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Wednesday, 10 November 1976
Page: 2528

Mr Eric Robinson (MCPHERSON, QUEENSLAND) - I welcome this debate because it gives me an opportunity to acquaint the House with a few facts. Far too much fiction has been made available to members of the Parliament and to the Australian community. We have just listened to the Leader of the Opposition (Mr E. G. Whitlam). He spent a lot of his time referring to the Australian Broadcasting Commission. The Green report is a report on broadcasting and not on the Australian Broadcasting Commission. It is just not a jumble of specific recommendations. It is founded on principles. We will not have a sensible discussion of the recommendations it makes unless we recognise and debate those principles. Firstly, it is basic to the whole report that the inquiry sought to maximise public participation in broadcasting. It asked:

How the people of Australia can best participate in and achieve a satisfactory degree of collective control over broadcasting, on the basis that such participation is seen as a means of preserving and strengthening the social, economic and political fabric of Australia.

That is on the first page of the report. Secondly, the report distinguishes between the two major elements of any broadcasting system which are often confused: First of all the structure of the control and operating components of the system; and secondly the programs which constitute the output of the system.

The report points out that the structure of a system and its development are properly a matter for the Government because they are related to its overall communications policy and a need for Government management of the radio frequency spectrum. It goes on to say that the regulation and administration of programming is a totally different matter which should be seen to be removed from the direct influence of government. Let me stress this point because it is the basic distinction made by the report, a basic distinction which members of the Opposition persistently ignore despite the clear injunction of the report. The Government is and should be involved in shaping the structure of the system. It is not and it should not be involved in dictating the content of programs. The Government accepts this and unless the Opposition is able to demonstrate this principle has been breached there is simply no case to answer.

Let us forget the Press and other speculation on the report and the emotion which seems to have arisen because of this conjecture and give the report, as it actually is, proper consideration. Let us ignore the usual conflict within the Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition has been talking take-over of broadcasting 3 days after his own former Media Minister, the honourable member for Maribyrnong (Dr Cass), told the House that he had made basically the same proposals only a few months ago. During its recent term of office the Labor Party took no initiatives to reduce political influence in broadcasting. The honourable member for Maribyrnong did not remove the Minister's control over licences. He did not surrender any powers. Yet he now seeks to claim credit for good intentions, for circulating similar proposals months after being removed from office. We are reducing political influence in broadcasting. We are replacing it with public and industry participation. Statements to the contrary are nonsense.

The Leader of the Opposition talks of sinister activities. But they are sinister only to him. He cannot or will not recognise fully that the Green report marks a great advance in the development of broadcasting in this country. His own former Minister for the Media, the man he chose to exercise responsibility for broadcasting, is hamstrung by an honest recognition that the steps we are taking as a result of the report are the steps that any rational Administration would take. In fact, they are the steps that he would now like to take. Let me turn to deal with the Australian Broadcasting Commission. The Commission's own submission to the inquiry supported the concept that the national service had a responsibility to the public and therefore to the Parliament in the same way as the commercial and public sectors have such a responsibility. To provide for the periodic reviews which the Government has approved will do nothing more than allow a regular forum for those critical of the performance of the ABC, and those supporting it, to put their case in public. This is the practice in Great Britain where the British Broadcasting Commission at this very time is undergoing such a review. Is anyone here seriously suggesting that the BBC therefore is not independent? Would anyone suggest that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which is regularly reviewed at a series of public hearings, is not independent? The fact is that the only comparable broadcasting organisations in the world are both subject to just those same periodic reviews.

The Government agrees with the reports comment that: . . . the ABC is the cornerstone of the Australian Broadcasting system.

The Government intends, as the report says, that such reviews: should not be regarded as investigations of the ABC; rather they should be careful and rational discussions of the Australian national broadcasting service, of its mandate, its philosophy, its accomplishments and its future orientations.

Indeed, such a review would be helpful to the ABC because, after all, the members of the Australian community happen to contribute $170m of the taxpayers funds- $ 130m in direct costs and $40m by way of engineering costs- for expenditure by the Commission. Before I leave this area, let me nail yet another misrepresentation. It is not true that the ABC will be reviewed while the commercial and the public broadcasters will escape such examination. The report clearly spells out, and the Government accepts, that the new Australian Broadcasting Tribunal should review the performance of licensees each time their licences are renewed. These renewals could be made after public hearings at which any member of the public or the industry will be able to speak out. Again, the basic principle of the report has been followedthat is, to maximise public and industry participation in broadcasting.

The most serious misrepresentation concerns the future independence of the ABC. The decision to change the composition of the Commission was taken by the Government. Whilst it did not follow the exact recommendations of the Green report, it does adhere to the principles. The net result will be that the public will be more adequately represented than before. Where at the moment 4 commissioners were from one State and 2 States had none, now each of the States will at least be represented. I want to tell people- members of the Opposition particularlythat they will be proved wrong if they go around claiming publicly that the commissioners appointed by their Government will be dismissed in some wholesale manner. I suggest to them as a matter of advice that they would be wise not to make those sorts of assumptions. They will be proved inaccurate. I would also like to comment on the claim of the Leader of the Opposition with regard to the budgetary reductions within the ABC. They were not any more or less than the effective reduction in Government spending throughout the entire fabric of government and its instrumentalities. The ABC took no greater share of that burden than did other areas of government. In fact, some departments took a much larger reduction in expenditure and it is utterly unfair to suggest that there is something sinister about the minimal reductions in the vote for the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

It will be seen that the report accepts representations made by the ABC and its 2 staff associations that there should be a loosening of the ties with the Public Service. The Government has accepted these recommendations and will be legislating to give the Commission a considerable degree of freedom in appointing its staff and deciding their salaries. Perhaps the most important question- certainly the question which most concerns the public- is whether the standards fixed for commercial and public broadcasters should apply also to the ABC. It is an anomaly for one set of broadcasters to have a completely different set of standards from any other. The ABC has recognised this by voluntarily accepting the standards set by the Australian Broadcasting Control Board. The Government has deliberately chosen not to take any action on this matter, except to have a public inquiry into the concept of self regulation by broadcasters.

I now refer to the decision that planning functions will be undertaken by the Postal and Telecommunications Department. This has caused some outcry as though the idea of giving a department responsibility for policy and planning were unique. Of course, it is not unique. It was one of the options contained in the Green report. The Government is responsible for overall communications policy. One component of that responsibility must be strategic policy for the development of the Australian broadcasting system. This involves government decisions on such questions as the sectors which will make up the system, whether they be national, commercial or public; the role of each sector; the need for additional or new kinds of services- frequency modulation, educational, foreign language, etc; the need for services involving new technologies -for example, cable television, pay television, satellites, etc; and the availability of frequencies for sound and vision broadcasting services. Planning is a process. It simultaneously provides inputs for policy formulation and translates policy into priorities in accord with the availability of resources. Since the Department already advises the Minister on policy, the Government has decided that it is a logical extension of this role for it also to undertake detailed planning.

However, it should be stressed that adequate safeguards to protect the interests of the public and the industry exist through the Broadcasting Council. This Council will have an opportunity to examine and comment upon every planning proposal prepared by the Department. The new legislation which 1 will introduce will give the Council a statutory right to be consulted on planning proposals. Broadcasters have never had such a right before. Each sector of broadcastingthe ABC for the national sector, the television and radio federations for the commercial sector and the Public Broadcasting Association for the public sector- will be equally represented. These representatives will not be chosen by the Government; they will be chosen by the industry. In addition, members of the Council will be entitled to originate planning proposals on their own part. There will be departmental representation on the Council to facilitate liaison between the industry and the Government on broadcasting matters. There will be an independent chairman who hopefully will be able to contribute a viewpoint on behalf of consumers of broadcasting.

In these comments I have attempted to separate the facts from the fantasy. There is nothing sinister in the report or in the Government's decisions. The claim that we are seeking to impose political influence on broadcasting is exactly the opposite of the truth. No longer will a Minister of the Crown have the final power over licences. No longer will a Minister be able to authorise punitive action against broadcasters. No longer will the public be excluded from the processes of renewing the licences of broadcasters. Now, for the first time in the history of broadcasting, all planning proposals will be fully debated by the industry and the public before they are put into operation. Now, for the first time, the members of the public will have the opportunity to comment upon the performance of the ABC at regular public reviews. The Government has retained powers only in the areas where it is necessary to do so. It has not increased its powers. Like the report on which its decisions have been based, the Government has taken as basic to any consideration of broadcasting the necessity to increase the level of public participation and involvement in those processes of policy formulation. These are licensing and regulation, which play such an important part in shaping the system to meet the basic interests of the Australian people. The Leader of the Opposition continues to claim that there is some threat to the independence of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, despite the fact that time and time again the Prime Minister (Mr Malcolm Fraser) and I have indicated clearly that the integrity and independence of the ABC are not at risk and are not under any threat at all. Let me remind the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues behind him that the Liberal Party platform sets out quite clearly that freedom of expression in the Press, radio and television and freedom from governmental and political interference are fundamental to Liberal beliefs and essential to democratic government. It is further stated that the Australian Broadcasting Commission should be independent of political control. The media policy of the National Country Party is similar to that.

We have had a good broadcasting system in Australia. The changes upon which the Government has decided will improve that system. Now we will have an independent Tribunal and we will have a Broadcasting Council which will involve the industry and the public in planning and policy. The decisions which the Government has taken will make a good system a better one- the best system of broadcasting in the world. There will be other considerations flowing from the Green report. There will be ample opportunity for debate and discussion before any Government decision is made.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Lucock)Order!The Minister's time has expired.

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