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Wednesday, 11 November 1964


Senator COHEN (Victoria) (1:11 AM) . - Mr. Deputy President, I suggest that it would suit the convenience of the Senate to debate this Bill, the Broadcasting Stations Licence Fees Bill 1964 and the Broadcasting and Television Stations Licence Fees Repeal Bill 1964 together, and I ask whether that may be done.


Senator Anderson - I am agreeable.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator McKellar) - There being no objection, that course will be adopted.


Senator COHEN - I address my remarks to all three Bills, Mr. Deputy President, and I intend to propose an amendment to the motion for the second reading of the Bill that has been called on. The purpose of the three measures is to increase the licence fees payable by broadcasting and television stations. I think that, when we examine the present situation, the reasons why this legislation is required will become immediately apparent. Since the passage of the original Broadcasting and Television Act in 1956 to provide for the commencement of television transmissions in that year, the general licence fee payable by each television station has been £100, plus 1 per cent, of the gross earnings of the station in respect of the televising of advertisements or other matter. In 1962-63, when the net profits of the commercial television stations totalled £2,996,777, and their total revenues £18,785,974, the licence fees payable by all the companies totalled £112,896. So the licence fees represented a mere drop in the ocean compared to the enormous total revenues of the companies and their substantial profits. The present scale of licence fees was laid down when television was in its infancy. Indeed, in 1956-57, in the first year of the operation of the principal Act and of the application of the present scale of licence fees, the commercial television stations lost altogether £551,214. By 1959- 60, the losses had been turned into net profits totalling £1,564,726. By 1962-63, as I have already mentioned, the profits totalled £2,996,777. The total revenues of the stations had risen from £1,190,950 in 1956-57 to £15,785.974 in 1962-63.

The Minister for Customs and Excise (Senator Anderson), in his second reading speech, very properly conceded that the present scale of licence fees was unrealistic and that changes are justified. Whatever one thinks of this Bill one can echo the sentiment that the present scale of rates is unrealistic. Our proposition is that the proposed changes are unrealistic that they fail to levy a sufficiently high licence fee on those stations which are best able to pay higher rates.

Shortly I shall move an amendment to the motion for the second reading which will make plain two points upon which the Opposition relies in discussing this legislation. The first is that on gross earnings from advertising in excess of £1 million there should be a higher rate of licence fee than that proposed in the Bill. Our second point is just as important. It is that the whole of the proceeds from the licence fees should be paid into a special fund to be used solely to assist in the production of Australian television programmes.

Let me state briefly what the Bill now provides. It provides that on gross earning from advertising up to £500,000, a licence fee of one per cent, shall be paid rising to two per cent, on advertising revenue between £500,000 and £1 million, three per cent, between £1 million and £2 million and four per cent, on revenue over £2 million. It is estimated that on this basis the total income from licence fees payable by all the television stations would amount to about £400,000. The revenue from licence fees paid by broadcasting stations would rise from £109,000 to £125,000. From one point of view, of course, this is a step in the right direction but the Opposition believes that having regard to all the circumstances, the stations should pay a considerably higher licence fee where the earnings exceed £1 million and that applies of course to all metropolitan stations. We say this having regard to the very high rate of earnings of the companies concerned and, secondly, having regard to the critical position occupied by the licensees in the field of mass communications. They have the special privilege of a licence conferred upon them by the community after a hearing before the Australian Broadcasting Control Board. In these circumstances it is appropriate that the higher earning stations in particular should pay higher fees.

We say that the Bill is unrealistic because it provides for only a modest increase in the licence fees and does nothing else. At this point it is relevant to refer to the Select Committee on the Encouragement of Australian Productions for Television, which was set up by the Senate, and which reported just over 12 months ago. It is highly significant that this debate should take place in a week when we have paid solemn and respectful tribute to the Chairman of that Committee, the late Senator Seddon Vincent. He performed a task of exceptional magnitude for this Parliament and the nation in his chairmanship of that Committee. By way of paying a personal tribute, I want to say as one who had the honour of serving on that Committee that Senator Vincent's leadership, enthusiasm and inspiration will long be remembered as will the work he left behind. I hope that eventually the report of the Committee - aptly called the Vincent Committee - will find recognition as a major contribution to the advancement of television in Australia. Senator Vincent had the strongest possible feeling for the development of an indigenous Australian culture, not ina narrow and negative way but as part of a broad cultural pattern. He felt very keenly that something more was required of the television medium, both national and commercial, and that Australia should set its sights higher in this field of endeavour. 1 believe that the Parliament and the community will be the richer for the contribution he made to elucidating the many problems to be found in this field.

Having said that, Mr. Deputy President, I want to make the point on behalf of the Opposition that this Bill fails completely to recognise that there ought to be an Australian content in television programmes. This is being treated as though it were a mere revenue matter - the raising of a modest extra sum by way of licence fees from the television companies. It is not being treated, as it ought to be treated, on the basis that here if ever there is an opportunity for the Government and for the Parliament to say that when licence fees are being exacted from the commercial television companies, some collateral attention should be paid to the problem of the Australian content of television programmes. The Select Committee made a most exhaustive inquiry into this problem. It is just over 12 months since it reported to the Senate. The Government has had more than a year to consider the report, but we have not yet been given any indication of the Government's views. Judging by this Bill, the Government has an extremely negative approach to the problem. If its approach were otherwise, we would expect to see some action such as that proposed in the Opposition's amendment.

The Committee considered many ways of encouraging the development of an Australian content in television programmes. It recognised that a good deal of money would have to be found to implement its recommendations. A majority of the Committee - there was one exception - recommended that some of the money should come from Consolidated Revenue. The whole of the Committee recommended that some of the money should come from the industry itself. I shall refer to some passages in the report of the Select Committee to show that the view of the Committee was that the commercial stations themselves should provide some finance to encourage the development of the Australian content in our television programmes. At paragraph 118 of the report of the Select Committee, the following passage appears -

But notwithstanding the responsibility attaching to the Government -

This had been dealt with in the previous paragraph of the Committee's report - the Committee feels that there is also a degree of responsibility which should be accepted by the television industry and eventually by the film industry itself. The television industry clearly has a national obligation to share in the financial burden of providing an adequate Australian content in its programmes. Licensees with monopolies of public television services can and must expect to assume the public responsibilities commensurate with such privileges.

It is accordingly Recommended -

This recommendation was unanimous - that the annual licence fee payable under section 4 of the Broadcasting and Television Stations Licence Fees Act 1956 be increased in the following manner: -

 

The Select Committee said -

This is even then a very small charge upon revenue compared with the rates introduced in Britain as a result of the Pilkington Report of 1962 and implemented by the Television Act 1963 which prescribed the following rental payments by programme contractors -

 

The Committee then expressed its belief in this way -

The capacity of the Australian industry to bear the recommended charges is demonstrated by its profit history up to date. 1 have already dealt with that. Nobody suggests that the scale of charges should be as high in Australia, in different conditions and perhaps with different factors operating, as it is in Great Britain. If the Committee had thought so, it would have so recommended. In fact, it recommended rates substantially lower than those operating in Great Britain but very substantially higher than those operating in Australia in the case of profits over £500,000 and substantially higher than those which are set out in the Bill now before us.

We make the point that those two matters must be considered together. That basically is the purport of the Opposition's amendment. I move -

That the following words be added to the motion: - " but the Senate is of opinion that: -

(a)   the rates of licence fees on gross earnings from advertising receipts in excess of £1,000,000 should be substantially increased and

(b)   provision should bc made so that all the revenue from the licence fees is paid into a special fund and used solely to assist the production of Australian television programmes".

In view of the lateness of the hour, in view of the fact that the broad content of the report of the Select Committee is or ought to be known to every honorable senator, and in view of the fact that the case which makes clear the inadequacy of Australian content in current television programmes both as to amount and quality has been documented up to the hilt on many occasions in the Committee's report and in the annual reports of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board, I do not want to dwell on that aspect of the matter.

I bring this important point to the notice of honorable senators: If ever there was an opportunity for us to demonstrate some sincerity about the Australian content of television programmes, that opportunity is now available to us. The Senate now has an opportunity to declare that, whatever is the attitude of the Government in relation to the recommendations of the Select Committee, there should be a nexus between the levying of licence fees on the television industry as such and the carrying out of some work to encourage Australian productions for television. If we do not make that clear during the debate on this Bill, we will be failing in our duty as a Senate.

We set up the Select Committee to investigate and report upon this matter. It was an all party committee; it was not a committee consisting of members of the Opposition. The majority of its members came from the Government side. The Committee was led with great distinction by our late friend Senator Vincent. On this Committee was a great deal of harmony and unanimity. There were some minor differences, many of which were largely resolved within the Committee's discussion. The report that was eventually submitted had the broad consensus of all members.

Why should we let such an opportunity go by? If we believe in the system of select committees of the Senate, and if we believe that they perform a valuable duty in informing the Parliament and the public on matters of substantial moment, we should not let such an occasion as this pass without proclaiming our faith in the system and without doing something to back up the recommendations of the Committee.

We have moved this amendment in very broad terms. I dare say argument will be addressed to suggest that the amendment should be more specific, particularly in relation to the application of the fund. I do not conceive it to be the duty of the Senate to lay down with great particularity the precise objects of the fund's positive interest. We know there are a score and more specific recommendations about the encouragement of Australian dramatists, musicians, scriptwriters, theatrical performers, producers and playwrights. In all these ways practical assistance could be rendered to the film industry and to those attempting to enrich the cultural life of the nation at this level by training for performance generally and for television in particular. It is not, as I conceive it, our function to set out the blueprint of everything the fund would do or precisely how the fund should bc administered.

If we were introducing a completely new Bill we might then have moved for the appointment of a television advisory council such as is recommended in the Select Committee's report, but on this occasion the Opposition contents itself with giving some direction of policy to the Government by saying: " If this is accepted, any responsible Minister should be able to work out some coherent practicable scheme of assistance to the indigenous Australian worker and artist in the television fields". This is not the responsibility of the Senate or of the Parliament because these are matters of administration. Further, I do not think the principles would be difficult to set down or to apply. I hope I will not be met by the argument that we might have been more specific about the precise method of administering the fund and the objects of its endowment. The important thing is to recognise the need and to do something to meet it.

The Minister in another place, when dealing with this whole subject of Australian productions, was inclined to belittle the Australian effort. In relation to the problem of Australian production he said -

I believe that the principal problem is the shortage of scriptwriters. I do not think we have many good scriptwriters in Australia nor do I believe that we have people in Australia who can teach others to be good scriptwriters. We have not many good actors in Australia. You do not find people who will practise, practise, practise to become good actors unless they have some worthwhile instruction. . . . We have not producers and we have not directors of high quality in Australia at present.

My first observation on the remarks of the present Minister is that what he said was contradicted by the great body of evidence before the Senate Select Committee. The Committee did not accept the proposition that there are no good script writers, actors and so on. But more importantly, if what the Minister says is true, it is time we started to develop the machinery to obtain good actors, producers, writers and dramatists. The only way to do that is to offer positive encouragement at the level of government. What better opportunity has there ever b :en, what better opportunity will there ever be, to set a legislative seal upon that policy? That is what we hope to achieve by moving the amendment.

First, we think that the scale of licence fees proposed may be adequate in relation to stations with earnings of less than £1 million, but is inadequate in relation to stations with a greater income. Much more revenue could be gained by the imposition of a steeper rate of licence fee for stations with earnings above £1 million. The Opposition does not attempt to tamper with what is proposed for stations with earnings below £1 million. Secondly, the Opposition believes that this is not really a revenue measure.

The Government is salving its conscience because of the special treatment it has given to some commercial television stations. In view of the very high earnings and profits of television stations the revenue derived from licence fees at the present level is miserable. So the Government has proposed a modest and insufficient increase in the rate of licence fees, but it has failed to seize the opportunity to relate the whole problem to the broad findings on which the Senate Select Committee set its seal.

I ask the Senate to carry the amendment which I have moved, because I believe that to do so would be a forward step in the development of an indigenous Australian television industry.







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