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Monday, 14 October 1991
Page: 1848

Dr THEOPHANOUS(5.35 p.m.) —-I have been waiting for the Special Broadcasting Service Bill for some time. Mr Deputy Speaker, you may be aware that in the last decade there has been a lot of debate about the future of the SBS. Finally we have before us a Bill which will put the SBS on a firm footing, in legislative form, in such a way that, on the one hand, it will be given additional responsibilities and powers and, on the other hand, it will secure the SBS for what I hope will be a permanent period in the development of Australia's multicultural society.

Given the importance of this legislation, it is interesting that we have heard the Opposition spokesperson, the honourable member for Bass (Mr Smith), talking about some small and rather trivial concerns in relation to the Bill rather than about the broadness of what is involved here and how important it all is to the development of multiculturalism. He did make a couple of comments which I think need to be corrected.

The first correction concerns the question of the Government's intentions for the SBS. Let me make it clear that the Labor Party has always had a policy of support for the SBS. A Budget determination was made at one time to merge the SBS and the ABC. That was opposed by significant sections of the Labor Party. In the democratic processes, not only were there consultations taking place but also the ethnic communities were having a large say in the matter. In the end, after a long consultation process, and after a process of debate and discussion within the Labor Party, the Government reversed its decision.

It is true to say that many of us were not persuaded by the original decision to merge the ABC and the SBS; therefore, it is incorrect to try to argue some kind of political point that the Labor Party was opposed to the SBS. It was not. There was a particular Government Budget decision under difficult budgetary circumstances. It was recognised that this was a mistaken decision and it was reversed. The Party always retained its general policy on the SBS. I want to make those particular points because it appears to me that both the shadow Minister for communications, the honourable member for Bass, and the shadow Minister for immigration and ethnic affairs, the honourable member for Dundas (Mr Ruddock), wish to try to make a large point of this matter.

In respect of the general support for multiculturalism, there is no doubt about which party has been very strong in its support and which party has actively worked for the promotion of multiculturalism; whereas there is an enormous question mark over the Opposition. This is because over a period with different leaders of the Opposition there has been a general attack on multiculturalism. It is true that at the moment the conservative parties, to some degree, are using the word `multiculturalism' on occasions, but we could not say that they would have an active agenda for the support of multiculturalism. Far from it.

I will not go into the Leader of the Opposition's recent comments on immigration because that is for another occasion. I am alarmed at the recent statements of the Leader of the Opposition in relation to immigration. They are part of a pattern that we have had with conservative leaders who have found it convenient at a particular time to attack either immigration or multiculturalism.

It is unfortunate that the shadow Minister chose to try to make some political points on this matter and, indeed, that Liberal Party activists have gone around Australia trying to make political points in relation to the recent problems of the SBS which concern the radio rescheduling issue. I will have more to say about that matter later.

I think it should be borne in mind that, when it comes to the actual delivery of the programs with respect to multiculturalism and the consistent support of programs with respect to multiculturalism, there is no doubt that the Australian Labor Party has been and continues to be the pre-eminent Party.

Having said that, I think that we should also congratulate the Minister for bringing in this legislation and for the way in which the charter has been put together so that there is an emphasis on the aspects of the duties of the SBS. I refer particularly to clause 2 of the charter, which reads as follows:

(2) The SBS, in performing its principal function, must:

(a) contribute to meeting the communications needs of Australia's multicultural society, including ethnic, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities; and

(b) increase awareness of the contribution of a diversity of cultures to the continuing development of Australian society; and--

that is very important--

(c) promote understanding and acceptance of the cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity of the Australian people; and

(d) contribute to the retention and continuing development of language and other cultural skills;

There are several other important clauses with respect to the goals of the SBS. Point (e) is also worth referring to. It reads:

(e) as far as practicable, inform, educate and entertain Australians in their preferred languages;

These are important goals because, essentially, the support for a multicultural society is being translated into the charter of the SBS in a fundamental way.

We are not a monolingual society. We are a society which has English as its major language, but we also support, through our national language policy and other major multicultural policies, the learning of other languages, retention of languages by people who are bringing their language skills here in Australia and the idea of communication in various and diverse language forms.

We also support people coming to an understanding of what multiculturalism is about. There is no doubt that the Special Broadcasting Service has had a key role to play in the success which we have had to this point and will have a key role to play in the future. That key role involves the understanding that in Australia an individual can actually choose to participate in a diverse number of cultural forms. An individual can do that through the excellent entertainment, the excellent information and the excellent current affairs and news services provided, for example, by the SBS. He can also, if he has some development in a second language, listen to the radio programs on SBS radio, be informed in that particular language and also learn more about that particular language, if so inclined.

These are all extremely positive developments, not only for those Australians who are of ethnic or migrant background but for all Australians, because there is no doubt that we are increasingly an international world and that it is necessary for us, if we are to play our role in the world, to maximise our understanding of the cultures and traditions of the world and also to maximise our skills in relation to dealing with those cultures and traditions. That involves the actual practice which the SBS has been involved in.

I think the SBS has been a great success. There have been teething problems from time to time. Notwithstanding those problems, in overall terms we have actually been able to get the service going. It is increasingly supported by more and more Australians. I know that sometimes the notorious rating figures say that not too many Australians watch SBS. It really amazes me when I hear that argument put because, of course, the rating system used is clearly such that it is not intended for a system such as the SBS. The percentage of people that might be watching or listening to SBS at a particular time may be relatively small, but the point is that it changes as the language group changes or as the program changes. If one adds the cumulative effect of all the people who watch or listen to the SBS, it is much more dramatic than the figures would indicate.

I believe that the majority of Australians support SBS and the kind of job which it has been doing in terms of not only promoting multiculturalism but also, to use the slogan of SBS, `bringing the world back to Australia'. I think that SBS, especially in its news and current affairs services, has played a very important role in making ordinary Australians familiar with not merely events overseas but with some of the complex issues involved in events overseas, including controversial events such as the recent events in the Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia, Croatia and Slovenia.

I also compliment the Government for this Bill because, of course, it will in a sense give permanency and security to the SBS. I say to those people who still have some fanciful idea that there should be an amalgamation of the ABC and the SBS--if there are any left around the place--that we have had that debate and we have had that experience. Let us forget that one and let us proceed to the real issue, which is to ensure that both the SBS and the ABC perform their functions within the Australian community.

The ABC plays an important role. Nevertheless, its role is not and has not been in relation to the promotion of Australia's multicultural society, notwithstanding the fact that it has a clause in its charter along those lines. I have spoken in this House before about the failure of the ABC to meet the obligations under that particular charter. But that is another matter. Obviously, if the Australian multicultural society is to be truly represented, there must be a distinctive service of the kind provided by the SBS.

When talking about the SBS, we nearly always talk about SBS television, which is very important. It has, in fact, played a wonderful role in our society and its news services and current affairs services have played a specific role in illuminating us not only about international events but also about events in Australia to do with various ethnic communities, events which, unfortunately, are generally not recorded or are certainly not recorded sufficiently by other television stations.

SBS radio, however, has played an important role, especially for our older communities, because it has been able to communicate in the various languages with the diversity of Australians. The language programs on SBS radio are some of the most popular programs on radio; a very high proportion of particular ethnic communities listen to those particular programs. A very high proportion of the Vietnamese community listens to the Vietnamese program, the Turkish community to the Turkish program, the Greek community to the Greek program, and so on. All of those communities, including smaller communities such as the Lithuanian community, are very much informed not only about events in their former homelands and events, situations and actions with respect to the ethnic community in which they participate, but also about the broader Australian politics and society in a way in which they could not be informed through the ordinary media, because their linguistic skills are insufficient in the English language.

So it is a very important task that is performed. It was, therefore, regrettable in this context that we had the problem arising with the rescheduling of the SBS radio programs. In a sense, the problem was inevitable. More and more ethnic groups were coming to Australia. The original numbers of some of them were small but have grown substantially. Those groups were making claims for more air time on SBS radio. Other groups had integrated into Australian society in such a way that many of them had forgotten all or some of the language which was being spoken. So there was prima facie an argument that, in fact, a rescheduling should take place.

The shadow Minister for communications, the honourable member for Bass (Mr Smith) spoke about the community consultation process which, unfortunately, was inadequate in this case and, as a result of that, it was necessary to go back to the decision which was made by the management and the board, especially with respect to the 21 language groups. To the credit of Mr Johns and the management of the SBS, once they had recognised that there was community concern and opposition to aspects of the decision and the way in which it had been made, they agreed to reopen the process of consultation and to amend the decision.

I commend the Minister for Transport and Communications (Mr Beazley) for his role in the negotiations and discussions in this matter, because the final result is that, although obviously we cannot within the one radio station satisfy the concerns of all groups--and some groups are still disaffected--at least all groups, now having been reinstated, will be getting air time and, naturally, those groups whose time has been reduced will be able to look forward to the second station, which is the sensible solution to the problem. It is the medium and longer term solution to the problem, but it has now become more critical in the light of events in recent times.

In conclusion, I support the Minister's statement that the matter of a second frequency, a second station, will go before the Government very soon. I support the setting up of that second frequency and look forward to further development of the SBS radio on these issues. I welcome this Bill. I think it is very important for the ethnic communities and for multicultural Australia. (Time expired)