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Monday, 6 December 1976

Dr CASS (Maribyrnong) -The whole community can only be appalled at and condemn the Government for the secrecy and haste of this whole sordid exercise. It was the paranoia of members of the Government, coupled with their inability to face reality, as reported in Australian Broadcasting Commission news services, which resulted in hysterical attacks on that organisation and which led to the spate of rumours about the future of the ABC. The Government's blatant political intimidation led us in the Opposition to initiate on 23 March 1976 as a matter of public importance a discussion on these threats to the Australian Broadcasting Commission. In responding to that debate, and clearly under pressure from increasing public concern about political pressure by the Government on the national network, the Minister for

Post and Telecommunications (Mr Eric Robinson) said:

I propose to recommend to the Government that it institute an inquiry into the industry.

A secret departmental inquiry was set up in April. The report was ready in October and was tabled on 9 November. Already the Government is ramming this inadequate and ill-considered legislation through the Parliament without even giving itself time to understand the nature of the problems of the electronic media.

The Green report on the structure of the Australian Broadcasting system discusses the problems of broadcasting and proposes a philosophy and a possible structure which contains some radical departures from the present system. In my view this legislation will do nothing to change the fundamental nature of the present inadequate system. In any case, the Green proposals are worthy of far more public consideration and debate before legislation seeks to implement changes. The way the Government has acted demonstrates blatant disregard for public knowledge, the right to information and active participation. One can only question the real reasons for the Government's actions since clearly a better broadcasting system will not be established by this legislation.

There is no doubt that the prime motive was to destroy the independence and compromise the integrity of the ABC. Perhaps I might quote from the Age editorial of Friday, 3 December, which states:

The capacity of the Federal Government, and particularly of Mr Fraser, to mismanage their dealings with the Australian Broadcasting Commission apparently has no limits. Having brought the ABC staff to the point of open rebellion, and reduced its senior management to a state of demoralised confusion, Mr Fraser has now managed to annoy even Sir Henry Bland-the man he had appointed as a new-broom chairman to bring the national broadcasting service to order.

A little further on the editorial stated:

Mr Fraserdoes not seem to have realised that his attack on the ABC management must also be read as an attack on the ABC commissioners, including Sir Henry himself.

The editorial described the mechanics of it all and said that, in criticising changes to the programming and suggesting that the administrative staff were cushioning the blow to themselves, clearly there was a reflection on the Commissioners because after all it was the Commissioners who made the decision as to where cuts were to be made. The editorial continued and said:

Mr Fraserhas now issued a statement agreeing that the ABC is master of its own programming. Indeed, he suggests that his whole purpose in raising the issue early this week was to make this very point. We suggest the public is entitled to take this with a largish grain of salt. The plain fact is that, while the commission must decide where the cuts are to be made, the necessity for making them was imposed upon it by the Government.

We were accused when we were in government of politicising the ABC and the Australian Broadcasting Control Board whenever we appointed someone to fill a naturally occurring vacancy on either body. This legislation proposed now by the Government would permit the Government to replace every member of both bodies within the next month or so. We were amateurs when it comes to political stacking compared to the present Liberal-National Country Party government. Its back-down on the ABC is clear proof of its original intentions. Given patience, that same objective would have been achieved by the middle of next year at the latest. In fact, if the Government had not become impatient and lost its cool it would have had control of the ABC if we equate appointment of commissioners with control.

In fact I would like to discuss the very concept of representation from each State which the Government is enshrining in legislation and its sexist approach in insisting that 2 women be appointed. In past practice it has been the habit to have someone from every State. I concede that when we were unceremoniously removed from office Tasmania was not represented. That arose because when the vacancy occurred I was not able to find someone from Tasmania at the time and as I wanted a female I appointed a lady from Victoria. I proposed to fill the next vacancy, if possible, with someone from Tasmania. But the next vacancy that occurred related to Western Australia and I filled that vacancy with someone from Western Australia. Then another vacancy came up in the normal fluxion of time. I did not manipulate any of this. The next vacancy occurred and we decided as a matter of policy that we would allow the ABC staff to elect someone to represent the staff and we would then put that person on the Commission. It was not up to me to direct the ABC staff to elect someone from Tasmania and it chose and elected someone from New South Wales, a male. To keep faith with our promise I appointed the person elected by the staff to the Australian Broadcasting Commission. So I concede that at that stage Tasmania was not represented.

I think that since then 3 vacancies have occurred. One was caused by the death of Professor Downing, the second by the retirement of one of the commissioners from Sydney, Hal Lashwood, and finally there was Dr Hackett from South Australia. The Government had 3 opportunities to ensure that each State was represented. The Government, for purposes best known to itself-one would fear that it was because it wanted to pick stooges and it was not too sure that it could find a stooge somewhere, which is a sorry reflection, I must say, but one struggles to find another reasonable explanation- failed to fill the vacancy with someone from Tasmania. It also failed to appoint someone from South Australia. So now two States are not represented. Do not blame us. Do not blame past Liberal governments. Do not blame the inadequacy of the legislation. It was this Government's inadequacy. There was no need to bring in a legislative change to ensure its aims were achieved. The position could always have been achieved.

Why is there a need for representation on a sex basis? True, there was only one female commissioner. I think that was first specified in 1942. It is a sorry reflection on all of us that such a measure should have been necessary. Why did we need to say that at least one commissioner should be a woman? Did we think that women did not listen to the radio and did not know anything about it? At present there is nothing in the legislation to preclude all the commissioners being women. There is no reason why one of the 3 vacancies could not have been filled by a woman appointed by the Government. There was no need to bring in the legislation to change the position. One suspects, when looking at it coldly, that the motivation was a devious device to allow the Government to get rid of the staff representative, Mr Webb, because in the reconstituted proposal that it put and in the amended version that it is now putting a staff representative is not specified. We did not specify it. We did not change the legislation. We simply agreed to appoint someone to that position. Now the Government is changing the legislation. If it wanted to keep faith with that proposition- the concept of worker participation or staff representation now is the time. We would have gladly accepted an amendment that one of the members be elected by the staff, but the Government has not chosen to do so. The pressure from the community has coaxed or has forced the Government, depending on one's point of view, not to sack anybody. Presumably that includes Mr Webb. It is no compliment to the Government. The Government's tactics fool no-one but itself. Fortunately for the ABC, hence the whole community, the Government could not fool its own back benchers. A significant number of them have some sense of justice and political propriety, even if the Cabinet does not.

The basic danger remains that the Government did not need to control appointments to the Commission to control the ABC. The Liberal Cabinet has already imposed severe economic constraints on the Commission. This needed no legislation. Whenever economic constraints bear heavily on any organisation, the first activities of the organisation to suffer are anything of an innovative, experimental or controversial nature. Clearly this has happened to the ABC. Under the last Labor Government the ABC was given genuine freedom, without inhibitions. Criticisms of the Government at the time were frequent. Liberal-Country Party Opposition spokesmen at the time were seen and heard much more extensively than Labor Government spokesmen. We did not like it, but we did not put pressure on the ABC. We did not talk about administrative waste in the ABC, reactionary cells in the program departments or among the news staff. We did not slash the Commission's budget. Now, at the slightest suggestion of criticism of the Liberal-Country Party line, out come the illiberal backwoodsmen such as the Minister for Transport (Mr Nixon). Even the Minister for Post and Telecommunications last week criticised the ABC for some comments on A.M. which were confirmed in every daily paper that day or the day after, as far as I could ascertain. The ABC claimed that the business community was in disarray because of the Government's non policy. Every paper since then has carried comments to the same effect by unnamed and named businessmen. Even the editors made the same observations in their editorial columns. Still the Government had to whip the ABC.

When will the Government lean on the Press owners to make them sack their editors and all their cartoonists? Everyone of the cartoonists, these acutely perceptive students of human weakness and foible, is becoming increasingly critical of the Government and its leaders. Any day I expect someone from the Government's ranks to declare Pickering and Petty pinkos and the rest of the cartoonists soft on comms just because they dare show the community how ridiculous the Government is, and that despite the Government's loud claim that its action, or lack of action, is clothed in economic respectability it has no clothes. The Government proclaims that there is a firm hand at the helm of the ship of state. It does not realise that when it wrenched control from the Labor Government it damaged the rudder, so now we are adrift, even the private sector is afraid to deliver power because it knows we are rudderless and in the worst economic seas this century.

The Australian Broadcasting Control Board has traditionally, under past Liberal governments, consisted mainly of members drawn from the private media sector- a case of the industry sitting in judgment on itself, because those members drawn from the private sector and made members of the Control Board were meant to be sitting in judgment on the performance of the private sector. No wonder the Australian Broadcasting Control Board never did anything to ensure that the private media fulfilled community expectations, such as those specified by the Vincent Committee in 1963. No wonder plans were never submitted to extend broadcasting in any way, because to do so would have posed a competitive challenge to the existing commercial networks. Until the Labor Government licensed radio stations in Melbourne and Sydney in 1974-75 there had been no new licences in those cities since 1935. No wonder the Australian Broadcasting Control Board advised Liberal governments and us that it was impossible to introduce VHF FM to Australia until the Labor Government set up the independent McLean inquiry in 1974.

I was accused of politicising the Australian Broadcasting Control Board when I appointed a public servant to fill a vacancy. He had been Secretary to the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts which questioned the Control Board's advice on AM and FM broadcasting. In fact it was the Committee's questioning which gave rise to the establishment of the McLean inquiry which confirmed that we could have FM broadcasting in the same international band as it is in everywhere else in the world, instead of having to set it up in the UHF band which would have meant that we would have needed radio equipment, transmitters and receivers, specially constructed for Australia and for nowhere else in the world. What utter nonsense. The McLean inquiry confirmed that opinion which was first unearthed by the Senate inquiry. Also we had been told for years that there was no more room in the AM band, that too many stations were already cluttering up the spectrum and that we could not have any more stations in the AM band. The Senate inquiry questioned that, and the truth came out. With directional aerials and properly designed equipment we could double the number of AM stations generally. So one has to question the propriety of always appointing people from the commercial sector to the Control Board, a body which was supposed to be providing to the Government plans on how broadcasting could be improved and how extensions to the system could be planned.

I also appointed Dr Patricia Edgar to the Control Board to fill another vacancy. My crime there was that Dr Edgar who had been chairperson of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board's Advisory Committee on Program Standards was a female academic. Dr Edgar was not from the electronic media industry, but she had studied and published work on the media. The danger in the eyes of the Liberal-Country Party and the media industry is that the lady knows more about the industry from the consumer point of view than perhaps all but a few in the country do. I broke tradition and so challenged the establishment by daring to appoint 2 experts from outside the media industry who could represent for the first time the interests of the vast majority of Australians- the consumers. This Government calls those appointments political simply because for the first time the previous Government had given the consumers of broadcasting a say.

I was inclined to suggest that this legislation also indicated a total lack of understanding of public broadcasting. That was a foolish error on my part. One should never underestimate one's opponents. My fear now is that the Government does fully understand the potential of public broadcasting to provide an outlet for a wide range of interests and points of view which are now censored by the commercial networks. These diverse, controversial views are intermit.tently aired over the ABC during those short spells when it frees itself from self-censorship until another burst of criticism of the ABC from so-called champions of freedom of expressionchampions of freedom of expression as long as the expression is completely in accord with their views, of course. This causes the ABC to shrink back into its shell and censor anything adventurous so that dull conformity reigns supreme, as usual, under Liberal governments.

The issuing of public broadcasting licences is to be at the whim of the Minister. In fact if one looks into the legislation carefully one can see that all the planning for the whole broadcasting system will now be under the direct control of the Minister. True it always has been because the Australian Broadcasting Control Board, the body supposed to plan, only ever reported to the Minister. The annual report tabled in the Parliament deals with the previous year's activities and not with planning proposals. So if the Board ever did propose any plans for the future those plans never saw the light of day.

With Ministers uninterested in expansion of the system and no money provided for the purpose, except to ensure that a signal could be received anywhere in Australia- that was the only plan that I found when I took over this portfoliothe Control Board has never formulated any plans to achieve the aims mentioned by practically every inquiry and reiterated, once again, in the Green report. I concede that the Control Board was theoretically able to do so. Even that pretence of independence has gone now. Does anyone seriously suggest that the Postal and Telecommunications Department will come up with serious plans to achieve those worthy objectives of quality and diversity which would inevitably put pressure, both intellectual and financial, on the commercial sector? In my view the exact reverse will now happen. Under the guise of self-regulation the commercial stationsradio and television- will cater to the lowest common denominator in terms of intellectual content and taste. As for Australian content, that will be a thing of the past as far as quality production is concerned. Goodbye to the concept of and hope for an Australian national identity as far as the commercial stations are concerned. But never mind, profits will soar and the junk will invade the FM band as licences are issued quickly to the commercial operators. By the time the Government decides its attitude to the public broadcasters there will be few, if any, channels left for them. That in itself will resolve the embarrassing problem for the Government of troublesome, controversial public broadcasters. There will be very few of them because there will not be room for them. That is what I mean by saying that the Government does understand. It does not like the possibilities. It is afraid of the potential and so it is bent on killing public broadcasting, to ensure that it will not be embarrassed.

The ABC will continue to have to try to cater for an enormous range of interests with an inadequate number of channels on both radio and television. This will inevitably lead to continuing dissatisfaction. Let me explain what I mean because I think there is a lot of vague talk about popular programs and about the special interest that the ABC has to satisfy and then criticism of the ABC because it does not get ratings near to those received by the commercial stations. But one should understand the nature of human activity and biological functions including such things as human taste. If one tried to graph this aspect of human behaviour in the form of a frequency distribution curve one would find that at each extreme end there would be very few people and that most people would be in the middle. This is common to every biological function of life. If this represents the spectrum of human taste then quite reasonably- I am not bitching about this but I am stating it as acceptable and understandable-the commercial stations concentrate on the middle of the spectrum where most people are because their purpose is to make money. I repeat that I do not quarrel with that at all. But the Government expects the ABC, and the commercial stations keep saying this, not to compete with the commercial stations. It is said that the ABC must provide complementary programming. I ask honourable members to understand what that means. That means that the ABC must cater for each end of the spectrumthe left and the right.

The ABC cannot provide a special interest program for those interested in classical music at one end of the spectrum and expect to be satisfying necessarily anyone on the other end of the spectrum whose tastes may be diametrically opposed. When it is said how terrible and how disastrous it is when an ABC program gets only a 2 per cent rating the question one needs to ask is: 'What sort of program was it; what was its potential audience?' The commercial stations provide programs that theoretically cater for perhaps 70 per cent or 80 per cent of the community. So they are not doing too well if one of their programs receives a rating of, say, IS per cent. An ABC program is supposed to be catering at one end of the spectrum for a particular interest group which has a maximum audience of perhaps 3 per cent. If the ABC gets a rating of 2 per cent that in terms of its potential audience is a rating of 60 per cent. I ask honourable members to think about that. In such a case the ABC is in fact being very successful.

Mr Donald Cameron (GRIFFITH, QUEENSLAND) - We are not arguing against that.

Dr CASS - But I am, because the Government is now going to expect the ABC to cater for all of those diverse interests with one television channel and 2 radio channels. This is an impossible task. Something like seven or eight commercial radio and three television stations are catering for the centre of the spectrum of interest. But the ABC is trying to cater for a much broader range of interest with only 2 radio stations and one television station in each capital city. Honourable members opposite would be dishonest if they said that the ABC can do that and still appear to be reasonable and not cause a great deal of dissatisfaction.

I come back to the concept of freedom of choice. What choice do the commercial stations give to the people clustered in the middle of the spectrum? I am quite happy to concede that the bulk of the community occupies perhaps a fairly narrow spectrum and their tastes are satisfied by seven or eight radio stations and perhaps 3 television stations in each capital city. But how is that taste catered for and what sort of choice do people get?

Mr Donald Cameron (GRIFFITH, QUEENSLAND) - They are not always happy.

Dr CASS -I know they are not happy. I am suggesting that the people in this area get practically no choice at all. What is this blinking legislation doing about that? Honourable members opposite should think about that in respect of television.

Mr Donald Cameron (GRIFFITH, QUEENSLAND) - We cannot make everyone happy.

Dr CASS - OK, the Government cannot make everyone happy but at least it can give them a choice. We learnt that Australian made television programs of cops and robbers were popular. We had the situation that Channel 0 put on a cops and robbers program made by Crawford Productions Pty Ltd; Channel 7 put on a cops and robbers program by Crawford Productions; and Channel 9 put on a cops and robbers program by Crawford Productions. At one time there were 3 of these types of programs because they were so popular. They had the top ratings because they were put on at different times. But what did the media chiefs then do to try to collar the market? As it is crudely put- and if I may be excused I will use the term- the ratings game depends on bums on seats. So all of these types of programs were seen to be popular. The commercial stations gave the poor people in the middle of the spectrum- the bulk of the population- an enormous choice. They put all of these programs on at the same time. Do honourable members opposite call that freedom of choice? That is in fact depriving people of choice. In fact this practice killed off Crawford Productions because, needless to say, when one program fell behind in ratings the station put off the program and brought in an American-made extravaganza produced at a cost of $250,000 a time to compete with something that we had made in Australia for perhaps $50,000 a program. Of course the Americans could sell their program to our commercial stations for $5,000 or $6,000 because they had made their money on the American market. That is the freedom of choice that this system offers. The Government has not considered this aspect at all in the legislation now before us. It has done absolutely nothing at all in this respect. It has simply increased the burden on the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

This will inevitably lead to continuing dissatisfaction which will be used as further proof that publicly run services are inferior to private services. That is not true, of course, but that is the way in which the difficulty of trying to cater for an enormous range of interests simultaneously will be interpreted by private broadcasters. That is the case now as private broadcasters justify providing a common level of junk to an enormous number of people with little or no choice for those people who have a range of interests in the middle of the total spectrum of community interest. In other words, if the Government were really sincere in its endeavours to do something about the broadcasting system, if it really took the Green report seriously- frankly, I do not agree with all of the contents of the Green report although I think it is a worthy report- it would allow serious consideration and discussion of the subject in the community. If the Government had taken this matter seriously it would have allowed much more community discussion. Perhaps it would have invited people to come along from the television industry and from consumer groups to participate in discussions on what the broadcasting media should be about. The British can afford to have royal commissions held every few years. They try then to do something about changing the system to cater for community needs. But all the Government is doing with this legislation is excluding community participation and any real active control.

Mr Jull -What about the Tribunal?

Dr CASS - The Tribunal is simply a licensing body. Honourable members should not fool themselves. They should look at the Tribunal carefully. It will simply issue licences. It is true that for the first time, hopefully, we will have public inquiries. But I point out that the legislation as it now stands does not specify that such inquiries should be held or that its reports should be published. We intend to do something about that by moving some amendments in the Committee stage. I hope the Minister will be sympathetic and accept the amendments because they are not revolutionary. They are not even communist inspired. They are simply good, old fashioned public participation inspired as recommended in the Green report. I hope the Minister will take the matter seriously and accept the amendments. In conclusion, I move:

That all words after 'That' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words: 'the House is of the opinion that the Bill should be withdrawn and redrafted because:

(a)   there has been inadequate time for proper public consideration of the Government's proposals in relation to broadcasting;

(b)   it fails to establish a proper basis for public broadcasting in Australia, and

(c)   it is inconsistent with the principles enunciated for the structure of broadcasting in Australia by the report of the Postal and Telecommunications Department on Australian Broadcasting.

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