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Wednesday, 10 October 1984
Page: 1588

Senator PETER RAE(6.12) —I support the general comments which have been made in support of consideration of this question. The relationship between the media and the Parliament is important in a parliamentary democracy. One fears that there is always a tendency for parliamentary democracy to be overlooked with the development of the semi-presidential system, which can be so much more readily capable of being the subject matter of media attention and treatment in our current type of technological development. There tends to be a concentration on the leaders of government, the Leader of the Opposition and, to a lesser extent, the leaders of other parties, whereas the real work of a parliamentary democracy takes place within the Parliament and its precincts, within the party system-the caucus system in the case of the Labor Party-and the parties themselves. What comes out from that on to the floor of the chamber is often of great importance, and of very much greater importance than the slanging match that tends to attract the attention of the media.

One must remember that the media are limited in the amount of space and time they can give to the reporting of parliament. Newspapers are more likely to sell if an item is a sensation-for example, if it is reported that someone has thrown a glass of water over somebody else in the middle of a dispute in a debate in the Parliament. That incident is more likely to be reported than is a debate dealing with the development of an Australian aerospace industry associated with defence needs, or whatever it may be. If we can find a happy medium between the print media's opportunity, in view of the limited space that is available, and the opportunity for some form of presentation of rado and television reporting of the Parliament, I think that a great deal more information, and perhaps a little less entertainment, about aspects of parliament will become available to the people of Australia. If they obtain more information about what happens in the Parliament, I believe that their respect for and participation in the democratic process will be higher.

It is important in a country such as Australia at all costs to preserve the public respect for the freedom we enjoy. It must not be taken for granted. When one grows up in a democracy such as Australia, one tends to think it normal to have the freedoms that we enjoy. But more than two-thirds of the world's population do not enjoy our freedoms. In many parts of the world the media do not have the opportunity to report freely what happens in a parliament that is freely elected. Mr President, having just come back from the Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference you will no doubt be fully aware of the difference between the parliamentary democracies and the so-called parliaments in some countries which call themselves democracies, but which in fact do not have properly elected parliaments or any of the checks and balances and the free opportunities contained within our parliamentary system.

It would help people's understanding of the operation of parliamentary democracy if they were to see a little more of what happens and hear a little more about these things directly. I do not suggest that the print media, using as they so often do interpretive journalism, are not fulfilling an important role, but that is one aspect of the role of reporting parliament. Another aspect involves some form of direct presentation of what is happening. One can have particular regard to the IPU and the stark differences which are presented of the different systems that operate in the world. Let us cherish the freedoms we have and ensure that the people of Australia understand those freedoms and how they are exercised within the parliamentary democracy.

Many people in Australia feel fairly distant from the Parliament. If one reads letters on these matters in the newspapers or engages in discussions with people outside Parliament, one discovers that many people tend to have a fairly unreal impression of what the Parliament is and how members spend their time. What tend to be highlighted are the differences, the extremes, the sensations. I hope that in any consideration of the further development of a relationship between the media and the Parliament consideration can be given to showing people parliament working as a parliament. I remember the great response in 1974 when the only joint sitting that was ever held of the Houses of Parliament was fully televised . That created widespread attention and interest throughout the community. I was amazed that so many people found it fascinating. Many people commented afterwards that they had no idea that that was how a parliament operated. I believe we have an opportunity which has been taken successfully in some other countries to apply the principle of gradualism. That principle, which has already been applied with success to the development of the Senate committee system, could be employed to give the average Australian citizen the opportunity to know something more about the operation of parliamentary democracy in Australia. The Canadian experience is a case in point. Those concerned were surprised at the rating given to the televising of the Canadian Parliament. One wonders whether the extent of the huge swing in the recent Canadian elections was not a reflection of the greater knowledge of the operation of the parliamentary system and what was happening in government and parliament. One wonders whether that would have been the case had it not been for the television presentation.

I support what was said by the Leader of the Opposition Senator Chaney and Senator Watson about the importance of matters such as standards of behaviour, the effect the presentation to the public of parliament, other than through the print media, may have on the way in which people speak and generally behave in the Parliament and whether that may not be to the benefit of the parliamentary process as a whole. I support the work that has been done so far and hope that further work will be done as soon as possible with the reconstitution of the Parliament after the election.

I join my Leader and say that I have absolutely nothing but admiration for the job you have done, Mr President. I hope that you can continue to participate but not necessarily as a member of the governing party. I trust that, whoever is in government, this work will be continued and that the principle of gradualism, will be applied to it. I trust that we will develop an opportunity for a greater exposure of the Parliament to the people and thereby a greater understanding of the operation and the tremendous advantages of parliamentary democracy over the sorts of systems that operate in the two-thirds of the world which does not enjoy the freedom that we enjoy.

Question resolved in the affirmative.