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Thursday, 10 March 1932

Mr THOMPSON (New England) . - I am disappointed in this bill, because it contains three serious weaknesses. These are, first, that the commission to be set up is far too weak to deal effectively with the tremendous interests which will be placed under its control; secondly, that the principle of political control in its worst form is being introduced into broadcasting; and thirdly, that no provision is being made for the establishment and control of B class stations. Although these serious defects will not justify rejection of the bill, they will most certainly justify drastic amendments to it in the committee stage. The Postmaster-General (Mr. Fenton) has invited honorable members to make whatever suggestions they please in regard to broadcasting - he is the first Minister of this Government who has shown any anxiety to meet the wishes of honorable members - so I hope that he will carefully consider any amendments that are proposed to the bill. Compared with progressive European countries and the United States of America, Australia is very backward in the use of wireless broadcasting. There are 4,000,000 wireless listeners-in in Great Britain, and these represent about !0 per cent, of the population, while the !550,000 listeners-in in Australia comprise only about 5 per cent, of our population. This disparity casts a reflection upon this Parliament, and upon successive Commonwealth Governments. I do not particularly blame the present Ministry - it has not been long in office - but the last Government, during two years of the most critical period in the history of wireless, took no action to improve broadcasting facilities. I recognize, of course, that that Government was handicapped by the fact that a certain contract was in force; yet it is regrettable that the numerous exPostmastersGeneral, who are now members of this House, made no serious attempt to take advantage of the educational value of broadcasting.

The public of Australia has not been educated to appreciate high-class programmes. Various ballots taken by newspapers show that the most popular items are band music' and gramophone records, which cannot be called high-class music. The honorable member for West Sydney (Mr. Beasley) stated this evening that certain listeners made a practice of ignoring A class stations, and switching over to the B class stations. I put that down to the fact that the majority of those who listen-in to-day are mainly interested in second-class music, since the B class stations chiefly broadcast gramophone records, and poor records at that. In the last ten or twelve years, various federal governments have failed to rise to their responsibilities in using broadcasting facilities for the education of the people. It may be contended that half the population resides in the capital cities, where most of the listeners are to be found. That is true; but it proves the shortcomings of governments. While successive administrations have allowed broadcasting contractors to cater for the needs of the people in capital cities, they have shamefully neglected the claims of country districts. Most country members will agree that it is almost impossible to obtain good wireless reception in rural districts, and this is mainly because there are only three or four relay stations. The educational value of broadcasting being recognized throughout the world, Australia should not have been so backward as it is to-day in taking advantage of the opportunities offered. Evidently, various Commonwealth Governments have not taken the possibilities of broadcasting seriously.

This Parliament now has its first opportunity to deal with this subject, which is of vast importance to the people, and yet we are presented with a weak bill. In many respects it shirks the main issues. In the first place, the commission, which we were told was to be a replica of the British Broadcasting Corporation, is to be the weakest thing imaginable. The Minister has contradicted himself. He said that we were to follow the lines laid down by the British body, and yet the honorable member for Corangamite (Mr. Gibson), who is an ex-Postmaster-General, reiterated the Minister's statement that we have a long way to go before doing what has been accomplished by the British Commission. If it is desirable that the new system of commission control should resemble the British pattern, we should try to copy it as closely as possible immediately. Why should we remain ten years behind the times? The honorable member for Corangamite remarked that it was practically impossible for us to adopt the British system. Then why does the Minister say that under this measure we are copying Great Britain so far as possible? The Minister referred in his speech to the high capacity of the gentleman in control of the British com- mission; but bow cau we hope to obtain the services of a highly-qualified gentleman to act as chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission when the suggested remuneration is only £500 per annum? This gentleman will be required to control broadcasting for the next five years, during which period enormous developments may take place; even television may be found practicable. The deputy chairman is to receive £400 per annum, and the other members of the commission £300 per annum. It is said that the commission will not have a whole-time job; but I submit that broadcasting is one of the most important enterprises in Australia to-day, and the commission should devote practically the whole of its time to the development of this system in the interests of the people generally. As a result of the new form of control to be introduced, I have no doubt that double the present number of listening-in licences will be taken out, which means that instead of receiving a revenue of £400,000 from this source, we shall get £800,000, and it should not be difficult to increase that revenue to approximately £1,000,000. Then why strangle the commission at its birth by providing a paltry remuneration for its members ?

While I admit that in these difficult times we cannot afford to be extravagant, the Government need not have gone out of its way to remove the possibility of obtaining the services of first class men for this important work. I realize that we shall he fortunate in having the services of Mi-. Brown, the Director of Posts and Telegraphs, who will be in control of the technical side of the undertaking; but the driving force behind the movement will be the chairman of the commission. The manager, of course, will be merely a creature of the board. He may be appointed to-day, and dismissed to-morrow. We shall be very fortunate if we cau find an ideal manager. The Government is, apparently, looking for another Sir Robert Gibson ; but will they be able to obtain the services of a man capable of controlling the broadcasting system for the paltry salary of £500 per year? No doubt 500 or 1,000 men in Australia would consider themselves qualified for appointment as chairman of this commission at the remuneration specified in the bill.

Mr Maxwell - Does the honorable member know how the time of the commission will be occupied?

Mr THOMPSON - Every phase of wireless broadcasting is placed under the control of the commission, which has power practically to educate the people of Australia in any direction it like3. It can dictate the nature of the programmes to be broadcast, and it can publish literature. It has all the powers and functions of the board of directors of a great business concern, yet we are offering probably the most paltry salaries ever provided under federal legislation. That fact will cause profound disappointment. Because wireless broadcasting is a most fascinating interest, many capable men would be ready to serve on the commission, and sacrifice their other interests to do so; they would be ready to accept appointment for five years and give of their best to Australia. But they will be deterred by the small remuneration proposed, which would compel them to maintain their private interests. Is it sound practice to offer big jobs to men who maj treat them as sidelines, continue their activities as directors of banks and companies, keep their fingers in this or that financial pic, and after a hard day's work drift along to a meeting of the broadcasting commission ? For the last ten years the Australian people have been disgusted with the broadcasting service, and have looked forward eagerly to a complete reformation of the system. From my own experience, I know that they are concerned not so much with the amount of the fee, as with the value they receive. They are convinced that under the systems of control in operation hitherto they have not received fair value. Now they are thinking of a new wireless service, which will compare with the world's best, but the feebleness of this bill will dispel a lot of their enthusiasm. The remuneration of the commissioners and the director should be increased.

Mr Cameron - What would the honorable member suggest?

Mr THOMPSON - I would- offer to the" chairman not less than £1,000, to the deputy chairman, £750, and to each other commissioner, £500. At present there are 350,000 listeners, but a good service would double that number. Membership of this commission should be a full-time job.

Mr White - Eventually the commission will become a mere committee, and the manager will control the whole system.

Mr THOMPSON - That is the danger. I am sorry that this Government, members of which have so often condemned the political control of banking, should have introduced that principle into this bill. The course it is proposing is fraught with the gravest peril. The honorable member for West Sydney (Mr. Beasley) looks forward to the time when Mr. Lang will be Leader of the Government in this House, and will relegate other parties to the obscurity which he believes should be their lot. Imagine the propaganda that he will flood into the ears of the people by wireless. Under this bill the commission will be a mere shadow, and the real boss of the wireless system will be the Minister. What possibilities that will open to a strong or audacious man ! Imagine the honorable member for West Sydney in control of broadcasting when a general election was approaching.

Mr Gullett - No government has misused the broadcasting service yet.

Mr THOMPSON - But this bill will facilitate misuse of it. Why not lay down definite principles, so that a great educational facility shall not he misused for political purposes? The honorable member for West Sydney (Mr. Beasley) declares that many people prefer to listen-in to the B class stations, because they want to hear Mr. Lang. I assure the House that the majority of people, even those with very definite political views, strongly object to the growing practice of " jamming the air " with political harangues. I have heard persons say, "Lang again!" and rush to the wireless cabinet to switch on to another station, and from it, in turn, they hear "the Red Flag." Let us eliminate entirely ministerial control. I would trust the present PostmasterGeneral to any extent, but we do not know who may succeed him. I certainly would not trust some past Ministers. But why not shut out personal considerations by prescribing that the controlling authority shall be the commission, which shall be independent of ministerial interference? The Commonwealth Bank is free of political control, but wireless is more important to the people than that institution. How few people have access to the Commonwealth Bank in comparison with those who are keenly interested in wireless ! But this bill is establishing a principle by which some future PostmasterGeneral, backed by a government determined to poison the minds of the people with political propaganda, may abuse this great educational service.

The ignoring of the B class stations is a serious omission. We have twelve national broadcasting stations, and the Government proposes to establish eight more. The twenty will provide a very fine service, and will, I believe, double the present number of listeners. Unfortunately, Ministers, in devising this scheme, seem to have based their calculation on the present paltry revenue from 350,000 listeners. Some day these will number 1,000,000. The B class stations have not had a fair deal. They may be regarded as the poor man's stations, catering, as they do, for people who prefer the cheaper classes of music and entertainment. At present they are dependent entirely on their returns from advertising; but they are entitled to participate in the revenue from listeners' fees. A class stations cannot be established everywhere ; and, therefore, the number of B class stations must increase, particularly in country districts. In fact, the bill should make definite provision that the increase of A class stations shall be accompanied by an increase of B class stations in a stated proportion; for instance, if eight new A class stations are brought into existence, four more B class stations should be established. This would ensure even development of the two phases of broadcasting; each caters for a different taste, and, therefore, both are essential. It is not fair to exclude the B class stations from government assistance. The listeners now pay a fee of 24s., but they would readily pay 30s. if they were assured of value. Why should Amalgamated Wireless (Aus- tralasia) Limited, the Performing Right Association, and the Government absorb the whole of the revenue, whilst the B class stations, which fill up the chinks in the wireless wall, have to subsist on their advertising revenue? I hope that provision will be made to give them a prescribed share of the fees from listeners.

It is evident that Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited is to be a big factor in the success of broadcasting. It is the biggest manufacturer of wireless material, and occupies a privileged position, because the Commonwealth Government is the principal shareholder. At present it is receiving £50,000 a year from broadcasting. What service is the company giving in return for this revenue? I am aware that it has certain patent rights, but what is their value? The Government seems to assume that the new system of control must continue the payment of £50,000 a year to Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited.

Mr Fenton - I merely mentioned how the revenue was distributed at present. The Government will take action in regard to the future distribution.

Mr THOMPSON - Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited cannot prove its title to one-fifth of the total broadcasting revenue; if it can, Parliament is entitled to know what service it is giving in return. Although it practically monopolizes the manufacture of wireless material, it is not producing cheap receiving sets for the people. One of the big influences retarding the development of wireless is the prohibitive cost of receiving sets. This public company is exploiting the people as ruthlessly as any private firm. The Government should investigate its operations with a view to assisting the development of wireless by making cheaper receiving sets available to the poorer people. Then, there is this Performing Right Association, about which I can tell honorable members something. It is paid a proportion of the licence revenue, Suit we should inquire what are the grounds upon which it is entitled to this money. The last balance-sheet issued by the association in Great Britain showed that, out of a total revenue of £60,000 drawn from all part3 of the Empire, Australia contributed no less than £30,000. It looks as if they are " putting it over " Australia to some purpose. Some gentlemen associated with this concern are at present in Canberra, and the Government might do well to interview them, to learn just upon what grounds Australia is being bled in this way, and what value the association is giving for the money it receives.

We know that one of the factors necessary for the success of broadcasting in Australia is the establishment of a national orchestra. No provision is made in the bill for this purpose; it is merely provided that the commission may establish an orchestra. But where is the commission to obtain the money? It is not likely to have available £60,000 for this purpose out of the proportion of the licence fees which it will collect. At the present time, we are paying £50,000 a year to the Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited - nobody knows what for - and £30,000 a year to the Performing Right Association, a foreign body, and we do not know what that is for either. That makes £80,000 altogether, which is at least £30,000 too much. I suggest that it would be possible for the Government to obtain at least £30,000 of the money necessary for the establishment of a national orchestra from the levies at present paid to the Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited and the Performing Right Association, and that without doing any injustice to anybody.

I maintain that the Performing Right Association has no rights in this country at all. We hear a great deal about international copyright. How does it concern us? When did we become a party to a copyright agreement, and in what way are we bound by any agreement? Africa repudiated the claims of the association; so did the Irish Free State; and so did Canada. The Canadian Parliament even passed an act establishing its own performing right association. The members of the Performing Right Association, who are really the publishers of Great Britain, quickly compromised with Canada, and that dominion got out of the matter very cheaply.- The Irish Free State fought the Performing Right Association in the courts, and won, and the association compromised with it also. In New Zealand, very little is paid to the association, and South Africa pays hardly anything. at all. In Australia, however, where we have never contested the claims of this association, we are robbed and exploited to the tune of half the total revenue collected by the association throughout the whole Empire. The Government is making a serious mistake in proceeding with this legislation without testing the alleged rights of the Performing Right Association.

Mr Maxwell - Is that not one of the first matters which will be attended to by the commission ?

Mr THOMPSON - It will have no power to do so. If the honorable gentleman can show me anywhere in the bill a provision empowering the commission to deal with these matters, I shall withdraw what I have said. Under this measure the Minister is to be the controlling force, and the commission will exercise only nominal control. It will be the Minister's servant, and I object to that. Why does not the Commonwealth Government challenge the claims of the Performing Right Association? Why are we paying this money? The association cannot enforce similar claims in New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada, while even in Great Britain, where there are 4,000,000 listenersin, the association receives less than in Australia where there are only 350,000.

I trust that the Government will reconsider the whole scope of the commission, and take steps to make it a more powerful body. It should try to get an able chairman, and pay him a decent salary. It should be a full-time occupation, not merely a lunch-time job, as it will be under these proposals. The chairman is a man who will make a success or failure of the whole system. I suggest that no political influence should be allowed to obtrude in the making of an appointment, and no suggestion from outside interests should be considered for a moment. I appeal to the Government, before the matter goes too far, to cut out the pernicious system of political control.

The Government should make some provision to safeguard the interest of B class stations. Those stations have been sadly neglected for years past, and they look to this Parliament for justice. Finally, the Government should take an early opportunity of testing the claims of the Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited and the Performing Right Association, with a view to obtaining relief from their heavy exactions.

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