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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1508

Dr THEOPHANOUS(10.50 a.m.) —-We are dealing with transport and communications, which is a huge area. I wish to concentrate on one particular aspect of it--radio and television--and, in particular, the question of the extent to which the radio and television services of this country are capable of or are effective in serving Australia as a multicultural society. I am quite happy with certain aspects of our television industry and of our radio industry. I want to make that point at the outset. I think we are doing quite well in this area, especially in the production of television drama and also in many of our current affairs radio programs which are lively and help the participation of the community.

Having said that, the extent to which there is a genuine effort to reflect the multicultural nature of our society in our radio and television programs is really not good enough. I know that many people say the SBS is supposed to perform that particular service--I will come back to the SBS in a moment because I have a few comments to make about problems in relation to it--but it is not just the responsibility of the SBS. For example, for some considerable time the ABC has had in its charter a requirement to reflect the multicultural nature of Australian society. With the greatest respect to the ABC, if one watches many of its television programs, or its television dramas, one would think that we have a very minor multicultural society in Australia, rather than the diverse multicultural society that we are.

I appeal once again to the ABC to do its national duty and reflect the actual composition and character of Australian society, which it is not doing enough of. Some time ago the ABC formed a multicultural unit, which was supposed to help promote these matters, but it appears that that unit has either exhausted itself, did nothing or disappeared because I cannot find out what is going on now in this multicultural promotion in the ABC.

Given the huge amounts of public money which the ABC spends, I think that it is incumbent upon the ABC to regenerate its multicultural unit and to act to represent the multicultural and transcultural nature of Australian society. That is not to say that the ABC does not do a good job in a number of important areas, but I think that even its current affairs reporting quite often suffers in terms of foreign affairs coverage from the insufficiency of multicultural input of the ABC. We get a situation quite often where if there had been a broader, more multicultural spectrum within the ABC, some of the multicultural insensitivity which some of the ABC reports have shown from time to time may not have occurred.

It seems to me that proper consideration of this issue is long overdue. In the past we have had promises from the ABC, including from the previous chairman of the ABC and a current Director and it is now time for some action.

The commercial television stations, as I say, in general are doing a reasonably good job under difficult circumstances. But again, on this question of the reflection of the multicultural nature of Australian society, they are certainly not doing a good job. This country is proud of its heritage and tradition, of the way in which it was brought together--people from many different backgrounds all working together to build what is becoming increasingly one of the great nations of the world. In this context, therefore, as I said, it is incumbent on our media to reflect that multicultural nature.

Of course some people have said, `Why can't the SBS do this? After all, we have the SBS whose duty it is to represent Australia as a multicultural society'. Indeed the SBS does a good job, especially given its limited budget--but that is the problem; the SBS's budget is limited. Recently we had a very good example of what has happened to the SBS as a result of that. I refer of course to the crisis that was created over the radio programs on SBS radio in Melbourne and Sydney where, because of the fact that we have had new communities coming into Australia in the last 15 years and they have wanted air time on SBS radio, the SBS management decided that it was necessary to reschedule the programs on SBS radio. Of course, the somewhat curious action of the SBS management to then drop 21 language groups from the radio programs created some considerable public furore.

I was somewhat amazed that, when the SBS management was faced with this problem, it did not immediately do what was logical--which was to come to the Government straight away and say, `Look, SBS has this problem with all these new groups. It is absolutely imperative for us to have a second radio network'. That is what it should have done. Instead of taking that action, the second radio network option was canvassed and dropped and the SBS management then proceeded with this rescheduling exercise which created, to say the least, a lot of angst not to mention a number of different public meetings at which, unfortunately, the Government was condemned. But it was not the Government's fault at all; it was a result of the action of SBS management in relation to these programs.

I am happy to say that, after a series of meetings involving the Caucus transport and communications committee, the Caucus immigration committee, the Minister for Transport and Communications (Mr Beazley) and the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), we have managed to at least temporarily resolve this issue--and I say temporarily in the sense that we have reinstated the 21 language groups. But, of course, it has meant that the hours of some groups have been reduced while others have had their hours increased, and new groups have had to come in. The overall compromise, while it is acceptable as a short term measure, is obviously going to be inadequate to meet our requirements as a multicultural society. That means that it is absolutely necessary for the Government to move quickly in relation to the second SBS radio network in Melbourne and Sydney.

The only way we can accommodate in a satisfactory way the sort of multicultural society that will be created through our immigration program, especially providing a reasonable service for the bigger groups in the community while giving those various groups some access so they can hear the news and current events--especially for the smaller groups, it is only perhaps a question of half an hour or an hour a week--is to have that second radio network. I believe that, given that more than 40 per cent of Australians have a background which involves a second language and given, in addition, the way in which we are trying to inspire even those Australians who are monolingual to learn a second language, we certainly ought to look at the radio programs on SBS. That means we do require that second network as soon as possible, and I would urge the Government to certainly look at this option.

We have given a commitment that this option would be looked at in the next few weeks, and I am hopeful that it will be looked at by no later than the middle of November. I personally want to say that I strongly support the creation of that second radio network so we can service all of the communities and help to transmit programs in the various languages. (Time expired)