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“Invisible" Willis must go over broadcasting reform fiasco

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It is now clear that broadcasting regulation reform in Australia is a shambles. The situation can only be retrieved by a fresh

start and a new Minister.

Under Ralph Willis - Rip van Willis to the industry - the

Australian Government has pursued a policy of drift. Especially in recent m o n t h s , Mr Willis has simply fiddled while the television industry has b u r n e d . He has clearly lost his nerve. In the last week, despite having tabled an oblique and confusing broadcasting amendment he has repeatedly refused to give press conferences, issue press releases or elaborate on government thinking - he has even allowed a back bencher to present the

government view on prime time television - last weekend on the Sunday program and last night on Four Corners.

Mr Willis has been responsible for broadcasting policy for more than 12 m o n t h s . In that time he has repeatedly promised to

honour the Prime Minister's June 1987 election commitment to completely overhaul the Broadcasting Act, but absolutely nothing has happened.

Unless Mr Willis is immediately replaced effective decision making will be taken over by a Caucus Liaison Committee along the lines of the infamous Telecom Caucus Liaison Committee (aka the Telecom Monolopy Preservation Society) which so successfully derailed telecommunications reform and resulted in Australia now having the most monopoly protected telecommunications environment

in the Western w o r l d .

When Alan Bond was found not to be a "fit and p r o p e r " person and

suddenly the Nine Network was in danger of going off air the

Minister did noth i n g . Instead of introducing corrective amendments he waited for several months and then glowingly endorsed a hare-brained trusteeship proposal which has since been roundly kicked to death by the industry and has sunk without trace.

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Over the last three months the television industry has been in turmoil - the Ten Network licence changing hands for a song, the Seven licence very much at risk and even the prosperous Nine Network facing serious debt p r oblems. Throughout this crisis the Minister has slept soundly on the sidelines allowing the ABT to consume precious industry time and resources in a self-indulgent

second guessing of audience local content preferences.

Following a visit to New Zealand in August where he was

confronted by the stark contrast between the bold deregulatory initiatives of the Kiwis and his own insipid "do n o t h i n g " approach, the Minister finally bit a small bullet by appointing a known deregulator, Mike Hutchinson to forget the last two and a half years of disastrous inertia and to embark on a fundamental review of broadcasting regulation.

The Minister then went back into hibernation for some weeks until on 2 November 1989 he suddenly introduced a Broadcasting Amendment bill into the House of Representatives giving the Tribunal a whole new range of unnecessary and potentially

draconian powers, while at the same time pretending that the provisions "do not create substantive new powers for the Tribunal". The second reading speech hinted broadly at fundamental reforms in the new year but the Minister then refused

to hold a press conference, issue a press release or even to

elaborate on the key aspects of the legislation.

This pathetically pusillanimous attitude is compounded by the Minister's refusal to debate the issues on the Sunday program or Four Corners leaving the field to a bankbencher with hard-line pro-regulation views.

But the last straw came when the Minister was forced to publicly disown his own Department's deregulation proposals despite having privately encouraged both the Secretary and the head of the review team to go down the New Zealand road. It is now clear

that the Minister proposes to surrender the entire process to Mr Saunderson and his regulatory Caucus cronies, thereby sounding the death knell for serious broadcasting reform in Australia.

7 November 1989

For further information contact: (03) 629 1150 or (03) 817 1675