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Monday, 14 October 1991
Page: 1867


Mr SNOWDON (-Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Transport and Communications)(8.48 p.m.) —-It is my fortunate privilege to sum up this debate, which obviously has traversed a wide range of subjects, not all of them directly associated with the legislation. The contribution from the honourable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr Campbell), whilst not directly relevant to the legislation, did have some tangential association which I might address in my contribution, because my view is starkly different from his. Now is not the time for us to explore those differences, other than to point out at the outset that, whilst multiculturalism presents him with a problem, it presents me with no problem and it presents the Government with no problem. I think he ought to be mindful that, whilst he may reflect some views from within his electorate, they are not endorsed by the people from the area of the Northern Territory, my home electorate. Quite the opposite is true.

I make the point that I neither acknowledge nor support the negative comments about multiculturalism. I wish to also emphasise that the migrant community that I have come in contact with throughout Australia is strongly supportive of this legislation and sees it as important that this Bill be enacted.

It is important to understand that the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australia provided constructive comments on the legislative principles and directly assisted in the finalisation of the Bill. It is important that we understand that. It is also important that the honourable member for Kalgoorlie understand it, because the Government--as, I understand, does the Opposition--has a commitment to fostering the development of multiculturalism in its varied forms. It is also important to understand and appreciate that those people who have come to Australia as recently arrived migrants or are descended from migrants have a valid and a valuable contribution to make to the linguistic and cultural diversity of this country and they have a desire, which is manifestly obvious in terms of the SBS, to express at times those linguistic and cultural differences in the programs which are offered. No-one is arguing that we should be seeing emerge a situation that has been typified by the honourable member for Kalgoorlie.

I found the honourable member's contribution in terms of the Japanese businessmen rather interesting. I do not know what relevance it had to this legislation. I suggest that it was totally irrelevant and, in the context, I suggest that perhaps the honourable member for Kalgoorlie ought to re-examine the merits of that statement.

I think we can be justly proud of the cultural and linguistic diversity of Australia. No-one is suggesting that English is not the first or main language of government or is not the main language of the community. No-one is asserting--and least of all me--that it is not the language which dominates our society and with which we communicate with each other in formal business. The fact that there may be some Australians who do not speak English as their first language should not be a matter of great concern. What should be of concern is that we provide every opportunity for those people to learn English where it is possible.

In summing up, I refer again to the legislation. It provides a comprehensive legislative charter. It guarantees that the SBS can continue to operate independently. It provides the SBS with the same range of corporate powers that the ABC has. The Government's vision for the SBS is encapsulated in the new legislative charter, which is worth quoting in some detail. Subclauses 6(1) and (2) of the legislation give us those details. Subclause 6(1) reads:

The principal function of the SBS is to provide multilingual and multicultural radio and television services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians, and, in doing so, reflect Australia's multicultural society.

I would have thought that, in the context of this Parliament's duty to the Australian community and our desire to ensure that SBS operates effectively and properly and that it represents the whole of the community in terms of its service, that is a laudable objective and a principle which ought to be emphasised and strongly supported by all members of parliament. Clause 6(2) reads:

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

(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; and

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

(f) make use of Australia's diverse creative resources; and

(g) contribute to the overall diversity of Australian television and radio services, particularly taking into account the contribution of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the public broadcasting sector; and

(h) contribute to extending the range of Australian television and radio services, and reflect the changing nature of Australian society, by presenting many points of view and using innovative forms of expression.

It seems to me that those principles--certainly agreed to, as I understand it, by the Opposition--are principles which could be supported by the entire community. Notwithstanding the criticisms that some people have made in the course of this debate, I suggest that if we are truly desirous of ensuring that our community fosters good relationships amongst the various groups that make it up--and let us remember that we are probably the most culturally, ethnically and, indeed, linguistically diverse nation on the face of the earth--we cannot adopt a head in the sand attitude, as has been proposed by some people in the course of this debate, and that we should acknowledge and, indeed, account and provide for that cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity. That is what this charter does. It is very simple.

I must say, as a member of the Government and having an involvement in terms of this portfolio, that it makes me extremely proud to be in a position to support the charter publicly in this way. It is a positive charter, a dynamic charter, which should sustain the SBS through the next phase of its development as our multicultural broadcaster.

Whilst I appreciate the enthusiasm with which the shadow Minister, the honourable member for Bass (Mr Smith), has supported this legislation--and I must say that I am afraid we are unable to accommodate his proposed amendments at this point--I noted with some concern the possibility, which he alluded to either directly or indirectly on three different occasions during the course of his contribution, that there may be the prospect of privatisation of SBS under a coalition government. He said at one point that whether the SBS remains, and I may not be giving this verbatim--


Mr Smith —-I don't think I used the word `privatisation'.


Mr SNOWDON —-No, the honourable member did not. He said that whether SBS remains in government ownership is yet to be seen. One would take it from that that there would be a deal of contemplation in the Opposition about the future of SBS, were there to be a coalition government. The honourable member's references to funding, in my view, placed a question mark on the ongoing commitment by a coalition government to the SBS's future. He also referred, at one point, to the possibility of ethnic media currently operating in Australia taking an interest in SBS at some stage. They are signposts to me--I hope I am wrong--that the Opposition might be frankly considering at some point the privatisation of SBS. It raises some interesting questions.


Mr Smith —-I hadn't thought about it.


Mr SNOWDON —-I am pleased that the honourable member has not. If he has not thought about it, no doubt he will confirm in the course of the committee stage of this Bill that he has absolutely no intention of doing so, in which case we would all be very pleased. If the honourable member is thinking about it, he might tell us how he would like to do it instead of perhaps ignoring the subject.


Mr Smith —-You have to be patient.


Mr SNOWDON —-Patient with the Opposition! I have to say that we are very patient. We have learnt to wait. With a great deal of angst, we can wait. I am sure that, in the context of other debates which we are currently having, we cannot wait much longer. Indeed, the community cannot wait much longer. In deference to the shadow Minister, if he were prepared to put us out of our misery about the privatisation of SBS, I would be very pleased to accept his assurances. I am sure that members of the SBS board would also be very pleased, as no doubt the migrant community and those people who support SBS would be.

I also noted that the honourable member for Bass cast doubts on the Government's commitment to keep the ABC free from advertising. The Government has made its position very clear. There is no intention at all to introduce advertising on the ABC and it has guaranteed the ABC's base rate of budget funding for the next triennium. The honourable member, in an aside, also questioned the potential impact of providing facilities for the SBS for additional ethnic language programming on the parliamentary broadcasting service. Whatever the outcome of the Government's considerations in this area, it will be cognisant of the needs of the parliamentary broadcasting service.

I note with some satisfaction the number of people who watch the parliamentary broadcasts. We might not be high in the ratings, but it is quite remarkable how many people from diverse backgrounds have pleasure in saying, `We noticed your bald scone'. I happen to sit in the chamber in a position in which I am fairly close to looking directly into the camera, and as a result of these broadcasts a number of suggestions have been made to me about my appearance and what I should do about it. Some of those suggestions I have taken seriously; most of them I have been unable to accommodate. However, that does point out to me that there are many people in our community who do watch the parliamentary broadcasting service--and, indeed, I think it is a valuable service.

The Opposition's amendments will be considered again before this subject is debated in the Senate, but each has deficiencies. Requiring advertising guidelines to be subject to parliamentary disallowance is a major regulatory impediment to one of the few areas where the SBS should be operating in a commercial manner. Requiring the corporate plan to be subject to ministerial direction involves the Minister directly in SBS's decisions about scheduling and program contents strategies. This, in my view, undermines in one stroke the independence which the Bill seeks to confirm. There are a range of other protections in the Bill for SBS's financial arrangements, for example: forecasts of expenditure and revenue in the corporate plan; Treasurer's or Minister for Finance's approval for borrowings; contracts over $2m to be approved by the Minister; and full financial reporting in the annual report.

The Bill sets up a much better system for community consultation than, in our view, requiring a committee to be established. It requires the board to be aware of and responsive to community needs and opinions, and it leaves it up to the board to decide how best to meet that obligation. This places the responsibility where it belongs: fairly on the board. If the Minister is not satisfied with the proposed arrangements, he or she can direct the establishment of a community advisory council.

I would think that, given the nature of the charter and given the nature of the Government's intentions in terms of this legislation, it would be inappropriate for us to be setting up a parallel committee structure to mirror the SBS board and perhaps even take from it some of its responsibilities. The charter makes very clear what is expected from the board in terms of ensuring that the community views are represented.

A number of speakers have talked about SBS extensions. One should note that in the near future, indeed, with the second generation of Aussat satellites, there will be a national SBS beam and that, if people are not in areas where re-transmission facilities have been provided, they will have the capacity, either through the self-help program or independently, to purchase dishes and receive the service. Those people are not unlike many people who live in remote Australia, as I am sure honourable members are aware, who, if they want to receive remote commercial television services, have to provide their own equipment. I would suggest that it is certainly a province which needs to be examined at some time in the future, but the possibility is there for people to make arrangements in the future to receive SBS services.

In June of 1989, the Government announced the extension of the SBS to a number of regional centres around Australia, however the areas selected were chosen because they included a major centre with a service area of around 100,000 people, a high proportion of whom were from non-English speaking backgrounds. These centres include the La Trobe Valley, Bendigo, Ballarat, the Darling Downs and others. Some of them will receive their services this year and others will receive them the next year and the following year, by 1994.

I am pleased, and the Government is pleased, with the support generally that has been received from the Opposition. I found on reflection some of the contributions in the nature of a debate rather interesting. I noticed the dialogue between two members of this Parliament who happen to serve on a committee; I found that rather interesting interplay. No doubt, honourable members also noted with some relish the contributions made by Opposition members who support the legislation. I just reiterate: we cannot always agree with all of our friends all of the time, and that is why I could not agree totally with what the honourable member for Kalgoorlie had to say.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Message from the Governor-General recommending appropriation announced.