Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Full Day's HansardDownload Full Day's Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 26 March 1941

Senator COLLINGS (QueenslandLeader of the Opposition) . - To some degree this bill is of importance, but I regret that it is not of a more important character. If there is any activity which requires a searching inquiry and extensive reformation it is the control of radio in this country. In this chamber at least, it has been common knowledge for many years that there is intense dissatisfaction with the administration of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Some years ago I played no small part in the criticism of that body voiced in this chamber. I had good reasons for the criticism which I then offered, and I have good reasons for even more severe criticism to-day, although that criticism would not now be concerned so much with administrative details as with vital principles and interests which are at stake. The Government would have been well advised had it postponed the introduction of this measure, or refrained from bringing down the bill at all. It would have been more fitting had the Government shownthat it has a greater appreciation of the immensity of this wonderful modern physical factor which we know as radio, and its relationship to the people and to the Government of this country. In Avireless, there is a most powerful instrument for the dissemination of ideas. That being generally admitted every precaution should be taken to see that control is exercised by somebody responsible to the Parliament of this country, and through Parliament to the people. Such a person should possess an understanding of what a wonderful power radio possesses for the formation of public opinion. It must be obvious to the Government, if not to the Australian Broadcasting Commission, that radio is very closely allied to the press of this country. Later I shall show just how close that alliance is. In fact, the degree to which the press and the radio are able to mould public opinion and influence it in the desired direction is such that to-day only one class of public opinion is being developed and fostered by wireless transmission.

Senator McLeay - The national stations have no connexion with the press.

Senator COLLINGS - I made no such assertion, and I have not said anything that could have conveyed that impression. But if I can show that this bill is only playing with the subject of broadcasting, does nothing to benefit the people of this country or to ensure that, so far as the national stations are concerned, opportunity shall be given to all classes of people who desire to mould public opinion, I shall at least be making a suggestion which, if adopted, would be of value to the nation.

The Postmaster-General (Senator McLeay), in his second-reading speech, quoted remarks made by the AttorneyGeneral (Mr. Hughes) some time ago. I shall not read the whole of the paragraph, but I direct attention to the following passage: -

It will have a potent influence on speech. That is most desirable, because slip-shod speech connotes slip-shod thinking. It will educate the people to an appreciation of the higher classes of music, and instruct them in literary, scientific, and general knowledge.

Then, according to the Minister, the late Mr. W. A. Holman, said -

The proposed commission is not to prepare a balance-sheet which is to bo measured in pounds, shillings and pence. No doubt it will be expected to make broadcasting pay . . . but not by appealing to the most ignorant prejudices of the community and prostituting this new and extraordinary scientific service to the baser instinct of the poorest, intellectually, of our community . . . This is an opportunity to revitalize the spiritual and intellectual life of the nation.

Both the statements were timely. I agree also with what these gentlemen said should be the ideal, but I do not agree with the late Mr. Holman's statement that. "no doubt it would be expected to make broadcasting pay". Why should the commission be expected to make broadcasting pay? If the Australian Broadcasting Commission, or any other body set up by the Government to conduct a public utility, has a surplus at the end of its financial term, it is obvious to me at any rate that either the service that should be given to the community for the tax which is imposed upon it is not being provided, or that those who are doing the work of that instrumentality are not being paid sufficient for their services. I do not suggest that there should not be a balance. There should always be a reserve to cover contingencies, but large surpluses should not be accumulated by governmental undertakings which are charged with the responsibility of rendering a service to the nation, and no higher service could be rendered than that to which the Australian Broadcasting Commission is committed. Of course, a balance-sheet is issued annually and placed before members of Parliament for scrutiny. I shall read to the Senate a brief summary of the Australian Broadcasting . Commission's eighth annual report and balance.sheet: for the year ended the 30th June, 1940-

Revenue is shown at £733,865, an increase of £53,732 for the year.

The commission has a book surplus of £47,000, It was £100,493 the previous year.

There are 80,721 more listeners, bringing the total to 1,212,581, whose licence-fees contributed £700,071 of the total revenue, an increase of £41,335.

Assets, at £513.254, are £02,380 higher than in 1940.

At this stage I should like to express very definitely my views on what national stations should be accomplishing, and what the Government should do in regard to the matter. If I had my way I would abolish the Australian Broadcasting Commission. There is no need for it. Very often when such bodies are set up by governments, the creature becomes greater than its creator. I am glad that, in some respects, this bill does make provision for decreasing the virulence of that effect. That is one satisfactory feature of the bill. As a matter of fact, to be perfectly candid, it is the only good feature that I find in the bill. There should be no delegation of the power of this Parliament to commissions which are superior to Parliament in their daily operation. There should be in this chamber a minister for broadcasting, or a representative of that minister should he be a member of the House of Representatives. Broadcasting should be the responsibility of such a responsible minister. In a democracy, the people elect the members of Parliament, and through its Ministers can exercise complete control over the creature which it creates. I have no desire at this stage to comment upon the individuals who comprise the Australian Broadcasting Commission. I have spoken on the subject on different occasions and I may have to refer to it again in this speech. I shall quote from a letter which I received from the late Mr. Savage, in 1937, when Prime Minister of New Zealand, after the New Zealand broadcasting station 2YA, which I understand is the most powerful in the Southern Hemisphere, was officially opened by Mr. Savage. I received the letter first because Mr. Savage was my personal friend, and secondly because I had listened-in to his talk on the day the station was opened, and to the address delivered by his Minister for Finance (the Hon. Walter Nash) from Geneva and relayed to New Zealand. I wrote to Mr. Savage expressing my pleasure at having beard his talk and he sent me the letter from which I shall quote two extracts : - I think it is a great pity that the Labour movement in Australia is sp handicapped in the matter of radio broadcasting facilities, but, of course, until Labour in this country gained the Treasury benches it was in a similar position. We were also placed at a disadvantage in the matter of the dissemination of our policy through the press. The New Zealand newspapers, with few exceptions, being hostile to Labour, we naturally received very little support front that source. The Labour papers, The Standard (weekly) and Grey River Argus (daily), were the only journals we could rely upon to make a fight for us. The Grey River Argus is published in Greymouth and has a circulation which covers only the West Coast of the South Island. The Standard is published in Wellington, and whilst it lias greatly increased in the last twelve .months, its circulation before the elections was not large, and, of course, a weekly paper is wholly inadequate when righting against the dailies. We will therefore find the broadcasting service of great assistance now that we control it.

I consider that the Government of this country should control the nation's broadcasting service, although I realise that the use the present Government would make of that service would not please me on all occasions. I shall now quote some of the statements made hy Mr. Savage in his broadcast address when he opened the New Zealand broadcasting station on that wonderful afternoon in 1937. He said - 1937 is the centenary of the invention of lite Morse telegraph which has played such a wonderful part in world affairs during the lifetime of many who are still with us; and radio broadcasting is undoubtedly one of the most revolutionary agencies of modern times.

In Australia, the control of broadcasting has , been handed over by Parliament to a commission consisting of a few men and one woman. Mr. Savage proceeded : -

Radio will soon be as necessary for the mind of an active citizen as water is for the body, and will be laid on to every home in a similar way. It is the instrument par excellence for unifying the thought of mankind and making possible a real democracy - for training men and women to consider different opinions and so developing that thoughtful tolerance upon which peace and democracy are based.

While the chief broadcasting stations are owned and controlled by the state, as in the case of New Zealand, vested interests are not likely to be given preference over the common welfare.

No space limit can be set to broadcasting - it scorns national boundaries, and conquers space so easily that, in sympathetic hands, it will do much to remove international misunderstandings and other human barriers to universal peace.

We in New Zealand are anxious to listen to the voices and messages of the peoples of other nations; we are also anxious that they should hear our voices and messages, and we propose to plan accordingly. In a few minutes' time the great possibilities of radio will be illustrated by an address which will be delivered at Geneva by the Hon. Walter Nash, Minister of Finance, and relayed in New Zealand.

As a means of publicity radio stands in a class by itself - it delivers messages as between citizens and nations just as they are spoken and for that alone we should be truly thankful.

The New Zealand Broadcasting Service is gradually becoming the Information Bureau of the Dominion, and in the near future it will be the centre of a news service which will bc first-hand, prompt, and practically universal in its application to New Zealand citizens.

Those words of Mr. Savage expressed a noble conception of the power and usefulness of radio broadcasting. There is no evidence in the bill under discussion, or in the activities of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, that we in Australia have risen to such a noble conception of this powerful instrument of propaganda.

I noted that the Postmaster-General went to some pains in his second-reading speech to explain the activity of the commission in relation 'to radio talks. All the facts that he gave are more or less elaborated in the commission's last annual report. After pointing out that the discussion of controversial subjects is a stimulus to thought and an essential and valuable element in democratic communities, the Postmaster-General said : -

Indeed, this attitude towards freedom of discussion of controversial questions is not only characteristic of democratic peoples all over the world, but is one of the features which distinguishes Democracy most sharply from Totalitarian states. Some years ago, thu House of Commons, discussing the activities of the British Broadcasting Corporation, resolved "that controversial matter is right not excluded from broadcast programmes, but that the Governors should ensure the effective expression of all important opinion relating thereto ". Later, a representative committee of inquiry into broadcasting in England reaffirmed and enlarged on this view in tinfoil owing words: -

We think it important that controversial topics should continue to be discussed. If broadcasting is to present a reflection of its time, it must include matters which are iii dispute. If it is to hold public interest, it must express living thought. If it is to educate public opinion, it must look upon tinquestions of the hour from many angles.

I make bold to say that in Australia one cannot get the national stations to broadcast talks on all angles of subjects in dispute. I do not refer to controversial subjects directly connected with the war, but I contend that the rights of minorities in this country are not protected by the policy adopted by the Australian Broadcasting Commission with respect to the broadcasting of talks on controversial subjects over the national stations. If one wishes to have a talk of that character broadcast, one must go to a commercial station and pay for the service.

Sitting suspended from 6.15 to 8 p.m.

Senator COLLINGS - A remark of mine prior to the suspension of the sitting prompted an interjection from an honorable senator opposite to the effect that the commission had nothing to do with the commercial broadcasting stations. Of course, I know that, but surely it is appropriate to say that the Government ought to have something to do with those stations. In the second-reading debate on this bill, I think that I have the right to state the opinion of the Opposition with regard to wireless broadcasting generally. I have made reference to the alliance between the press and the radio. Those of us who have taken an intelligent interest in this matter have noticed that the press has been gradually acquiring the ownership of many broadcasting stations, and we now get news from the syndicated press not only through the newspapers, but also over the air. A Washington message states -

The Federal Communications Commission plans an investigation to determine the policy concerning newspaper ownership of radio stations.

The action was prompted by the increasing number of applications from newspapers for permission to operate stations on the high frequency system. The commission said that the action did not imply opposition to newspaper ownership of radio stations.

SenatorCollett. - What does that indicate?

Senator COLLINGS - That there is a growing public fear that, instead of an informed matured public opinion, the people are being fed on the opinions of the owners of the great capitalist newspapers. A great republic with which Australia has recently been fraternizing considers that there is something sinister in this powerful combination of radio and newspaper activities. The United States of America is not alone in this fear. The following statement was published in the Canberra Times of the 26th June, 1937 : -

About a year ago, a great deal was said from both sides of. Parliament about regulations made for the purpose of limiting ownership of wireless stations. At that time, the Minister for Defence named some companies that were steadily extending their grip on radio stations and there was agreement that a danger existed of radio stations, which are, to some extent, a natural monopoly, coming into the control of a few companies. The spokesmen of these interests have been busy, however, and little has been heard of these regulations since. Radio stations have been purchased by companies already owning chains of stations and there are fewer individual owners of radio stations to-day than 12 months ago. Some of the big radio companies make no secret of their interstate networks. Some are busily extending their grip with Ministerial patronage. One of the companies mentioned by the Minister for Defence had its new station opened by the Prime Minister recently. Apparently the regulations have been allowed to die, for there canbe no other explanation of the absence of signs of their enforcement.

In its issue of the 2nd December, 1938, the Canberra Times further stated -

Every wave length is a monopoly and every radio broadcasting licence is a monopolistic right. Why these monopolies were ever alienated has never been explained. Whythey should continue to be the property of private interest cannot the explained. The time has come when the ownership of all radio rights should be strictly reserved by the Government and the private exploitation of public opinion and the degradation of public entertainment by private radio monopolists terminated. If we do not want Hitlers and Mussolinis to run this country, we must not only prevent their advent to office in our governments but we must prevent them dictating public policy and controllingpublic affairs for self-interest and enrichment to the detriment of the public. For thus the bulwarks of our liberties are to-day being assailed.

Ever since the establishment of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, I have been an applicant for a broadcasting licence for the Brisbane Trades and Labour Council, and I have been told that no wave length is available for that body. Although I am not a radio technician I do not believe a word of that, because since my application has been lodged radio stations have been opened under the aegis of the Labour party's political opponents in various parts of Australia.

Senator Dein - Not in New South Wales.

Senator COLLINGS - The fact remains that, under the present control, one section of the community has not a fair chance over the air. I do not ask for a chain of Labour broadcasting stations, but I claim that the Government should take control of the whole system. When a change of government occurs the Labour party will at least have the same opportunity as its opponents have had.

The Leader of the Senate concluded his speech by expressing the pious hope that broadcasting would not become the plaything of party politics.

Senator McLeay - Why "pious"?

Senator COLLINGS - Because that is all that it was. If the Minister believes in the party to which he belongs, he should drop this sneering at party politics, because all members of this Parliament arc adherents of political parties. If he believes in the policy of his party, why sneer at it? I do believe in the policy of my party, and I believe there is nothing equal to it for the interests of this nation. I recall that the Canberra correspondent to the Sydney Morning Herald recently referred to three-card tricksters, and added, " Not of the political variety ". Such sneering at party politics is ill-advised and wholly unjustifiable. In a leading article regarding this bill on the 21st March, the Sydney Morning Herald stated -

The useful provisions of the hill, including the clarification of the commission's legitimate sphere of activities, arc so slight that it is haul to understand why tile Government should introduce a broadcasting bill at all, unless it were prepared to carry out thorough-going reforms.

My complaint with regard to the bill is that it will accomplish practically nothing. The only good thing that it will do will be to give to the Government the power to veto decisions of the corn mission in certain circumstances. I had hoped for something better than that. The Opposition accepts the measure for what it is worth, and hopes that before it emerges from die committee stage it will be made more useful than it now is by the addition of certain amendments which tlie Opposition proposes to submit.

In his second-reading speech the Minister said -

After the outbreak of war, a full-time news representative was appointed in London, and the commission also secured a service from the Exchange Telegraph Agency. In April, 1040, the commission dispensed with the Australian Associated Press service which, up to then, had been its main source of overseas news, and purchased the right to re-broadcast any or all British Broadcasting Corporation bulletins in full. For this right it agreed to be responsible for the payment to Australian Associated Press of £3,000 per annum, 1 have never heard of such a racket in nil my life. This Government had to go cap in hand to the press of this country to get the right to broadcast over its own radio stations information which it thinks of importance to the people of this country. "We talk of democracy, yet this is the kind of thing we hear in a secondreading speech by a Minister of State for the Commonwealth ! Then the Minister went on to say - lui If of which was to be contributed by t.he Australian Federation of Commercial Broadcasting Stations who were thereby entitled to re-broadcast the British Broadcasting Corporation news bulletins.

The Mother of Parliaments, and the great city of London where the British Broadcasting Corporation operates, are anxious to give to Australia news from the centre of the Empire, hut before we can get it we have to subsidize the press of this country. I am not quite sure whether that agreement is still in force. If it is, it is a disgrace to our so-called democracy.

Senator McLeay - Like Senator Darcey, the honorable senator wants something for nothing.

Senator COLLINGS - It is a sorry state of affairs if Australia has to go cap in hand to the syndicated press of this country before it can inform the people over the air what is going on in other parts of the world.

I notice that the bill contains a proposal for an increase of the number of members of the commission. In my opinion, an increase, would be anything but satisfactory; J desire to see the commission abolished. The Opposition will have nothing to do with this proposal except in certain circumstances. We are satisfied that five is a. sufficient number of members, and, if that number is to be retained, we wish to see a Labour representative placed on the commission. If the Government increases the membership to seven, wo shall fight for the appointment of two I/a bour men. If, on the other hand, it is intended that thu membership remain at five. Labour shall nsk for one representative. The Government also proposes to stagger the membership of the commission. That is designed deliberately to prevent Labour from ever securing more than one representative on the commission. I am now assuming that the Government intends to give to Labour at least, one representative. In respect of clause 17 the PostmasterGeneral in his second-rending speech said -

This clause has huon framed with the. intention that the commission shall act under the powers conferred on it by the act, and shall only be subject to restraint when any of the actions of the commission are considered to be at variance with national or imperial policy or in conflict with public interest.

I submit that the Government should always have the final say irrespective of the point at issue.

Senator McLeay - Whether the commission be right or wrong?

Senator COLLINGS - Of course; surely the Government which creates the commission is superior to its creature.

Senator McLeay - Parliament created the commission.

Senator COLLINGS - The Government is merely the executive of the Parliament, and we are merely the executive of the people. Under clause 17 the Governor-General in Council, which means the Cabinet, will be empowered to exercise a veto over the commission, but then the Government proposes to circumscribe the powers of that veto. The Commonwealth Bank Board is analogous to the Broadcasting Commission. I remind honorable senators that the Royal Commission on Monetary and Banking Systems stated that, in the final analysis, the Government must lay down policy, and if the Government and the Bank Board cannot come to an agreement upon any point, then the Government's policy should prevail. I submit, therefore, that in this case the Government should lay down the policy, and itsdecision should be final when its policy conflicts with a decision of the commission.

I now wish to refer to the information supplied by the present Minister for Trade and Customs (Mr. Harrison) when he was Postmaster-General, in reply to a request by the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Representatives to bring up to date the return published in Hansard on the 25 th August, 1937, showing the ownership of B-class broadcasting stations. The list supplied by the PostmasterGeneral shows that the ownership of the commercial broadcasting stations is gradually being absorbed into fewer and fewer hands. It gives details of the ownership of the different stations, and reveals the amount of shares which various commercial broadcasting companies own in other broadcasting companies. It is evidence of a complete link-up between the press and the radio in this country. This measure does not deal with B class stations, but I submit that the Government should entirely control broadcasting in this country. At present we have two divisions; first, the national stations; and. secondly, the commercial stations; but already we have ample evidence of a combination between the press and the radio which is dangerous, and, therefore, should be prevented.

Reverting to the commission itself, honorable senators who were here five or six years ago will recall that I then raised some very pertinent questions with regard to the whole subject of broadcasting. I submitted what I considered to be a serious position with regard to the activities of the Broadcasting Commission in Queensland and New South Wales. On that matter I interviewed Mr. Cleary, who is still the chairman of the commission. He received me very courteously. I placed before him what I considered to be a very serious condition of affairs. Anticipating from what I gathered from him that an inquiry would be held into the matter I wrote to him on the 20th August, 1934, as follows: -

Re previous correspondence and interview, I have now to advise you that the following persons desire to appear at the inquiry which you will institute into the position.

It is not necessary to further explain to you my desires in the matter. They were stated in Parliament both by myself and Mr. George Lawson, M.H.R. (Brisbane), and in our interview later with your good self.

With that letter I submitted an enclosure giving the names of six persons in Queensland, and five in New South Wales, who were anxious to give evidence at such an inquiry. On the 29th August, 1934, I received the following reply: -

Dear Sir,

Mr. Clearyhas asked me to acknowledge receipt of your letter enclosing list of persons to whom you referred in your interview with him.

Yours faithfully,

B.   MacDonald.

The interest which the commission takes in representations made to it by responsible members of Parliament is evidenced in this case. Up to the 2nd November of the same year it had taken no action in this matter. On that date I forwarded the following letter to Mr. Cleary : -

Further to previous correspondence and with reference to yours of the 20th August last, will you kindly inform me what progress, if any, has been made in connexion with the promised inquiry into administration matters in Queensland and New South Wales.

On the 5th November I received the following reply: -

Bear Senator Collings,

Replying to your letter of the 2nd instant, I brought this matter before the commission, which decided that no further action was called for.

Yours faithfully,

W.   j. CLEARY (Chairman) .

The facts which I placed before the commission on that occasion certainly deserved more than the scant courtesy revealed in the commission's failure to take action from the 20th August until the 2nd November, and its action in closing the matter with such a curt reply. That is one reason why I submit that we cannot afford to have this great activity controlled by anybody but the government of this country whatever form of government that may be. The whole history of the personnel of the commission condemns the commission itself. Particularly is this criticism justified when one knows the members and their capacity to do their job. None of them possesses the requisite qualifications for the job they arc asked to do.

Senator McLeay - They are just as well qualified for the job as members of Parliament.

Suggest corrections