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Thursday, 28 April 1932

Dr EARLE PAGE (Cowper) .- I support the second reading of this bill, not because I think that the measure meets the desires of the House, or of the country, but because every one thinks that there should bc a national commission controlling broadcasting 'in Australia. The. Country party agrees "with the general principle underlying this measure, even though its members are not in agreement, with all of its provisions. In its present form, the measure gives a certain measure of control to a commission. Machinery is provided which could quite as well run an egg board or a milk pool. I hope that in committee we shall be able to infuse into this anaemic production of the Government, by some transfusion of blood, provisions which will radically change its condition, and enable it. to function in the interests of the people of Australia. The bill needs a surgical operation. It reminds me of a child with club-feet, who requires some orthopedic treatment to pitt the feet straight before it can walk and perform any useful function in the community. In my opinion, the commission proposed to be set up should more nearly resemble the Commonwealth Bank Board, a body which has been removed from the possibility of political control. There is. naturally, a liaison between the Government and the board; the Secretary to the Treasury is a member of the board. I should like to see in the bill a provision to ensure that the Director of Posts and Telegraphs shall be, ex officio, a member of the commission.

I am sorry that an opportunity was not given to those associated with broadcasting to discuss fully a measure which will, for the next five years at least, control wireless broadcasting in Australia; and, since what is done in the beginning cannot easily be altered subsequently, will probably control it for many years to come. These early years of growth may determine the ultimate direction of this great utility.

I wish the Government had done something to bring under the control of one commission the whole of the broadcasting interests in Australia. If that had been done, we could have had a national broadcasting commission worthy of the name, which would have had control riot merely of the A class stations but also of the B class stations, in regard to the issuing of licences and the general approval of programmes. It is a great pity that the division of the A class from the B class stations' is being perpetuated in Australia. In Great Britain, they have only one class of station" comparable with our A class stations, and in America only one class comparable with our B class stations. But in Australia we have in Operation a hybrid: system, and we may live to regret, the introduction of it if we do not co-ordinate the two systems. I trust that the Government will even yet consider the practicability of bringing both A and B class stations under the control of the National Broadcasting Commission, so that our lines of development may be definitely laid down. The necessity for this can be seen when we consider for a few moments the developmental possibilities of television. It is true that the PostmasterGeneral's Department has a tight hold of this invention at present, but what would be the position if a B class station obtained exclusive control of television in Australia? If that happened, the importance and value, of the A class stations would be greatly diminished. Something should be done to ensure that the development of both A class and B class stations will be brought under national supervision in regard to programmes, advertising and profit making.

The proposed commission should be made absolutely self contained financially. Later, I shall advance what seem to me to be unanswerable reasons why all the money obtained from licence-fees should be paid to the Broadcasting Commission. This body could be given power to make its own arrangements for paying the Postmaster-General's Department adequately for any technical services that it might be called upon to render. I am strongly of the opinion that provision should be made right at the inception of this new broadcasting scheme for the commission to provide for the replacement of plant and equipment as they become obsolete. The trouble with many of our publicly owned utilities in Australia - the railways are an outstanding example - is that in the good years when revenue was abundant the profits were paid into the Consolidated Revenue, and no provision was made for the maintenance of up-to-date plant and equipment or for proper depreciation and sinking funds. The great trouble with our railways today is that they are obsolete in many respects. In the good years, all the surplus over working expenses went into Consolidated Revenue, and now in the bad years the railways are unable to carry on their undertakings profitably. I suggest that the broadcasting commission should be just as independent financially as the Comm.onwe.alth Bank to enable this to be done. We know that definite provision has been made for the allocation of a proportion of the profits of the Commonwealth Bank to be paid to the Commonwealth Treasurer for sinking fund purposes. If it is desired that a proportion of the profits from broadcasting shall revert to the Government, that could be provided for by means of an amusement tax by taking a percentage of the licence-fee, or otherwise. We hope also, that a proportion of the profits will be definitely devoted to the improvement of programmes, the reduction of working expenses, and so on.

I regard this bill as of vital importance to Australia, for wireless broadcasting, in my opinion, shares with aviation the dis- tinction of being the most wonderful achievement of humanity of the last quarter of a century. It is capable of rendering incalculable service to mankind, for it has annihilated distance, space, and time. It can be particularly valuable in Australia, because, by the expenditure of a comparatively small capital, the people in our country districts, even though they be in remote places, can maintain contact with other parts of the continent. Wireless can become the greatest decentralizing force of which we have knowledge. Already it has been of immense value to the country people in this res2>ect. Its influence on country life and development has been so great that it has changed the outlook of country people, and has added immeasurably to their comfort and convenience. The people in the cities can obtain entertainment comparatively easily, but that is not true of the people in the country. Wireless, as a matter of fact, is, to a large extent, an entertainment-giving facility in the city, but in the country it is very much more than that, for it provides the people with news, market reports, educational facilities, and pleasures which otherwise would be denied them. It can be used to elevate our national taste and culture, and it has, in fact, restored many of the former delights of country life. In the dismal years " of depression through which we have been passing, it has proved to be one of the greatest boons that our people enjoy. It has been manifestly impossible for many country people to give their families the advantage of theatrical entertainments and the like; but if a wireless set is included in the equipment of the home, the whole family can sit round the fire and enjoy entertainments of this kind.

We should remember that wireless is still at the beginning of its development. Even now there are only about 350,000 licences in force in Australia. Yet this means. that possibly 2,000,000 people are listening-in every night. This invention has scarcely yet attained its majority, and it is of vital importance that in these early days of development we should proceed along right lines. If Ave are only one degree out at the . beginning when we reach the periphery of the circle, we may be many degrees astray. The honorable member for Melbourne Ports (Mr. Holloway) has been discoursing on the advantages of the national ownership of certain utilities. National ownership of this utility would be quite right if we could be certain that it could not become the pawn of party politics, as certain other public utilities have been in the past. The proposed wireless broadcasting commission should, if it is appointed, place this public service upon a business basis. If this commission is appointed for five years, wireless developments and inventions may possibly occur during that period, and be so dealt with by the commission as to influence public life for the next half century. We cannot, therefore, be too careful in what we do.

Wireless broadcasting ' has had a chequered career in Australia. When the right honorable member for North Sydney (Mr. Hughes) brought down his proposal years ago for the Commonwealth Government to enter into partnership with Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited, I suggested that it would be far better to give a private company a licence for five years and allow it to develop along pioneering lines in that period. I said that at the end of that time we should be in a much better position to make up our minds as to the probable ultimate value of the invention, which was then in its infancy. But my appeal fell on deaf ears, and the present hybrid arrangement with the Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited was approved. The result has been that, in the intervening period, censure motions relating to wireless have been moved in this House eight or ten times, and we have had a great deal of trouble. In my opinion, the development of wireless by Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited itself has been impeded rather than helped by our association with Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited, and this invention has not been so valuable as it might have been to Australia. The exPostmasterGeneral (Mr. Gibson) has shown that the financial returns to the Commonwealth from this partnership have actually been less than the patent fees which the company has received from listenei'3-i.n. If the development of wireless had been absolutely divorced from Commonwealth governmental influence during that period, the progress of wireless might have been greater.

The next step was to give certain pioneering organizations A class licences for broadcasting purposes. The companies which pioneered these stations deserve every credit for the energy, activity, and vision which they displayed ; but we know that from the expenditure of very small capital they have made such substantial profits, and paid such large dividends, as to cause discontent in the public .mind. Three years ago another developmental step was taken when provision was made for the preparation of programmes to be placed under the control of the Australian Broadcasting Company. The technical side of the business was still left to the PostmasterGeneral's Department. It cannot be said that our experience of the operation of this policy has been satisfactory. Since that time B class stations have developed which, in some cases, attract far. more public attention than do the A class stations. It is still fresh in our minds that certain B class stations were able to obtain the exclusive right to broadcast reports of the cricket test matches played in England between England and Australia. The A class stations had the opportunity to secure this right, but they neglected to do so, and afterwards had to go cap in hand to the B class stations and ask for something which previously they regarded as of no great value.

I also regret that the policy of the Bruce-Page Government, which provided for the completion in the period 1929-32 of sixteen relay stations in country districts, has not been carried out. It was provided that revenue from wireless licence-fees should be hypothecated by the Government for . the provision of these first class relay stations, but only four of the sixteen have been constructed. This has caused a. very much larger increase than should have been necessary in the number of B class stations in country districts. The proprietors of these stations have been doing their best to provide country people with some entertainment in the day-time to secure which from the national broadcasting stations each of them has paid to the Government the 24s. licence-fee. In existing circumstances they do not get it. Onlythis afternoon the honorable member for Bass (Mr. Guy) complained about the broadcasting reception in Tasmania. The position in my own district is worse than that which he described. After 7 or S o'clock in the morning for the greater part of the year in my district the sets of wireless licensees are practically useless until evening, and for throe or four months the storms which occur cause so much static that it is impossible to obtain good reception from the main stations. This also has led to a great increase in the number of B class stations, and it is worth noting that in many districts the B class stations provide listeners-in with practically the only service that they can obtain. In fact, so important have some of the B class stations become that the opinion has been expressed that, as such stations provide a good deal of the service utilized by the public, they are entitled to a certain percentage of the licence-fees. I contend that they should not. I maintain that every penny obtained from licence-fees paid by listeners-in. should be utilized for tha purpose of improving to the fullest extent a national broadcasting system, thereby enabling it to render the best possible service for the revenue it receives. What has occurred during the last three years? When the Australian Broadcasting Company assumed control in 1929 a policy was outlined under which sixteen relay stations were to be established within three years. From each licence-fee collected by the Postal Department, 9s. was to be deducted, ls. of which was to cover the cost of collecting the fees, and the remaining 8s. was to be used in maintaining eight A. class stations, in providing certain, other services, and in erecting sixteen relay stations. These stations have not been built, and I shall give the amounts which have gone into Consolidated Revenue despite the definite plan decided upon, while country 2)eople have been left without a service. In the first year the department collected £70,000 which went into Consolidated Revenue,, and one relay station was erected ; in the second year £-45,000 was paid into Consolidated Revenue and two relay stations were built, and in the third year £60,000 was paid in, and one relay station constructed. It will, therefore, be seen that £175,000 has been paid into Consolidated Revenue, the bulk of which should have been spent in providing relay stations to permit residents in country districts to have the benefit of a 'fairly continuous service. In addition to the £175,000 received in this way £50,000 has been paid in fees to the directors of the Australian Broadcasting Company, and for broadcasting from certain theatres, thus making £225,000, which could have been spent for the improvement of broadcasting services. Provision should be made in the bill whereby the whole of the money collected in the form of licence-fees shall be made available to the proposed commission for the improvement of the broad- ' casting services throughout Australia, for the erection of relay stations, and also for providing for depreciation and a sinking fund, which will be necessary when these relay stations become obsolete, as is sure to happen, It is admitted by the Government that A class stations are short of money. That must be the real reason for suggesting sponsored programmes, such as are provided at times by Grace Brothers, of Sydney, and other such firms, on the understanding that when the programme has terminated they will have the right to announce that it has been supplied by them thus giving their business advertisement. Surely this indicates that, under the present broadcasting system the A class stations have insufficient money to provide their own programmes. I hope that this practice will not be persisted in, and that work of that character will be undertaken only by the B class stations. The A class stations should be given funds to enable them to operate in such a way that they would not be compelled to broadcast advertisements in any form.

Mr Gibson - Does the right honorable member suggest that the newspapers should not be allowed to announce that certain news has been provided by them ?

Dr EARLE PAGE - I suggest that the programmes provided by the A class stations should be devoid of all advertising matter.

Mr Holloway - The right honorable member suggests that the programmes provided by the A class stations have not been up to the proper standard owing to the shortage of funds.

Dr EARLE PAGE - An amount of £225,000 which ought to have been available has not been used for the purpose intended. Had that . money been spent in the direction intended, there would be no need for the adoption of the policy to which I have referred. Listeners-in could be provided with good programmes with the money that has been available, and advertising and such other matters should be left to B class stations. The A class stations have shown that if the money is available they can provide first-class programmes. Some B class stations have provided programmes as good as those supplied in other parts of the world.

Mr Gibson - In the capital cities.

Dr EARLE PAGE - Yes. I do not think it would PaY the B class stations to operate to any extent in country centres. Many B class stations in the country districts ire unable to operate on an economic basis for lack of. sufficient advertising, and these should be assisted in some way while the relay stations are being built. Where such stations have been erected, residents in country centres would be able to use their sets for a few hours a day, or during such periods when the meteorological conditions prevented them from receiving from the A class broadcasting stations if the city A class stations relayed their programmes to them. Last year on eight A class stations and four relay stations an amount of £410,000 was spent from licence-fees, which was not used solely in providing programmes, but for technical administration as well. The B class stations have spent £300,000 in maintaining 35 operating stations, and 45 licences, which are all supported by advertising. The activities of the present A and B class services should be co-ordinated, as they should have different functions to perform. The A class stations should handle matters pertaining to culture, education, and entertainment, and the dissemination . of news, while the B class stations should deal with commercial matters, including advertising, and other features. The B class stations should not act in competition with the A class stations, and be able to boost up the cost of programmes to the extent that happened in connexion with the test match incident which I have already mentioned. The A and B stations have four definite objects to fight for. They should agitate against the excessive charges imposed for the use of certain gramaphone records. It is scandalous that such high rates, equivalent in some instances to embargoes, should be imposed as to prevent many first class records from being used for broadcasting. If there were some authority acting for the A and B class stations, something could be done in this direction to put up a joint fight against this imposition, and better and cheaper programmes provided. There is also the question of mechanical patents. It is scandalous, if the company is really not entitled to it, that, during the last three years, listeners-in have been paying an extra 3s. to the Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited, for the use of certain alleged patent rights, some of which actually lapsed two or three years ago. One of the first actions of the proposed commission should -be immediately to determine the legal rights of Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited in this respect, and to fight the issue. It is unreasonable that this amount should still be paid, seeing that, if it were disallowed, licence-fees could be reduced, and the programmes improved.

Mr Gibson - They obtain 3s. for every set they manufacture.

Dr EARLE PAGE - That is the reason why they should have no right to this particular levy unless they have indefeasible grounds.

Mr White - Is it possible to overcome that difficulty by an amendment of this measure ?

Dr EARLE PAGE - Possibly that may be done. The A and B class stations will also have to co-operate in the matter of copyright law, which, as it operates to-day, is an outrage and a scandal. That law is brought into operation in connexion with tea meetings and other such gatherings held in country halls. If a B class station wishes to broadcast a service from a country church, a copyright-fee for using some of the hymns which are sung has to be paid. This restriction is imposed even on the psalms of David. The practice is, I understand, to alter a few bars of the setting to enable the copyright law to become effective for the next 40 years. We have tolerated this practice, and the system should not be allowed to continue any longer. Some authority, such as it is proposed to set up, should act for all broadcasting services in Australia, because one can readily see what concessions to these' interests may follow active competition between various organizations, which would give way rather than fight. There should also be some better system in the allocation of wave lengths for the various stations. It is said that there is some such arrangement at present, but it is disconcerting to a listener who is waiting for the finale of an interesting classical musical selection to find that, owing to some interruption or clashing of the Wave lengths, he is following the proceedings at a prize fight. A proper co-ordination in the allocation of wave lengths would prevent interference of that' kind. There should be no more control over . B class stations by the proposed commission than is exercised by the Postal Department at present. I do not see why objections should be raised by B class stations if licensed under the same conditions by the proposed commission, and the fitness of their programmes determined by that body, as is done by the Postal Department at present. If that were done, there would not be a continuance of insidious propaganda by certain interests on behalf of B class stations. If the whole system should come under national control, the revenue received from advertisements would not be necessary to make up any deficiency. The B class stations should be no more under the control of the commission than they are under the Postal Department at present. The right to advertise should be taken from the national service, and every effort made to safeguard the rights and opportunities of both A and B class stations. If action were taken in the matter of defining the position of performing and patent rights, some definite progress would be made in securing more revenue for programmes. When the measure is in committee, I shall endeavour to improve its provisions, and to provide the commission with powers almost identical with those exercised by the Commonwealth Bank Board. On the hustings I said -

If broadcasting is to be removed from the exigencies of politics it must be placed under a board operating upon a charter which gives it full responsibility over both the programme matter and the technical administration, without any interference directly from the government of the day, or indirectly through the interference of the Civil Service.

Mr Riordan - Does the right honorable member desire the PostmasterGeneral to be made a member of the commission ?

Dr EARLE PAGE - No ; but the Director of Postal Services should be appointed to the commission, because of his technical knowledge, and because of the need for the close association of the broadcasting service and the post office.

I strongly contend that payments to the post office for its technical services should be made on a business basis, because broadcasting is required largely to provide entertainment for the people. If the post office supplied services to the commission below the actual cost price, the ordinary postal services would suffer accordingly. Country mail services and telephone extensions have had to be curtailed, and there should be a definite arrangement completely to safeguard the financial position of the post office. I do not suggest that there should be a duplication of the technical services and equipment required for broadcasting. The great bulk of the technical services should be provided by the Postal Department, but I strongly hold the view that the Broadcasting Commission should pay sufficient to cover the actual cost of those services. The national broadcasting system should not be carried on the back of the post office; it should be required to finance itself.

Something should he done to improve the quality of the transmission and the programmes, and the suggestions that I have made would, if adopted, enable funds to be .made available to ensure the provision of good programmes. If steps were taken to deal with the claims of the

Performing Right Association and of Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Limited, it would be possible to provide improved programmes. I urge that the commission should adopt a policy anning at the establishment throughout Australia of stations of sufficient power and in sufficient numbers to enable every family in the country to enjoy the benefit of wireless broadcasting. Provision should be made to safeguard the financial side of the commission's operations by establishing a fund to cover the depreciation and obsolescence of its plant.

I should like to see a national orchestra established in Australia; but such a venture would be too costly at the present time. The fullest possible use should be made of the Conservatoriums of Music in Sydney and Melbourne. Local talent should be encouraged to the greatest possible extent. One of the principal vocalists in the operatic company now performing in Sydney is a young lady who was given by the broadcasting stations her first opportunity to gain distinction. The Government should be prepared to subsidize the Con.servatoriums of Music, so that operatic programmes might be broadcast throughout Australia. Local artists in all the big country towns should be encouraged, and should have an opportunity to perform through B class stations by reason of contributions from the commission's funds. In committee, I hope that we shall be able to amend this measure in such a way that wireless broadcasting will progress in Australia, and that all members of the community, particularly those in out-back areas in Australia, will be able to share in its benefits.

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