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Tuesday, 7 December 1976

Mr HODGMAN (Denison) - I oppose the amendment but in doing so I want to make it quite clear- and I think it is well known in this place and outside- that I have fought and worked for the last 2 months to retain on the Australian Broadcasting Commission the duly elected commissioner elected by a vote of the Australian Broadcasting Commission Staff Association. I do not believe there is any inconsistency in opposing the amendment put forward by the honourable member for Maribyrnong (Dr Cass) tonight and in taking the stand which I have taken in respect of the other matter. I want to point out, with respect, that the honourable member for Maribyrnong and his Government had 3 years in which to write this into the legislation, had they so chosen to do. The fact that they did not does not mean that in 1 976 or 1 977 it would not be appropriate to write some sort of amendment into the legislation. But I cannot support it tonight and the principal reason is that as a result of the decision of the Government and the announcement of the Minister for Post and Telecommunications (Mr Eric Robinson), the particular commissioner will be remaining in office until 1978. Also, if the role and position of one commissioner is to be prescribed or specifically defined, it is a matter of logic that others will say: Why do you not set down criteria in respect of other commissioners? I wish to place on record in this debate that I and this Government are totally committed to the absolute independence of the ABC. I feel I am entitled to make that statement because not only has the Minister made a similar statement on a number of occasions but also the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) has done so on a number of occasions. It was actually demonstrated to the nation on 2 occasions last week. I draw attention to those 2 occasions because I believe that Parliament should take note of what occurred.

The first occasion was the public contretemps between the Prime Minister and the Chairman of the Commission. I say frankly that nothing but good has come out of that public difference of opinion. The Prime Minister expressed a view, as he was entitled to do, with respect to the cut backs to the ABC. The Chairman of the Commission responded by saying that he would not be prepared to see the Australian Broadcasting Commission subject to any political interference.

We saw on the ABC television news on Thursday night- no doubt it is kept on videotape- the Chairman of the Commission protesting against political comment by the Prime Minister of Australia. The Prime Minister is on record as saying: 'Quite right. The public will now realise that we are in fact not exerting political pressure '.' I believe even the honourable member for Maribyrnong would take comfort from the fact that when public confrontation of that nature occurs there can no longer be any doubt that this Government will not seek to interfere politically with the ABC and will not seek to impose its will upon the ABC. The Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, with the support of every single commissioner, and no doubt the staff and management of the ABC, will not tolerate political interference. Let us put an end to the nonsense that in some way the Fraser Government is seeking to impose its political will on the Australian Broadcasting Commission. For as long as I have the honour to be a member of this Parliament, and after, I will oppose any political interference to the ABC, whether it comes from the Liberal side of politics or from the Labor side of politics. I believe that the overwhelming majority of Australians want to see an ABC which is independent and free from political control.

The second matter to which I want to refer briefly is the question which surrounds clause 9 and the amendment moved to it by the honourable member for Maribyrnong. Clause 9 concerns the continuation in office of the Australian Broadcasting Commission Staff Association commissioner. I want to say frankly that I regard it as less than just that the Press saw fit to report the change of decision on that part of the Government last week as a backdown. I want to say publicly that I am proud to be a supporter of a government which is prepared to reconsider its position and in particular is prepared to pay some attention to the opinions expressed by its back benchers. From 1972 to 1975 Australia had a goverment which never paid attention to the opinions of its back benchers. I want to say that rather than being a backdown, the announcement by the Minister on Friday of last week represented on behalf of the Government an acceptance of a broad consensus from the back bench and from the community. I reflect on no Minister when I say it does not matter whether the Liberal Party or the Labor Party is in power that many backbenchers are closer to the people and more in touch with public opinion than are many Ministers.

I say with respect to the Minister that never have I had an opportunity to deal with a Minister who is more willing to meet, more willing to discuss and more willing to debate questions of Government policy which come before the Parliament. If I were a member of the ABC staff I would say 'Thank Heaven' that the ABC has a Minister of the calibre of the present Minister. I say this because he has shown over the last few weeks under the glare of national publicity that he is a man who is prepared to talk, listen and come up with a compromise solution. As I said earlier I have fought for the retention of Marius Webb. I do not even know him. I have never spoken one word to him, but he is the duly elected representative of the ABC Staff Association. In all this period the Minister has been prepared to receive deputations and views from inside this Parliament and outside this Parliament at all hours of the day and night. I can say, without reflecting on any other Minister-

The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN (Mr Giles)Order! I remind the honourable member for Denison that the amendment under debate does not really concern the Minister.

Mr HODGMAN -Thank you, sir. I take the point. I will return to the amendment. I just wanted to make the point, before moving to my last remarks on the clause, that the Minister in my opinion has handled this matter absolutely magnificently.

Without in any way being disrespectful to the honourable member for Maribyrnong, let me remind the Parliament, the nation and the State of Tasmania that when a vacancy occurred on the Commission during the term of the Whitlam Government a Tasmanian was to be appointed. I say, with no disrespect to my Victorian colleagues, that a Tasmanian was not appointed; a lady from Victoria was appointed. With the greatest respect to the lady concerned I think it was unfortunate that a Tasmanian was left off the Commission and still remains left off. Like the honourable member for Wimmera (Mr King) who asked the Minister to give some indication about Tasmanian representation, I think it is fair to say that the Minister has made it quite clear that a Tasmanian representative will be appointed to the Commission very shortly and a Tasmanian will remain on that Commission for as long as this Government is in office. I hope that in the long distant future when the Government changes the new Government agrees with the principle that there will never be an Australian Broadcasting Commission without a Tasmanian or, I hope, without a South Australian.

For those reasons I have to oppose the amendment. I ask the Minister to give some consideration to an amendment being introduced within the next 12 months to give some form of representation to the staff of the Australian Broadcasting Commission on the Commission. It need not necessarily be a separately elected commissioner. It could be an office bearer. With those remarks I commend the Minister, as I believe he should be commended for the job he has done in respect of this legislation. I wish it every success. I hope the Government now will be recognised by the people of Australia as not wishing to indulge in any political interference whatsoever with the ABC.

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