to the members of the board. Conflicting opinions have been expressed in this Parliament concerning them. One view was put forcibly by' the right honorable member for North Sydney (Mr. Hughes), who could see no good in a board which was not composed of whole-time appointees, who would do nothing except look after the work of national broadcasting. Other honorable members spoke in favour of the Government's proposition. I believe that success or failure could result under either arrangement; much will depend on the capacity of the persons chosen to constitute the board. ' My own opinion is that it would be preferable to have a part-time board functioning like the board of directors of a large business undertaking, the actual executive work being carried out by a well-paid and efficient full-time officer. The Commonwealth Bank itself is managed by a Governor. He is a full-time and highlypaid officer, and yet the general policy of that bank is laid down by a part-time beard, which meets not less than once a month. It will be admitted, I think, that the work of the Commonwealth Bank Board has been very successful. It seems to me that to appoint five full-time members of the Broadcasting Commission, and to expect each of them to fit into a suit- able niche in connexion with the executive work and practical management of this enterprise, is to hope for too much. Even if that were possible, it is undesirable, because these appointees would tend to become working parts of the enterprise, incapable of the unbiased and detached view which we would wish them to take. As I have already indicated, I agree with the proposal of the Government to have a part-time board.

I turn now to the financial arrangements proposed under the bill. The bill provides that of the listener's fee of 24s. half shall be paid to the Broadcasting Commission, assuring to that body an annual revenueof £200,000 to cover the provision of programmes for A class stations. Of the other 12s., 9s. is to be paid to the Postal Department, presumably in payment for technical transmission services, and 3s. to Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited for the use of certain patents as to the validity of which there is considerable doubt. As the Commonwealth Government holds half the shares in Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited, half of the fee of 3s. received by that company may be presumed to be paid to the Treasury. Wo are entitled to consider whether the proposed distribution of the revenue from wireless broadcasting is the best that could be devised. Clauses 45 and48 refer to technical services to be provided for the commission by the Postal Department, some of them free of cost, but presumably covered by the 9s. received by the department, and others to be paid for by the commission out of its revenue of 12s. per licence. The 9s. is more than sufficient to cover the services rendered by the Postal Department to the commission.

Mr Fenton - A considerable proportion of that amount is received by the Treasury.

Mr PATERSON - I am informed that about . £30,000 of this amount finds its way into general revenue. If the House considers it desirable that the Treasury should receive some direct contribution from this service, the better way would be to allocate a fixed amount and frankly regard it as a form of entertainment tax, instead of continuing the present system by which the Government receives an indefinite amount, which may grow to enormous proportions as wireless broadcasting develops, and about which Parliament may know very little. We have only to look back a comparatively few years to realize that some of the financial difficulties of the Australian railway systems have been caused by a similarly loose system of finance.U n til about 1914 most of the railways paid well, and large sums of their surplus receipts were paid into the Consolidated Revenues of the States. Little or no provision was made for a sinking fund, and to-day those systems are carrying huge capital costs which are not represented by real assets. It is desirable to avoida repetition of that mistake in connexion with wireless, and I suggest that we would be wise to allocate to the Government a definite amount of 2s. or 3s. per licence, and that the remaining 22s. should be paid into the fund of the Broadcasting Commission, which would reimburse the Postal Department for services rendered.

Mr Rosevear - Would not the better policy be to allow the commission to handle all listeners' fees, utilize what it wanted for the development of the service, and pay the surplus to the Treasury?

Mr PATERSON - I do not think so. The payment of 3s. a licence to Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited for the use of certain patent rights is governed by an agreement having a currency of five years from the 1st November, 1927. It will not automatically terminate on the 31st October of this year because provision is made that the Government shall give twelve months' notice of its intention to terminate the arrangement. The Government would do well to give such notice immediately. The agreement would then continue for another twelve months, which would be ample time for the Government and the company to arrange their future relations. There are good grounds for the adoption of that course. When this agreement was made five years ago, the Bruce-Page Government was more than a little dubious of the validity of some of the company's patents, and. decided to put upon it the onus of proving its claims. The only practical method that suggested itself was to require

Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited to institute proceedings in New South Wales and Victoria against private firms, and in New' Zealand against the Government, for alleged infringement of patent rights. The schedule of the agreement required' the company to institute such proceedings without delay, and unless it was successful in one of the three actions the undertaking to pay 3s. per licence-fee would lapse. The company took action against Farmers, of Sydney, and failed. Then proceedings were instituted against Myers in Melbourne; apparently that firm realized that it had nothing at stake in the action, and that the only interest that would gain or lose would be the Commonwealth Government. It, therefore, decided not to incur the expense and trouble of defending the action, and, apparently, for that reason alone, Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited was successful, judgment going by default. Action against the New Zealand Government had been commenced, but having secured a questionable win over Myers, Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited decided to withdraw the third action; the inference is that it did not estimate highly its chance of success. In this way the company was able to fulfil the conditions of the agreement, which would entitle it to a payment of 3s. per listener's licence. The sooner the Government gives notice of the termination of the agreement with a view to reconsidering the whole subject, the better.

Whether the Government adheres to its own proposals for the distribution of broadcasting revenue, or agrees to the suggestions which have been made during this debate, it would be wise to ear-mark a definite sum of 2s. per licence for the erection of new relay stations. This would make available annually a sum of £34,000, sufficient to provide one new relay station each year. This fund might be furnished by taking ls. from the 12s. to be paid to the Broadcasting Commission, and another ls. from the proposed payment to the Postal Department; or if the whole of the fees be paid to theBroadcasting Commission, less a payment in the form of entertainment tax to the Treasury, the 2s. could be set aside for the main fund.

I draw the attention of the House to the extraordinary wording of clause 24-

The commission shall, as far as possible, give encouragement to the development of local talent and endeavour to obviate restriction of the utilization of the services of persons who, in the opinion of the commission, are competent to make useful contributions to broadcasting programmes.

Mr Gabb - Such restriction is alleged in many quarters.

Mr PATERSON - That may be so, but the mention of it in the bill is unusual. I am inclined to believe that the B class stations also- should be under the oversight of the Broadcasting Commission. Their programmes would, of course, continue to be the concern of the licensees, but I see no reason why the Postal Department should determine the granting of licences for B class stations, while another authority should be set up to control broadcasting, but only in respect of national stations. Why not place broadcasting generally under the authority of the National Broadcasting Commission, and make it a commission in reality as well as in name? Probably a better _result would be obtained by having both A class and. B class stations under the oversight of one body than by having one class dealt with by the post office and the other by the commission.

I shall now sum up briefly the different points which I have endeavoured to make. My first point related to the degree of ministerial interference which is still provided foi1 in the bill, despite the improvements that have been made under the amendments dealt with by the Minister for Trade and Customs. In clauses 20, 21 and 52 there is room for a great deal of ministerial interference. I referred also to the term of the appointments. That, I think, could bc considerably improved upon, so as to reduce the possibility of what might be called current political control. Then, again, the inclusion of the Director of Posts and Telegraphs in the personnel of the National Broadcasting Commission would be a great advantage. I also referred to the early notice which should be given to Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited, respecting the discontinuance of the existing agreement in regard to patents. I have already said that, in respect of the apportionment of the total amount of 24s., a definite small amount should be paid into Consolidated Revenue as a kind of entertainment tax, and the remainder should be dealt with by the commission, the post office being paid for its services by- that body. I have also suggested that 2s. out of the total of 24s. should be ear-marked for the erection of one new station each year. If these changes, and possibly others which other honorable members may suggest, were embodied in the bill, it would be legislation worth while, and I shall, when the appropriate time comes, either move, or support, amendments with the object of bringing about these changes.

Suggest corrections