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Monday, 11 November 1991
Page: 2846

Senator TEAGUE (5.53 p.m.) —I support the purposes of the Special Broadcasting Service Bill 1991. I want to refer to some aspects of the present legislation and to discuss the history of SBS-related Bills and parliamentary inquiries into the role and function of the SBS over the whole 12-year period since the SBS was introduced. There have been two Senate committee inquiries and I was closely involved in both. The first was about 10 years ago and the other about five years ago.

  I am a great supporter of the Special Broadcasting Service, particularly SBS Television. In my own home city of Adelaide we can receive SBS television only. It is only in Sydney and Melbourne that there is an SBS radio service. I am aware that SBS radio makes available some programs and some technical advice and help to the ethnic radio broadcasters in the other States. But in my own State, which is the norm, there is an independent ethnic radio station, whereas only in Sydney and Melbourne are there SBS radio stations as such.

  The diversity of television programming by the SBS is commendable. I find the overall range of the programs stimulating, and particularly commend SBS's Television's World News program for the extent and strength of its overseas news coverage which is by far the best of any of the television news services in this regard. I occasionally watch the news programs on the commercial channels. I still find myself mainly out of habit locked into the ABC's television news and I find that commendable. I know where I am with the ABC's television coverage with regard to news but I find every time I get a chance to watch it, the SBS news service is quite exciting and for one such as myself involved in foreign affairs and defence matters it is quite international, and of course deliberately so.

  Moreover, the Special Broadcasting Service is a lean, efficient, professional service. I prefer its contracting out approach to a number of its activities rather than going through a huge bogged down bureaucracy that we can find in some other areas of the media. I welcome the multiskill expectations of SBS personnel. I am also impressed with the SBS in the most general sense as an exciting, creative television service. I think it is fantastic that in Australia we have a range of television offerings in most languages of the world, creatively produced according to other people's views of a serious documentary or feature film and according to the legitimate perspective of a director or group of producers in another country. It is amazing that that is available to us in the language of that other country with SBS subtitling. Again, SBS subtitling leads the world in accuracy, readability and appropriateness to communicate to, say, an English-speaking audience.

  Australians are all enhanced through their access to this range of offerings from around the world. That is why I have always argued, from the very first time this was suggested in a government back bench committee, about what we should be doing to make multicultural television for all Australians. It is not confined to those Australians who speak languages other than English or those who were born in another country and want to keep in touch with that other country. I regard that as ethnic television and we do not have ethnic television in Australia; we have multicultural television for all Australians.

  I understand that in contrast to multicultural television, there is ethnic radio which, by and large, is aimed at a discrete minority group of speakers of that language. That is what I would call ethnic radio. But ethnic radio is quite different from multicultural television, which is what I am mostly speaking about and which is what I mostly see as the virtue of the Special Broadcasting Service. I come to this important Bill as a supporter of the Special Broadcasting Service and, on a broader basis, as a supporter of multicultural television.

  Because the word `multicultural' is criticised, and it is a bit of a mouthful, sometimes it is quite misused. Therefore, I thought I would take this opportunity to incorporate in Hansard, after I have sought leave of the Senate, the original definition of `multicultural' that we used in the Bill which the Liberal and National Government had introduced to set up the multicultural television service back in 1980. I seek leave to incorporate the definition that is set out on pages 3 and 4 of the Senate committee report entitled Report on Broadcasting and Television Amendment Bill 1980.

  Leave granted.

  The document read as follows—


    (a)  Objectives

  In his second reading speech on the introduction of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs Bill 1979, the then Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs stated:

  One of the first tasks facing the Institute undoubtedly will be to clarify the meaning, limits and implications of `multiculturalism', for it is essential that there be general community understanding of the concept and acceptance of its objectives and implications. The Institute will have a key role in promoting that understanding. . .

  These objectives, which embody the principal aims of the policy of multiculturalism, are set out in clause 5 of the Bill.

  Following the passage of the Bill, these objectives are now set out in Section 5 of the Australian Institute of Multicultural Affairs Act 1979 and are as follows:

5.  (a)to develop among the members of the Australian Community—

            (i)an awareness of the diverse cultures within that community that have arisen as a result of the migration of people to Australia; and

            (ii)an appreciation of the contributions of those cultures to the enrichment of that community;

        (b)to promote tolerance, understanding, harmonious relations and mutual esteem among the different cultural groups and ethnic communities in Australia;

        (c)to promote a cohesive Australian society by assisting members of the Australian community to share with one another their diverse cultures within the legal and political structures of that society; and

        (d)to assist in promoting an environment that affords the members of the different cultural groups and ethnic communities in Australia the opportunity to participate fully in Australian society and achieve their own potential.

Senator TEAGUE —I thank the Senate. I wish to refer to the definition as having four parts, three of which are about the unity of Australia and one of which is about the diversity of Australians. The encouragement to multiculturalism is then a four-part encouragement. It is an encouragement towards the unity of Australia and towards all Australians accepting the diversity of individual Australians.

  The first part of the definition speaks of an awareness of the diverse cultures within that community that have arisen as a result of the migration of people and an appreciation of the contributions of those cultures to the enrichment of that community. That is the diverse aspect of the use of the word. The second part speaks of promoting tolerance, understanding, harmonious relations and mutual esteem amongst all Australians. The third part talks about the promotion of a cohesive Australian society, by assisting members of the Australian community to share with one another their diverse cultures within the legal and political structures of that society. We have only one national language; we have only one legal framework; we have only one political system in Australia; and we are seeking to have the diverse individual Australians to all come to terms with that one unity of Australia, that one set of institutions. The fourth part of the definition is to encourage all Australians, from whatever cultural background, to participate in that one Australia.

  In the past 10 years that is what I have always meant by multiculturalism. I really regret that some people who have a prejudiced and opposing approach to the term `multiculturalism' often distort that meaning by talking only about those things that make for diversity. Overwhelmingly, it is a word that is about the uniformity of all Australians. Our experience in multicultural television and in a number of other multicultural programs has led us now to quite a rich experience not only over the 12 years since this definition was first determined but over the past 20 years—not much more than that. There was some sense of a multicultural Australia before the First World War. However, from the First World War until the revolution that started in the early 1970s, we were highly conformist and constrained to one assimilationist Anglo-Saxon Australia in every respect, not only in language but in thought forms, in expectations of each other.

  One basic feature of the present Bill that I commend is the charter that it gives to the SBS. This is set out in clause 6. This is a much more extensive statement of the purpose of the SBS than has been on the statute book until now.   If we go back to the 1977 amendments to what was then called the Broadcasting and Television Act, we find that the functions of the SBS were briefly stated in this way in section 79D:

The functions of the Service are—

(a)to provide multilingual broadcasting services and, if authorized by the regulations, to provide multilingual television services; and

(b)to provide broadcasting and television services for such special purposes as are prescribed.

The Bill before us states a principal function for the SBS and a series of duties that flow from that principal function. Clause 6(1) of the Bill states:

  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.

Subclause (2) goes on to state eight duties that follow from this. Together they amount to the charter of the Special Broadcasting Service. I applaud this more extensive setting out of the purposes for the SBS's existence. It should be of significant help to SBS management staff, as they develop their corporate plans, to have this legislative charter as a starting point .

  One of the major changes in the present Bill is that it will allow advertising on the SBS under certain limitations. My colleague Senator Alston has referred to this innovation. This will become a source of some revenue for the SBS along with sponsorship of programs that is already allowed. I see this, as the Opposition does, as a reasonable proposal, for it diversifies SBS's revenue sources and, to that extent, makes it less reliant on the taxpayer for funding. That is welcome.

  The way in which advertising is permitted is important. I note the restrictions in the Bill in this regard. The SBS board is required under clause 45 to develop guidelines concerning advertising. The Opposition has been arguing that those guidelines should be disallowable instruments; that is, when they are defined, they need to be tabled in this chamber and in the other place. If a debate led to their being disallowed for some inadequacy, they ought to be able to be disallowed. Therefore, I support the amendment that my colleague will move on behalf of the Opposition to give them that status unambiguously.

  The placing of this Bill on the statute book gives a firm indication that the future of the Special Broadcasting Service, as a separate body with its own statutory basis, is assured. This certainty is welcome. It would be much more difficult for the SBS to develop effectively were there to be continual uncertainty about its future structure.

  The question of whether the SBS should exist in its own right is one that has arisen in the past, particularly in 1986, five years ago, when the present Labor Government decided to merge the SBS with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It was a cost cutting exercise which was supposed to raise $1m. It was a Budget decision in 1986. The Opposition immediately opposed it, and so did the community at large, because it had been exposed to enough of the SBS's particular objectives and the SBS's mechanisms for presenting a service that it felt it would suffer and could be drowned were it incorporated within the ABC as one national broadcaster at that stage.

  The Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) greatly underestimated the strength of community objection to this Budget decision. As a result, the Government finally had to yield to the views of so many people. During the Senate inquiry, which eventually reported in 1987, it was clear what the evidence was. It was clear that the report would say—as it eventually did—that this was not the time to merge the SBS and the ABC. During the inquiry the Government called it off. It was wise to call it off. As I have said, this is the legislation five years later which is making more solid, giving more certainty to, the separate existence of the SBS.

  I should add just for the record that that episode in 1986 was of no credit at all to the Labor Government. It was a bureaucratic decision made by the former Minister for Finance, Senator Walsh. He is not in the Senate during this debate so I will not go into the matter in any detail. It certainly did not come from the watchers and listeners of multicultural television and ethnic radio. Of course, they opposed it, as was clear in the evidence which was presented to the 1986-87 inquiry.

  This was not the first inquiry into the SBS. For that, we have to go back to 1980. Although I might look as though I am getting long in the tooth because of our long sittings last week, I happened to be here for that 1980 inquiry and was very much a part of the Senate Standing Committee on Education and the Arts, which looked at what the Fraser Government was then proposing. The Liberal-National Party Government had brought forward a Bill to take the SBS out of the Broadcasting Act and to set it up with its own Act—the sort of legislation we now have before us 11 years later. It was going to be called the Independent and Multicultural Broadcasting Corporation, not the Special Broadcasting Service.

  When the Bill reached the Senate—I remember it well; it was in the old Parliament House—the Senate resolved by one vote to refer the Bill to the Standing Committee on Education and the Arts for inquiry. A number of then Government members were unhappy about this development and wanted it researched fully. I was a member of the Senate Committee, under the chairmanship of Senator Davidson, as he then was, which carried out the inquiry. That Committee recommended that the Bill should not be proceeded with, that the SBS should continue to operate by the interim arrangements in the Broadcasting Act and that the question of whether its role could be placed with the ABC should be considered further by a Government inquiry into the ABC which was then being held—the Dix Committee of Review of the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

  That ABC inquiry, under the chairmanship of Mr Alex Dix, reported in 1981 and included in its report the fact that it did see scope in the longer term for bringing the ABC and the SBS into a closer relationship—that is, as one integrated national broadcaster—but it was critical of the reluctance of the ABC to cater adequately for the interests of Australians of non-Anglo-Saxon cultural backgrounds. That was a very important finding in the Dix report. It was the same type of finding that was arrived at by the Senate Committee in 1986. I would say that it would still be the case right now, in 1991, when we are debating this legislation to give a more certain and separate existence to the SBS.

  I still look to the day—maybe it will even be during this decade—when there will be such a growth in the Australian people's relaxed acceptance of multicultural television and it will be so supported that it will not need to have a separate statutory authority any longer. Then, later in the 1990s, there could be an exploration of whether it would be appropriate to merge the SBS and the ABC into one umbrella organisation—one national broadcaster. At that point, we could be confident that there would be no chance of what we know as multicultural television being drowned in the larger organisation.

  In passing, I also note that in 1983 there was an inquiry into the SBS under the chairmanship of the Hon. F. X. Connor. The Connor report concluded that the two organisations should not be amalgamated at that time, although it did not rule out such a development in the longer term. I have already referred to the 1986 Senate Committee report and the way in which, along with the community at large, it forced the Government to back away from its 1986 Budget decision. I refer to only the final page or two of that Committee report—the conclusions and recommendations—where we said that we felt the question of merging under a national broadcaster could be revisited sometime in the 1990s.

  If the Parliament ever did legislate for any sort of merger between the SBS and the ABC, I hope that the resulting national broadcaster would be run as economically and productively as the SBS is run today. In the 12 years of debate about these matters, too many people have assumed that, if there were to be a merger, the ABC would take over the SBS. To those who are asserting that, I would put it the other way: I would much prefer the SBS to take over the ABC and to bring to the rather large bureaucratic organisation—which has a number of bright spots, by the way—its professionalism, creativity, multi-skilling, contracting out and up-to-date services which serve Australians so well. It is a recently organised service involving many aspects which I am afraid the ABC has not yet embraced fully.

  With those remarks, I take the opportunity to recognise the importance of this new re-establishment of certainty as well as the charter, definitions and clarity that this will give to multicultural broadcasting services in this country. I support the Bill and the amendments that the Opposition will be moving.