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Wednesday, 10 October 1984
Page: 1586

Senator WATSON(6.00) —Mr President, before commencing my speech I would like to acknowledge the important part that you have played in the deliberations of the Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings. While the Federal Parliament continues to consider whether it should allow the televising of parliament the South Australian House of Assembly has been allowing the televising of its proceedings for over a year now with access allowed to the telecast of any debates. However, the television networks there have until now shown exclusive interest in the film proceedings of Question Time. Discretion as to what is telecast resides exclusively in the television and radio stations.

When the decision was made to permit the broadcasting organisations access they were assembled and had explained to them the basis on which access was being granted, namely, the difficulties with defamation, that only qualified privilege applied, that there was to be no ridicule, and that a fair coverage was to be provided with equal time to all parties. On occasions there has been a need to remind the operators, when cameras were obscured and panning about the chamber, that disruptive events were not to be telecast.

This Committee has proved very interesting so far as the public has been concerned. A wide range of options have been put forward. Of course, I mention only those options which have been subject to public debate. For example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has proposed that continuous broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings on the ABC stations be dropped in favour of a program of edited highlights. The ABC also suggested the establishment of a parliamentary broadcasting unit to provide a continuous radio and television coverage of proceedings to all broadcasters. The Corporation also recommends the replacement of the current pattern of broadcasts with regular night programs when parliament is sitting. It is not an easy matter just for a parliamentary committee to give the go ahead to the televising of parliament. There are problems. At the same time there are advantages. For example, at one Committee meeting New South Wales Labor member Michael Maher is reported as saying that he had been told by a friend in the Canadian Parliament that the behaviour of members was said by everyone to have improved once the televising started.

However, there are other difficulties. For example, should we allow a panning of what might be an empty chamber during a routine debate? If so, what perceptions would the community have of such a panning of an empty chamber? I think there are other considerations that one has to take into account. If we had only limited highlights, what would be the role of the back bench? Would the television time be taken up entirely with ministerial statements? Would adequate time be given to the role of the back bench? At the same time, if we allowed continuous televising of Parliament I think it would be necessary to make some changes in the parliamentary procedures. We all acknowledge the long time taken, for example, during the forming of quorums. This would not be particularly interesting so far as television viewing was concerned. Also there is the question of divisions. I think it is time that some of our parliamentary procedures were streamlined. I think we could adopt a voting pattern such as that which operates in Westminster where voting takes place at specific times. I believe that would be a desirable improvement.

Another issue concerns the broadcasting of Parliament and whether there should be improvements, for example, whether the programmer should be entitled to make comment during quorums, during counting and so on. Some people believe that this would certainly highlight and improve the parliamentary performance and add interest to the viewers.

I turn now to the reaction of some people to parliament. One person commented:

Continuous broadcasting of Parliament on television would be a revolting mistake.

Another person stated:

Broadcasting of parliamentary debate should be stopped as soon as possible. It' s a ludicrous waste of the public airwaves to broadcast what is largely routine procedural stuff.

While there are a lot of people in the community in favour of the continuous broadcasting or continuous televising of Parliament there are other people who believe that it should be stopped altogether or that there should be edited highlights of both broadcasts and televising at an appropriate time in the evening. If we adopted this procedure the real question is what the appropriate length of time of an evening should be. Should it be 15 minutes, one hour, two hours or even longer? These are issues which the public have to deal with. Another person who made a response to the Committee said that many politicians could not use the English language properly.

There are a whole range of issues that are of vital interest to the community at large. I hope that perhaps we could develop some further mechanism in the new year to be able to get a wider input from the general community as to how we should proceed in relation to the possible broadcasting of Parliament. For example, there seems to be a fairly strong view that a special parliamentary unit should be established. However, if we establish a special parliamentary unit should it be as part of Hansard and controlled by Hansard or should Hansard be separate from a special parliamentary broadcasting and televising unit? To what extent do we allow commercial operators to take a segment of a speech and to add something of their own at the beginning or end of the speech? These are pretty important questions because they could significantly alter the twist of the direction or thrust of a member's deliberations.

As the Parliament grows with its numbers to be increased by 23 members in the House of Representatives and 12 senators in the Senate, members of parliament will increasingly try to get their presentation both on radio and on television. The question is how the broadcasting unit will make sure there is fairness over a reasonable period between government and opposition members and between respective members within a party. Will the broadcasters tend to focus on the more flamboyant type or on the television-actor type, or will they tend to give undue emphasis to the flippant debate that makes the quick headline in the cheaper newspapers, or will they concentrate on the serious issues? These are fairly important questions.

There are also technical issues as to whether the debate should be switched to the FM network or continue on the AM band because there are difficulties in regard to the number of channels available. For example, if a decision were made to select the FM band for broadcasting what about some of the people in the community who do not have the latest radio sets capable of picking up these programs? We have been told that the great majority of people in the community have these sorts of radios but I believe that while that may be the case in the metropolitan area it may not be so out in the bush.

The Committee has a lot more work to do. It is a difficult area. We have to recognise that there have to be some sorts of guidelines applied to a television coverage. While a lot of us might feel that continuous televising is important we must realise that if we televise just the head and shoulders of a speaker that will be deadly boring. On the other hand there could be a need for some sort of background shots relating to the sort of material being debated, for example, views of the countryside or detailed excerpts of the report being debated and so on. There is a wide range of issues that must be examined to ensure that the commentary is devoid of bias. If we permit commentary to come in , we should see to it that the summary is unbiased and that the language and procedures should be normalised in a particular way.

Senator Hill —Why not give a great deal of flexibility and see how it works?

Senator WATSON —In response to that comment by Senator Hill, I believe that, if one is to experiment, perhaps now is the time to do so before we move to the new Parliament House and set up costly procedures. Among the difficulties of experimentation in this chamber are the adequacy of light, the problems caused by increased heat as a result of the need to have a higher level of lighting in existing circumstances, and so on. No doubt the continuation of the Committee's investigations in the new year will bring forth from the community a wide range of views on the televising of parliament. I commend the interim report to the Parliament.