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House of Representatives debates the Broadcast Amendment Bill 1989

BRUCE WEBSTER: And now to Government legislation which will be the focus of Opposition attack in the last sitting weeks of the Senate. As media ownership in Australia goes through a major shakeout, the Parliament is debating the Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1989. The Opposition refers to this as the Bond Bill, as it is a reaction to recent proceedings before the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and subsequent court action over the media ownership of Mr Alan Bond. The Opposition's reaction to this Bill is summarised in the words of the second reading amendment moved by Opposition frontbencher, Tim Fischer.

TIM FISCHER: The House declines to give the Bill a second reading, and deplores the Government's hasty and ill-conceived attempt to bestow a vast new range of unpredictable and unnecessary powers on the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal, in a desperate attempt to divert attention from its total failure to introduce any meaningful reforms of broadcasting regulation despite the Prime Minister's unequivocal 1987 election promise to urgently reform this nightmarish legislation.

BRUCE WEBSTER: The Opposition Whip in the House of Representatives, Michael Mackellar, expanded on the Opposition's misgivings.

MICHAEL MACKELLAR: The Tribunal has expressed the opinion that its powers to give directions are inadequate and seem to have in mind that circumstances could arise where corporate structuring might prevent its directions from reaching the person responsible for the breach of conditions.

This was clearly not so in the Bond case, yet the amendments contained in this Bill go far beyond that perceived weakness and will give the Tribunal what can only be described as sweeping powers to give almost unlimited directions to whoever it wishes - for example, to involve itself directly in commercial aspects of a licensee's operations, such as programming decisions, the employment of key personnel, and its relationship with its program suppliers. And there is serious industry concern about the implications of these amendments and their ultimate influence on commercial decision making. I believe it constitutes an incredible extension of the regulatory powers of the Tribunal, potentially into every minutia of the administration, management and operation of broadcasting functions.

And it comes, and I remind the House of this, and it comes only months before the Government, by its own admission, is committed to reforms which will simplify what is acknowledged to be complex and unwieldy legislation. And I believe that this Bill is incompatible with that objective. It was our belief, in the Coalition parties, that the Government, the Opposition and the broadcasting industry were in broad agreement about the need for a fundamental overhaul of broadcasting legislation which would simplify its operation and introduce a degree of deregulation to the industry. In spite of that, what do we see - we see the Government introduce a Bill which is so convoluted in its wording and potentially so intrusive and complex in its operation that it is the very antithesis of the rationalisation process proposed by the Government for 1990.

Furthermore, the Government is doing this at a time when the Bond case is before the High Court, and its actions will be viewed with concern by those who, quite correctly, question the propriety of changing the rules while the game is still in progress. It is a face saving exercise to disguise the fact that the Prime Minister promised before the 1987 election, that his Government would `urgently reform this nightmarish legislation'. Let's face it, Mr Deputy Speaker, the amending legislation before us today is really nothing more than a hurried piece of theatricals to show that almost three years after the Prime Minister's promise of reforms, the Government are not only doing something but can promise expansively, in a second reading speech, about the reforms they now intend to bring down in 1990. It is for these reasons, for the reasons outlined by my colleague, that the Opposition opposes this Bill in its totality and moves the second reading amendments.

BRUCE WEBSTER: John Saunderson is the chairman of the House Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure, the committee which investigates broadcasting matters. He dismissed the Opposition's arguments.

JOHN SAUNDERSON: For the Opposition to stand up and say that these decisions are made in haste, is to ignore the historical facts of what has been going on over the last two or three years. I suppose the other telling point is that in fact, these amendments, to some extent, have been sponsored by major sections of the industry who have approached the Government and put forward and said, `Look, in consideration of the trustee arrangements, we believe there are better administrative ways of dealing with these problems', and the extension of 92m was one way of dealing with it. So rather than acting in haste, we have been responsive in fact, to some of the points that have been raised by the industry themselves.

Of course, the Bond Media are not happy about the amendments because they don't want any change to the circumstances, because they're the ones that are under fire, they're the ones that are in the frying pan, so to speak, and they'd rather there be no solution to the problem because should they lose their case, the fact that the legislation is deficient at the moment would almost certainly mean that they could continue to hold the licence for quite some considerable period of time. So they don't want a solution; they will oppose any possible solution to the change, and so I think we ought to ignore the arguments being put forward by the Opposition.

BRUCE WEBSTER: And Labor backbencher, Stephen Martin, made another telling point.

STEPHEN MARTIN: There is a need to give the Tribunal now, more flexible and less draconian remedies because they can be described simply as that - draconian. What could be more draconian, as I've tried to outline, than having the premier television network go off the air? What could be more draconian than failing to provide a television service to people through a major part of New South Wales, that part of Australia where aggregation has been first implemented and which is a trial for the rest of Australia.