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Tuesday, 7 December 1976

Dr CASS (Maribyrnong) - I would like to comment on some of the remarks by the honourable member for Hotham (Mr Chipp) who talked about our amendment proposing powers of censorship. I do not think that is so. The terminology used is the same as the phrases already incorporated in the present Act covering the Australian Broadcasting Control Board and it was never seen to be censorial. I must concede that the Green report said this of those words: . . broad expressions of purpose such as these are open to various interpretations in the course of implementation, and do little to ensure that the programming output of the system meets the needs of the various sectors or groups within our society.

Amen. I happen to agree with that, sadly. The honourable member also said that the commercials assess what the public needs and there is no need for the Tribunal to do it. But then in commenting on what the honourable member for Scullin (Dr Jenkins) said he said that, for goodness sake, putting it in and leaving it to the parliamentarians would mean that they would make subjective judgments. Well, for goodness sake, if the commercials make judgments are they not subjective also, backed by the advertising revenue pressure to make sure that whatever is put on gets the largest audience irrespective of taste and so on? But then someone interjects and says 'commercial' as if commercial is somehow sacrosanct; that commercials are really going to give what is wanted and needed. In fact that is the claim that is often made; that we should give the commercials complete freedom and then we shall get what we want because a lot of people look at these programs. Does the honourable member for Hotham look at them? My bet is that if we give the commercials complete freedom that will be the end of quality Australian production, in the sense of expensive production, because that, sadly, is usually what it means. We will get a lot of cheap Australian productions, I am sure, but it will be the end of quality production. We will not get the comprehensive programming that we think we deserve. Those are the sort of vague words that we are trying to put in to suggest what we imply. Who says so? Not Cass. Read what was said by the Pilkington Committee in its report in the United Kingdom in 1962. That is the sort of thing that has been going on. There have been these regular inquiries into broadcasting in England. They nearly always come up with the same sorts of observations. Let me quote what that Committee said about British commercial television:

No-one can say he is giving the public what it wants, unless the public knows the whole range of possibilities which television can offer and, from this range chooses what it wants to see . . . what the public wants and what it has a right to get is the freedom to choose from the widest possible range of program matter. Anything less than this is deprivation.

That is my view and that is the view of the Labor Party. That was our feeling when we saw this legislation. There was no indication given of what we think the community deserves. Again I quote from the Green report where it speaks about the commercial sector. It states: . . in addition to directing their efforts to the presentation of the relatively stereotyped styles of programs which are known to attract high numbers of viewers and listeners, it is most desirable that the commercial sector should at the same time attempt to introduce a measure of innovation and experimentation in programs catering to more sizeable, if not mass, audiences.

I agree with that statement. Does the honourable member for Hotham really seriously suggest that given this absolute freedom that is what the commercial sector would do? In fact the honourable member commented that he was surprised at me. I too am surprised at myself for this. I have supported this amendment only because there is nothing else in the legislation that gives any hint that anything will be done to ensure that the commercials do abide by what the community expects time after time. The honourable member should look at his own Government's reports. He . need not look at anything we have commissioned. Way back in the days of the Vincent Committee- and now we have the Green report -everyone said that the Australian community deserved quality programs which would help to establish an Australian identity. No one has stopped the commercial sector doing it but it still has not done it. My guess is that it still will not do it.

Mr Chipp - The commercial sector has done a fair job.

Dr CASS - If the honourable member thinks that it has done a fair job he should expunge his entire speech from the record because I thought he was having a shot at the commercials. Never mind, perhaps I misunderstood his speech. Let us get back to the argument. Something should be done and I do not think that this is the best way to do it. When I was Minister for the Media I was talking about lifting restrictions and restraints, about stopping trying to tell commercial stations what they ought to do. But this entailed providing alternatives so that if they did not do it someone else could, and what is more, would.

I accept that it is still possible, theoretically, for the Tribunal to fulfil this requirement. I think at one stage the honourable member for Hotham mentioned that the Government ought to give directions to the Tribunal. I think that was an unnecessary comment. In fact, if the Minister for Post and Telecommunications (Mr Eric Robinson) is sincere in what he says, he is going to invite the Tribunal to have a public hearing. If the Tribunal behaves in any reasonable fashion as a body conducting a public hearing the Minister does not have to give it any directions. The directions will be given by the public when the public makes representations. So in this one I am on the side of the Minister. In any case, if the Tribunal comes to decisions which people do not like, and if, with our proposed amendment, it came to decisions which people did not like, then, and this is something which is omitted from the legislation, the legislation should have included in it the powers for decisions of the Tribunal to be referred to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. If people do not like them I think that would be a reasonable precaution. The Government ought to look into that matter but perhaps not here. When this Bill gets to the Senate the Government might think about the possibility of this, or think about it when it is considering its amending legislation. I do not think that any sort of tribunal should be immune from challenge. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal could in my view deal with overcensorious dispensations by the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal.

If the Government is honest and if the Tribunal behaves in the way in which it should, I concede that there is a possibility of it enforcing in a very honest way, and without being censorious, the Australian requirements. There is no question about that; no speaker has said: 'We do not want it'. The power which the Control Board never had is the power to have public hearings for renewals of licences. If the Government allows the Tribunal to have public hearings for renewals, if the Tribunal invites the community to express its views and if the community says: We do not think it has been good enough', if the Government then has the guts to back the Tribunal when it says that the licence should not be renewed I will commend the Government for its actions. But bear in mind that there is now nothing in the legislation which indicates that this is to happen. The licensees may well use that as an excuse for not complying, saying: 'There is nothing in the Act which says that we should '. If they do, then I think a mistake has been made. That is why we have moved the amendment. The Tribunal may well suggest that inadequate licensees should not have their licences reviewed. I think the honourable member for Bowman (Mr Jull) mentioned that all existing licensees promised Australian content but not one of them has lived up to that promise, as far as I know.

If the Tribunal does not renew the licence, what happens to all the equipment? Sadly, we have the wrong system in this country. The licensee not only produces programs but also owns all the hardware. It costs a lot of money. What is to be done with it? Will the Government buy it from him? Will it subsidise someone to buy the equipment? That is a difficulty which I do not think the Government has looked into. It would be better if all the hardware were owned by the community. All stations are broadcasting over public air waves. The air waves are socialised everywhere in the world and there is no reason why the actual transmitters should not be also. It is the control that is important. The control should be in the hands of the licensee. I am not denying that the licensee should have complete control of what goes over the air waves. If the Tribunal reaches the stage at which it feels that a particular licensee should no longer have the right to operate because he has not fulfilled the requirements, the Government is in a bind, in our present situation, where there is an enormous amount of capital involved. My answer would be to suggest that we should take over, maybe gradually, or buy out the licensees, and in some way provide the actual technical facilities. The licensee has complete freedom to put what he likes over the air waves. That is the system, more or less, in the United Kingdom, so it is not a communist plot. It is done there for commercial television. The facility is owned by the Government, but the private operators provide the programs. They are completely free to provide whatever they like.

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