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Monday, 6 December 1976

Mr KING (Wimmera) - I listened with great interest to the honourable member for Maribyrnong (Dr Cass). It appears to me that 2 obvious issues arise from his speech. Although he perhaps did not spell it out in so many words, he implied that the Australian Broadcasting Commission had the opportunity to lean to the left or to the right in its programs. He made it fairly clear to me, at any rate, that he thought that it had the role of leaning to the left. Many people outside this place agree with that point of* view. In many instances people believe that the ABC leans too far to the left.

The honourable member also made some reference in his opening remarks to the effect that this legislation was being hastily dealt with in the Parliament. I remind the former Minister for the Media, who should understand, that, at the end of this calendar year, only 3 commissioners will be left on the Australian Broadcasting Control Board. That in itself is a good reason why we should try to get this legislation dealt with before this session of Parliament finishes. The Minister for Post and Telecommunications (Mr Eric Robinson) and the Government can then make appointments to allow the Board to carry on its role. However, I shall deal with those aspects of the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the Australian Broadcasting Control Board later in my remarks.

It must be remembered that the Broadcasting and Television Amendment Bill (No. 2) 1976 [No. 2] is the first of a number of measures which will be introduced as a result of the Green report which was tabled in the House recently. So, it is true to say that this is transitional legislation. It is also true to say that after further studies have been undertaken by the Government other legislation will be forthcoming. I remind the House and those people outside who may be interested that just because something appears in a report does not necessarily mean that the Government will automatically accept it. A report is a guide to a government. I am afraid that many people who are throwing criticisms at the report do not know what the Government intends to do about it. Many people who are criticising the legislation believe it to be as recommended in the Green report. In the legislation which is before the House now, we see some criticism of this matter. This, of course, is no surprise. I have been in this place long enough to realise that when new legislation is introduced there is always someone who does not like it and there are always some people who like what is proposed but who suggest that it could be improved somewhere, somehow.

I have endeavoured to speak to as many people as I possibly could on this subject over recent weeks. These people have ranged from the listening and viewing public to radio and television station managers, station executives and a number of interested organisations, including commercial and national as well as public radio. Their views have certainly been wide ranging. There is no doubt that the overwhelming view is that these people believe basically that the legislation is desirable. But many have certain reservations about this Bill. I am not surprised at that. One point appears fairly clear, however; that is, that people want the legislation to proceed. I hope the honourable member for Maribyrnong notes that fact. People want this legislation. They are mindful that this is only interim legislation in one sense and that it can be updated in the very near future. The legislation is to be amended to change the number of commissions of the Australian Broadcasting Commission from the original nine as was put forward in this House to a minimum of nine and a maximum of eleven. To my mind that is quite acceptable. I hope that members opposite will note that proposal. The commissioners will include representatives from every State. For the first time 2 commissioners must be women.

The Australian Broadcasting Commission Staffs Association has already outlined its concern at the possible loss of its representative from the Commission. This type of protest is very interesting because this concern betrays an awareness that the appointment lacked merit from the outset. I say quite categorically, despite all the comments which have been made, that at no time can anyone prove that the Minister has said that the ABC Staffs Association representative will be removed. That has never been stated. After all, it is up to the Minister to make these decisions. The Government has never said that it would refuse to appoint a staff member.

So, when looking for the cause of the Association's concern, one must cast around for reasons. We do not have to look very far. Marius

Webb was elected by an insignificant vote. The Staffs Association, for reasons of its own, seems anxious to have a representative on the ABC but the members of the staff- that is the rank and file of Staffs Association- refuse to share the enthusiasm of their Association. They were so unimpressed with the idea or perhaps with the candidates- I am not too sure which, but possibly it could be both- that less than half the members cast a vote. About 7S00 members were eligible to vote but the successful candidate, Marius Webb, won with a mere 1200 votes. It is obvious that the fact that over 50 per cent of the staff did not bother to vote spells a lack of interest and no doubt many of them would be happy to accept an appointment by the Minister, the Government or some other organisation in a position to do so.

Everyone in this community must accept his share of responsibility for economic recovery, for the maintenance of democracy and for unity in the Australian community. The ABC Staff Association is no exception to this rule. It as much as any other component of this nation must shoulder its responsibilities towards the whole community. I am certainly not opposing worker representation- we already have union officials on the Australian Telecommunications Commission and the Australian Postal Commissionbut I am most emphatic that the ABC Staff Association must go right back to the beginning and work out an approach which at least meets with the approval of its own members. That seems to me to be a logical starting point. When the members complain that they might lose their representative they are really saying: 'We realise that we have no support or mandate from the majority of our members, we realise that we were wrong from the beginning, but we want this just the same.'

The ABC is a most important part of the nation's mass media, and the mass media play a most important part in the lives of the Australian people. The ABC deserves more respectful treatment and more depth of thought than some childish fancy for office for reasons that are less than clear and have failed to convince even their own members. Of course, honourable members know and I know that representation depends on merit. We also know that this is the point that is scaring the daylights out of some of the staff members of the Association. A point that comes out of these considerations is that the Government is not attempting to place limitations on representation. For instance, it is insisting that at least 2 women be appointed to the Commission, but there is no limitation on the number of women who will take their place on the Commission.

Dr Jenkins - And at least how many men?

Mr KING - As far as the number of men is concerned, I will be coming to that. If they are the most suitable people, women may occupy every position on the Commission because the Government has not limited their number. The interesting thing is that the Government has not - stipulated that there shall be men appointed. .

Dr Jenkins - Then why specify the number of women?

Mr KING - For the simple reason that the previous Government could see its way clear to appoint only one. We want to increase that by 100 per cent. However, this is a most interesting situation and it appears from the interjections that it is disturbing some people. In compiling his report Mr Green received and considered 600 submissions. He reported to the Minister that many of these submissions were of an exceptionally high standard. I think we should bear this very much in mind before being carried away by ideas and suggestions promoted by sectional interests with very superficial attitudes and understanding. Presumably the people concerned with the creation of the new Commission are taking fright at recommendations such as clause 356 of the Green report. That clause points out that the current Commission of nine as failed to provide the breadth and spectrum of knowledge that its expansion in 1967 was designed to achieve. One can twist this around any way one likes, but the fact is that the appointment of a staff representative has failed to raise the intellectual standard of the Commission. This fact was one of the earliest observations made in the Press. In fact it was forecast at the time of the appointment. On 10 October 1975, when reporting the election of Mr Marius Webb to the Commission, Mr Laurie Oakes of the Melbourne Sun wrote that it was a good result for rock and roll. That is a rather interesting note.

When one reads on and comes to clause 362 of the Green report one sees the real truth spelt out about staff appointments. The report says quite clearly that trade union representation is desirable. I do not think there is any objection to that. The Government goes along with it. The report also doubts that ABC employees' organisations are able to supply persons of the calibre needed to fill these important positions. I hope that the Opposition will note that. In other words, after studying 600 high quality submissions, the recommendation is that appointments should be as representative as possible, but not at the cost of merit. That is a very important point. No one could argue with such sound commonsense recommendations. I would also like to point out the balance in such appointments as recommended in the Green report. It refers to trade union representation on Telecom and the Postal Commission. It points out that those trade union appointments are balanced by appointments from management- something which has not happened within the ABC. The report also makes the interesting point that the trade union appointments to those 2 commissions are made from trade union leadership, not from the employees of either commission.

The Green report devotes special mention to the need to avoid 'bunching up' of appointments to the ABC. Reference to this matter can be found in clause 363. This is a most interesting observation. It underlines the common sense running through this report and the sanity of its approach to matters of importance. The report recommends continuity of membership which should be achieved by spacing out retirements so that as few as possible commissioners retire at any one time. This would ensure that whenever a commissioner is replaced, the optimum number of experienced commissioners remain to guide the commission until the new commissioner becomes familiar with his responsibilities. It is interesting to note that of the present commissioners two are due to retire in September 1977, both from New South Wales, one in January 1978 from Queensland, one in July 1 978 from Victoria, two in October 1978 from Western Australia and New South Wales, one in February 1979 from New South Wales and one in July 1 979 from Victoria.

As honourable members can see under this legislation it will be possible for the Government to appoint a further 3 commissioners, because at the present time there is one vacancy. If they fulfil their normal 5 years term, they would be appointed until 1982. Naturally, one would have to come from Tasmania and one from South Australia. It is obvious to me that this is one of the problems which the Minister will have to face. As I have said, 4 commissioners from New South Wales will have retired by February 1979. The Minister will have a major problem in altering the appointments so that the commissoners will retire at different times. Clause 9 of the Bill states that the commissioners will hold office for up to 5 years but are eligible for re-appointment. I trust that before long the Minister will be able to work out a way in which appointments can be made so that not more than one or two, or a maximum of three, will retire at the one time. A number of amendments have been foreshadowed by the Minister. No doubt they will improve the implementation of the legislation. The alterations are not major ones but they are important and they will clear the air for a lot of people.

Other honourable members wish to speak in this debate, including the honourable member for Bowman (Mr Jull). Most people in this Parliament will realise that he is a man with a great deal of experience. I want to compliment him, not on the contribution which he will make in his speech this afternoon, but on the many hours of work which he has contributed to the Government in relation to this matter. I am sure that without his experience this Bill would not be as good as it is today. I am sure that anyone who has followed the activities of the honourable member for Bowman in this place will appreciate his great contribution. I am sure too that, whilst this may not be immediately obvious to the people outside this place, over a period of time they certainly will appreciate what he has done to assist the industry as a whole. As I said, this may not be obvious in the reading of the Bill or within the next few days or months, but given time I am sure all honourable members will agree with me. I want to conclude by again saying to the Parliament that people will judge this legislation over a period of time. The Minister has quite definitely informed the Parliament that he intends to bring in further legislation next year after the Government has had ample time to study the Green report. With those few remarks, I commend the Bill to the House.

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