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Thursday, 18 November 1976
Page: 2862

Mr Eric Robinson (MCPHERSON, QUEENSLAND) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill is designed to give effect to Government decisions in regard to the licensing, regulation, planning and administration of the Australian broadcasting system. It also relates to the restructuring of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and a revision of certain of its relationships with the Public Service Board. In a statement to the House on 23 March 1976, I called for a review of broadcasting having in mind a number of major deficiencies which had become widely recognised over recent years. At this stage in the development of our broadcasting system, there is the need to redefine the responsibilities of the Government and its instrumentalities in broadcasting matters, and to update administrative procedures. Still further, there should be greater opportunity for both public and industry involvement in broadcasting development and a revision of planning, licensing and regulatory processes so that they are more in accord with today's conditions.

Much of the present broadcasting legislation is also very much outmoded and is not suitable to accommodate the emerging public sector of broadcasting. Consequently, the Government decided in April 1976 that an inquiry should be undertaken by the Postal and Telecommunications Department. The inquiry has now been completed and its report, which has been referred to as the Green report, was tabled in both Houses of the Parliament on 9 November 1976. So far as the structure of the broadcasting system is concerned the Government has decided upon a number of major changes. The first two of these cover the disbandment of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board and the establishment of an Australian Broadcasting Tribunal. The Tribunal will be a 'quasi-judicial' body with powers to hold public inquiries into the grant and renewal of licences in the commercial and public sectors. Powers of the Tribunal will also extend into such matters as the setting of standards of broadcasting practice, alleged breaches of licence conditions, or any aspect of broadcasting referred to it by the Minister. It will also assume the present Ministerial responsibilities to grant, renew, suspend or revoke licences as well as impose conditions on licences, or impose penalties.

The Tribunal will ultimately be granted all the powers presently available to either the Minister or the Australian Broadcasting Control Board in the administration of ownership and control provisions applicable to broadcasting licences. The grant of these powers to a separate independent statutory authority will substantially reduce the possibility of political involvement in the licensing process. It will extend the functions of the Tribunal beyond those previously exercised by the Australian Broadcasting Control Board. It will be required to license public as well as commercial stations, and to hold public inquiries into the renewal of licences. The legislative amendments required to fully implement the decisions of Government in the licensing area are quite extensive. It has not been possible for Parliamentary Counsel to complete all of the necessary drafting in time for consideration in this session of Parliament. As an interim measure, therefore, this Bill is designed to establish the Tribunal, specify its membership and transfer to it the Control Board's present functions and responsibilities with regard to licensing and public inquiries.

In addition, and also as an interim measure, the Tribunal will, under the provisions of this Bill, assume the responsibilities of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board in administering the present standards of broadcasting practice. The Tribunal will be directed by me to hold a public inquiry into the concept of a greater degree of self regulation' by the industry itself as proposed in the report, based on minimum standards to be determined by the Tribunal. The Tribunal will also recommend whether the national sector should conform to such standards. The public will thus have the opportunity of expressing its view whether the ABC should be subject to the same minimum standards of broadcasting practice as the commercial and public broadcasters. Should the Tribunal find that the community favours more autonomy being given to the broadcasters by allowing them to develop and largely administer their own codes of programming and advertising practice, the Tribunal would then withdraw from the day-to-day administration of standards. It would examine only those significant matters of standards or regulation referred to it by a representative body of the broadcast operators, such as the Broadcasting Council designated in this Bill.

It should be mentioned at this stage that the present programming and advertising standards as administered by the Australian Broadcasting Control Board, are considered by the broadcasting industry, much of the public, and even by the Board itself, as being outmoded and antiquated under today's conditions. The early establishment of an Australian Broadcasting Tribunal will facilitate the machinery and procedures for any move toward more appropriate or flexible form of regulation which may be considered desirable following full public discussion and debate on this issue. As far as the planning functions are concerned it is important to stress that these relate essentially to the improvement of, or extensions to, the physical services of the system. They do not relate to any form of program planning, which is the responsibility of the operators themselves. The department would be concerned only with the programming spectrum provided through the national, commercial and public sectors of the system. This will be for the purpose of establishing whether new services should be planned to provide for special interest, minority or alternative forms of programming which are not currently being provided.

Planning the physical development of the Austraiian broadcasting system is properly a matter for government as it is closely related to its overall communications policy, and its current responsibility for the management of the radio frequency spectrum. Planning therefore involves the translation of the Government's strategic broadcasting policies into priorities, and in accord with the availability of resources. It is a 2-part process, as planning provides an important input to policy formation, and is also an essential element in the detailed implementation of policy. The Department already carries out an advisory role to the Minister on broadcasting matters. The Government has therefore decided that it is a logical extension of this role for the closely associated planning processes to also be undertaken by the Department.

In addition, it is the view of the Government that appropriate machinery and procedures should be provided for a regular form of industry consultation on planning matters so that each sector of broadcasting will have an opportunity to comment on plans drawn up by the Department. This will be facilitated by the establishment of the Broadcasting Council provided for in this Bill.

Sitting suspended from 1 to 2.15 p.m.

Mr Eric Robinson (MCPHERSON, QUEENSLAND) - The Council will be made up largely of representatives from the national, commercial and public sectors of broadcasting. All plans prepared by the Department will be submitted to meetings of the Council as standard procedure. Each sector of the industry will, therefore, be fully informed of the planning proposals, and have the opportunity to debate and record its views on the planning issues involved. This is a major step forward and it is hoped that, by this process, more informed judgments on future plans will be possible.

I emphasise that the Council is not an executive body with power to take decisions on planning. It is consultative only. Some critics apparently see it as having authority to take decisions affecting the ABC and lessening the present powers and independence of the Commission. Let me emphasise again that the Council will have no such power to make decisions in respect of the ABC's role and policies. It will also be a responsibility of the Department to administer the technical standards as approved by the Minister in relation to the technical equipment and operation of broadcasting and television stations. Its technical staff will also detect sources of interference with the transmission or reception of station broadcasts or telecasts. This latter responsibility is already carried out by the Department on behalf of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board. Associated with these functions, the Department will also conduct the necessary examinations as to the competency of persons to operate the technical equipment of broadcasting and television stations. Two new provisions have been included in this legislation which relate to the composition and staffing of the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

It is considered that as the ABC is a national service provided through a large networking arrangement to all States throughout Australia, that there should be at least 6 commissioners to represent people from different States. At present there is an imbalance of State representation with some States having no representation at all. It is well recognised that there are widely differing programming needs by people located in the various regions throughout Australia. We believe that State appointments will provide for more positive representation of those needs. The existing legislation also provides for at least one commissioner to be a woman. Having regard to the high interest which is being taken in the improvement of programs for children as well as those of more specific interest to women, and also the fact that considerably increased attention is being given to the social consequences of broadcasting, it has been decided to increase the minimum number of women on the commission to at least two. This is not to say, of course, that additional women who have the qualifications, skills or experience which would enable them to make a valuable contribution will not be appointed to the Commission.

The Bill provides for the full number of Commissioners to remain at nine and any new appointments which become necessary, will be made in keeping with the revised composition of the Commission, as I have outlined.

As a result of this legislation, the Commission will also be given greater flexibility in its staffing arrangements. In future the creation or reclassification of positions within the Commission, and the determination of salaries or salary ranges, will no longer require the approval of the Public Service Board where such positions involve salaries below that of the lowest level of the second division. The Bill also provides for a joint consultative committee which will set up formal consultative machinery to facilitate the greatest degree of co-operation between the staff and management of the Commission. I emphasise that the Government expects this machinery to be used regularly by members of the Commission, its management and staff, and cognisance taken of the views expressed. Two other provisions of the present Act requiring ministerial approval for contracts entered into by the Commission where they are in excess of $100,000 have now been relaxed to require ministerial approval only where they are $250,000 or more. These matters are in accord with Government's policy to provide the Commission with greater autonomy in the management of its daytoday operations. It is thus the very opposite to some critics who interpret our decisions as leading to greater government interference in the ABC.

One of the important new provisions in this Bill is that which will permit the licensing of public broadcasting and television stations under the Broadcasting and Television Act. At the present time these stations can only be licensed under the inadequate provisions of the Wireless Telegraph Act. Finally, the Bill covers a number of transitional provisions relative to the transfer of the functions and powers of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal. Matters of property, instruments, agreements, proceedings, rights, liabilities and the like to which the Board was a party before commencing day are specified in terms of the manner in which transitional arrangements will apply. These transitional provisions are also extended as necessary to cover the amendments made to the principal Act in respect of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Appointments made to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and the Broadcasting Council between the time of royal assent to the new Act and commencement date, will not have effect before 1 January 1977. There is also provision for the making of all necessary regulations under the principal Act as may be required by the amendments of the new Act. I commend the Bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Dr Cass) adjourned.

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