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Wednesday, 29 April 1942

Senator ASHLEY (New South WalesPostmasterGeneral, and Minister for Information) . - I move -

That the bill be now read a second time.

The proposals embodied in this bill are based on the recommendations recently submitted by the Joint Parliamentary Committee in its Report on Wireless Broadcasting. Those honorable senators who have found an opportunity to peruse the committee's report will, I feel sure, have been impressed by the comprehensive nature of the investigations made and by the constructive suggestions submitted for the betterment of broadcasting in this country. Not only Parliament, but also the community as a whole, will be grateful to the committee for the work it has accomplished. There has been, I think, general recognition for some time past that an examination of the Australian Broadcasting Commission Act could profitably be undertaken in the light of experience gained during the past decade, and this culminated in the appointment by Parliament in July last of a Joint Parliamentary Committee to inquire into and report upon wireless broadcasting within and from Australia.

As honorable senators are aware, the representation on the committee of members supporting the Government and the Opposition was equal and, seeing that . with one exception their views on the questions considered were unanimous, the Government, after consideration of the report, agrees with the conclusions of the committee, and those recommendations requiring legislative enactment are now submitted for the approval of the Senate. In view of the comprehensive nature of the proposals submitted by the parliamentary committee, which embrace the activities of commercial broadcasting organizations, it is necessary to repeal the existing Australian Broadcasting Commission Act. The purpose of thebill now before the Senate is to legislate for the future of broadcasting generally in this country, and it may, therefore, be of interest if I refer briefly to the development of the service.

The committee has stated in its report : " Broadcasting has progressed from the position of a novel source of entertainment to the status of an essential public service ". Never has this been more exemplified than at the present moment, when, because of restrictions in . other directions, the public in their homes look to broadcasting for a greater measure of enjoyment and relaxation ; while from the point of view of disseminating news, propaganda, and statements of national interest, broadcasting has taken on an aspect of importance quite unthought of in pre-war days.

The first demonstration of radiotelephony was provided by the Commonwealth Government radio service in 1920, with reception at the Exhibition Building, Melbourne, and during the next few years the activities of commercial concerns and radio amateurs were responsible for maintaining . public interest in radio-telephony, when possibilities of its use in the broadcasting field began to emerge definitely. Following a conference in 1923, a trial was made with a service in which licences were issued to approved companies, and listeners were required to pay a subscription dependent on the number of stations whose programmes they desired to hear. The receiving sets were sealed to exclude other programmes. However, this scheme was not successful, and in 1924 a new plan was devised in which two classes of transmitting licences for broadcasting were issued - termed class A and class B licences. There were now emerging clear-cut definitions of stations . providing the national type of service - class A - and those stations financed from advertising revenue - class B - and dependent upon commercial initiative. Subsequent developments, however, indicated that improvement was still necessary, and in July, 1928, a new scheme was evolved in which the class A stations, hitherto owned by companies, were purchased by the Government, and welded into' the nucleus of a nationallyowned service. The A and B class licences, as such, were abolished, and the stations formerly termed B class stations became the only licensed stations.

The Government, having thus undertaken the responsibility of establishing a national broadcasting system, a close study was made with the object of preparing a plan of development aiming at the establishment of sufficient national stations to serve the whole of the Com monwealth. The basis of programme service at that time was regarded as being primarily one of entertainment, and it was felt that the programmes should be provided by an organization skilled in that art. The first method tried was to invite tenders for the provision of programmes for all national stations, and a company incorporated as the Australian Broadcasting Company was the successfultenderer. The contract, which was for three years, ended on the 30th June, 1932. The experience gained by this method of operating the national service indicated that yet further improvement could be effected, and it was decided at the termination of the contract period that the provision of programmes should be placed in the hands of a commission set up by the Government. This was done by means of the Australian Broadcasting Commission Act. Thus, by a process of evolution, there has' been provided for the Commonwealth -

(a)   One comprehensive national broadcasting service financed from listeners' licence-fees; and

(b)   a second broadcasting service of licensed stations dependent upon commercial initiative and deriving its revenue from advertising fees..

In. deciding to set up two such broadcasting systems it was doubtless felt that the contrast between the motives actuating the two services would result in a diversity of programmes being offered to the public, and also that there would be mutual reactions tending to stimulate each other. From the experience gained, I think it can be said with confidence that these expectations have been largely realized. That the potentialities of service in the art of broadcasting are very great indeed is shown in the fact that whereas in 1924 there were 1,400 licensed listeners, to-day the figure is 1,324,000, or, in other words, 80 per cent of the homes in the Commonwealth have receiving sets; while in order to cater for the. diverse tastes of the people 30 national and 99 commercial stations have been provided, as against the original four in 1923. All this has necessitated a demand for the manufacture and marketing of transmitting and receiving equipment, with the result that over the short space of nineteen years we find that an industry lias been developed with a capital investment of £20,000,000 and in normal times giving employment to some 15,000 workers. Whilst the committee has submitted many recommendations, none is radical in character ; and from the fact that a continuance of the present system is advocated it is, I think, a reasonable inference to draw from the report that those who originally conceived and developed the general broadcasting plan of Australia showed wise foresight.

It may not be inappropriate at this stage' to refer to the fact that amongst the pioneers who took a special interest in broadcasting was the Chairman of the Joint Parliamentary Committee - Senator 'Gibson - who may well claim to be the father of broadcasting in this country. It is just nineteen years since he, a.* Postmaster-General. took the preliminary stops to provide a service for the nation and there is, I believe, a general feeling of pleasure and gratification that the honorable senator is here to-day to help us in out deliberations concerning the future of broadcasting.

By virtue of its worth as a medium for the entertainment and enjoyment of the people, broadcasting has earned a very definite place in our social system and. we cannot be too greatly concerned regarding its future development. In considering the problem it is necessary in the first place to determine whether the- service has proved its efficacy and usefulness. The final test, qf course, is the standard of service rendered to the public. Let us look at the national system for a moment. This system has resulted in the establishment of stations and the use of a network of connecting trunk lines on a much greater scale than could ever have been developed by private enterprise, because of the resources available for the use of those controlling the national service. For example, that service has enabled the preparation and development of a scientifically planned system which, when completed, will serve nearly the whole of the population of Australia. On the one hand stations have been, and will be, established to serve centres where commercial stations, dependent on revenue from advertising, could not exist. On the other hand, by means of the commercial system private enterprise has been permitted, under proper control, to develop a service which is complementary to the national stations in centres where the density of population enables commercial stations to function effectively and without financial loss. By permitting commercial stations to operate, the public has been given a choice of programmes which they would never have had if only the national service had been in existence. For example, in Sydney the public has a choice of eight programmes - two national and six commercial. In the absence of the latter, Sydney listeners would certainly not have had eight national stations. Judged, therefore, from the investigations of the committee and one's own observations, I have no hesitation in declaring that the present system has been beneficial to the development of broadcasting in Australia viewed from the interests of listeners, and apart altogether from the valuable advantages which have accrued to industry and employment. With the experience of the last nineteen years to guide us and the valuable report of the committee to point the way to certain improvements, we are well equipped to write a charter for the broadcasting services of the Commonwealth which, whilst imposing safeguards against mis-use, will permit sufficient freedom to ensure continued progress for the benefit of the community. Not only will freedom in broadcasting achieve this objective, but it must also be a significant interpretation of the general freedom that defines democracy.

Honorable senators need no elaboration of the value, in the difficult times of war as well as peace, of freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. The evolution of broadcasting as a medium of. public expression, and the tremendous growth in its power to mould public opinion, has given voice to a further interpretation of democratic freedom - a freedom and impartiality of the air. . We have seen how the single regimented view of Nazi-ism and Fascism was expounded by means of the radio in Europe of the last decade, while the press of these countries was devoted to the same cause, and freedom of speech was eliminated. That is one reason why I emphasise the value of freedom of the air. The provisions of the bill now before the Senate indicate the care with which this freedom has been recognized, and safeguarded. As the bill contains provisions applicable to all phases of broadcasting in Australia, it is proposed that the title of the act be " The Australian Broadcasting Act ". In the past it was deemed desirable to provide for the commercial services by regulation because such a procedure allowed of greater flexibility and permitted changes to be made more easily as they became necessary in the early stages of development. Now that the situation is more stable it is proposed that in future any important changes should be sanctioned by Parliament.

The bill is divided into five parts -

Part I. - Preliminary.

Part II. - Incorporating the provisions of the existing Australian Broadcasting Commission Act with appropriate amendments.

Part III. - Embodying such regula tions under the Wireless Telegraphy Act as are applicable to commercial broadcasting stations.

Part IV. - Parliamentary Standing Committee on broadcasting.

Part V. - Including provisions of the Australian Broadcasting Commission Act and the Wireless Telegraphy Regulations which are applicable to both services and some important new provisions recommended by the committee.

The bill in the main is a re-enactment of the present laws relating to broadcasting. As I have already indicated, the proposed alterations to existing conditions are, with few exceptions, in conformity with the recommendations of the joint committee, and I shall now proceed to give to the Senate a brief statement of the more important changes, commencing with those which affect the Australian Broadcasting Commission.

Clause 7 of the bill provides for the establishment of the head office of the commission in the Australian Capital Territory on or beforea date to be fixed by the Minister. In clause 8, relating to the composition of the commission, provision is made that one of the members shall be a woman. Under clause 9 the appoint ment of commissioners will be made for certain definite periods in order to ensure stability and continuity of policy. The term of appointment of the various commissioners has been so arranged that not more than two commissioners will retire in any one year. Clause 10 provides for an increase of the remuneration of the chairman from £500 to £1,250 per annum, and of the vice-chairman from £400 to £500 per annum. The general manager of the commission is required by clause 16 to be present, if practicable, at all meetings but, at the discretion of the commission, he may be directed to retire temporarily from any meeting. Matters relating to the permanent staff of the commission are dealt with in clause 17. A notable change is that recruitment is to be by open competitive examination on lines similar to the practice followed in the Commonwealth Public Service. The commission will be permitted to waive this condition in respect of certain prescribed positions for which special qualifications are necessary. Conditions of employment are to be prescribed by regulations under the act. The Minister already has power to require the commission to transmit through national stations any matter the transmission of which is considered to be in the public interest, but clause 23 now provides that any such directions shall be in writing. Under clause 27.' the commission's portion of the listener's licence-fee is to be increased from 10s. to11s. per annum. The amendment proposed will increase the commission's portion of the revenue from licence-fees by approximately £66,200 per annum. The present apportionment of the fee is 10s. to the commission and 10s. to Consolidated Revenue. The alternative proposal made by the joint committee that the listener's licence-fee be increased to 21s. has been considered, but the Government considers that the present is not an opportune time to do this.

Very few changes are contemplated in regard to the conditions under which commercial broadcasting stations shall be permitted to operate. A very desirable provision is that included in clause 69, under which advertisements on Sundays will be regulated in accordance with such conditions as are prescribed. Under the same clause, advertisements relating to patent medicines are limited to those -which have been approved by Commonwealth or State health departments, but, in accordance with the views of the joint committee that there should be no capricious rejection of advertisements by certain classes of practitioners, provision is made for an appeal to the Minister in regard to any rejected advertisements. Under clause 75 it is provided that, each station shall submit in prescribed form an annual balance-sheet and profit and loss account. A very important innovation is included in Part IV., wherein provision is made for the appointment of a parliamentary standing committee, to . which either House of Parliament by resolution, or the Minister, may refer for investigation and report any matter affecting broadcasting in the Commonwealth. Provision is also made for' the standing committee to investigate such matters as may be referred to it by the Minister on request either by the Australian Broadcasting Commission or the Australian Federation of Commercial Broadcasting Stations. Such a committee will provide Parliament with a means of keeping a more watchful eye on the development of the broadcasting services. In clause 95, the Government has departed slightly from the relevant recommendation of the joint committee. The existing Australian Broadcasting Commission Act provides that the commission may appoint an advisory committee in each State, and the joint committee recommended that the appointment of the committee in each State to advise the commission regarding its activities should be made mandatory on that body. The Govern ment considers, however, that it would be in the best interests of broadcasting if there were a representative advisory committee in each State to note the public reaction to broadcasting programmes and to make any suggestions for improvement of the services, both national and commercial. In these circumstances it is proposed in clause 95 that a broadcasting advisory committee should be appointed in each State by the Minister. Clause 96 provides for the encouragement of local talent by both national and commercial stations, which will be required to broadcast works of Australian composers for at least 2£ per cent, of the total time occupied in the transmission of music. Under clause 97 political talks must not be broadcast later than the Wednesday immediately preceding any Federal or State election. The name of each speaker and the political party on behalf of which he speaks must be 'disclosed. Dramatized - political broadcasts are forbidden. The commission is still permitted to determine to what extent and in what manner political speeches may be broadcast from national broadcasting stations, but, in accordance with the recommendation of the joint committee, the present practice of the commission in regard to the grant of facilities at election' times will be referred as soon as practicable to the proposed standing committee. The Senate will, I am sure, support the views expressed by the committee concerning' the broadcasting of objectionable features. It is believed that the existence of power to impose the penalties provided in clauses 9S and 99 for the broadcasting of matter which is contrary to accepted standards of propriety will act as a deterrent to those who are unmindful of the canons of good taste. Clause . 101 provides that talks on medical subjects shall not be broadcast unless they are arranged by reputable medical or other scientific authorities or approved by the Commonwealth Director-General of Health or, with his concurrence, by a State Department of Health. In the past it has been the practice to fix the fee for broadcast listeners' licences by regulation, but, as it is intended that the new Australian Broadcasting Bill should as far as practicable embrace all phases of broadcasting, clause 105 now stipulates the fee. It also makes provision for the grant of free licences, not only to the blind as at present, but also to schools with an enrolment, of fewer than 50 pupils. This clause also provides for the granting of licences at one-half of the prescribed fee to invalid and old-age pensioners living alone. Provision is also made under this clause that an additional fee - at one-half of the ordinary rate - shall be paid in respect of receivers installed in motor cars and in cases where more than' one receiver is installed in any household.

Clause 109 provides that licences for facsimile, television and frequency modulation transmissions shall not be granted except on the recommendation of the standing committee. This is a very desirable precaution, and it is in the national interest that new developments in the broadcasting field should be carefully examined before being incorporated in the broadcasting system.

Apart from the foregoing, the only important change which is proposedin the bill is that which is contained in clause 57. At present the Minister has power to revoke licences, but clause 57 gives him the right also to suspend licences for the reasons stated. The need for such a provision has long been felt, as the existing power only to revoke licences is too drastic in most instances. In paragraph 370 of its report, the committee stated-

Individually, the stations are under the control of the Postmaster -General, whose only disciplinary power under the regulations now in force is to cancel or to refuse to renew licences.

Steps are being taken to give effect at the earliest possible date to a number of thejoint committee's proposals which do not require legislative enactment, or are not appropriate to this bill. I refer particularly to the recommendation made by the Joint Committee on Broadcasting concerning the re-opening of the negotiations between theAustralian Broadcasting Commission and the Australian Newspaper Proprietors Associution respecting news broadcasts, and the further important recommendation that there should be uniformity in the matter of the performing right fee payable by the commission and the Federation of Commercial Broadcasting Stations to the Australasian Performing Right Association. The Government fully supports the views expressed by the committee, but neither matter can be validly included in the bill now before the Senate. Further consideration is being given to both matters.

I submit the bill to honorable senators with the hope that it. will have' a favorable reception. I invite the fullest discussion on it, and will endeavour to furnish any information required. I shall not regard as vital any amendments proposed with a view to improving the measure.

Debate (on motion by Senator Gibson ) adjourned.

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