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Thursday, 19 September 1974
Page: 1248

Senator BISHOP (South AustraliaPostmasterGeneral) - I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

Mr President,the Treasurer (Mr Crean) referred in his Budget Speech to the Government's decision to abolish broadcast listeners and television viewers' licences. This Bill contains the necessary amendments to the Broadcasting and Television Act 1942-1973. This is an important decision which will place Australia with Canada as the only 2 major countries whose governments provide a national service without charging radio and television set owners an annual licence fee. It will free close to 3.S million Australians, including 500,000 pensioners, of any future hability for licence fees which range up to $26.50 per annum.

The Government believes that the national broadcasting and television service should not be regarded as resembling a business undertaking in which receipts are related to expenditure. The national service provides an information, educational, cultural and entertainment service to the community. The Government believes that all people should have equal access to such services and it is, therefore, proper for the costs of these services to be a charge on the community as a whole through taxation. Licence fees have been a means of requiring radio and television set owners to make a contribution towards expenditure on the national broadcasting and television service. The contribution has been substantial. When licence fees were increased in 1968 and 1971 by the Liberal-Country Party Government, the result was that about 75 per cent of expenditure was recovered through fees. This practice has resulted in annual fees of $26.50 for a combined broadcasting and television licence; $19 for a television licence; and $8 or $4.25 for a broadcasting licence, depending on the zone. If this practice had been followed today, a combined licence fee of at least $40 would be appropriate, an increase of about 50 per cent, with a fee of about $50 for colour television sets.

Not only have the licence fees been substantial, but they have represented a poll tax applied uniformly throughout the community. Its burden is, therefore, relatively heavier on lower income earners than on the more affluent. This regressive aspect is accentuated by the requirement of only one licence for all receivers in any one dwellingthe affluent are more likely to be multiple set owners. Paying for the service from taxation collections which reflect the capacity to pay principle is more equitable. The licence fee has also become a relatively expensive tax to collect. The cost of administering the scheme in 1973-74 was $3.4m, representing almost 5 per cent of the total licence revenue, compared with a cost equal to about 1 per cent for income tax. Payment for the national service through the taxation system rather than by a special tax is, therefore, much more efficient.

A considerable proportion of the expenses of administering the scheme was incurred in policing the licence provisions of the Act. Despite the active work of some 80 licence inspectors, evasion has been a substantial problem. It has been estimated that revenue of about $llm annually is lost through evasion, and of course evasions increase as fees rise. Last year, 23,000 people were prosecuted for not having licences. I wish to express appreciation of the staff of the Postmaster-General's Department, past and present, who have been responsible for establisina operating and policing the licensing system. Often the unpopularity of licences has been taken out on them personally by licensees and non-licensees, but they have gone about their work with commendable efficiency and good grace. The existing staff, numbering 247, are being advised that there will be no retrenchments and that they will be placed in other areas as vacancies arise and after any necessary retraining in departmental time and at departmental expense.

There will be no refunds on current licences. However, in the case of licensees who have renewed, in advance, licences expiring after 17 September, a refund will be made as soon as practicable after this legislation is adopted. Any payments received subsequently for licences expiring after 1 7 September will also be returned to the payee. The abolition of the licensing system will cost the Government an estimated $50m in 1974-75 and $67m in a full year. This takes account of the saving in administrative costs. Refunds on unexpired portions of current licences would have cost the Government a further $30m in 1974-75 and made abolition too expensive to be contemplated. All licensees have escaped future payments and that should be a cause for considerable satisfaction. I commend the Bill to honourable senators.

Debate (on motion by Senator Durack) adjourned.

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