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Monday, 24 May 1965

Senator COHEN (Victoria) .- I rise to support the amendment that has been moved by Senator McClelland and to express my appreciation of the very comprehensive way in which he dealt with the subject matter the Senate is now discussing. The Bill before us is an abject confession of failure by the Government. It is an admission that the Government, for five years since introducing legislation to deal with the control of television licences, has been helpless to implement its policy. The Postmaster-General (Mr. Hulme) has said quite frankly: "We have had our policy flouted by some of the interests who control the commercial licences, but since the letter of the law has not been broken, we have not been able to devise a way to do other than approve of particular transactions which offend against our policy, although not against the Act ".

Senator Wright - Can the honorable senator tell me, by way of illustration, what is a type of transaction that comes within the law that we are amending, but offends against its spirit?

Senator COHEN - To put it bluntly, the Queensland transaction where the Ansett interests-

Senator Wright - What is the fundamental of that transaction?

Senator COHEN - The fundamental of it is that the Ansett interests have acquired more than a 15 per cent, shareholding, but, as I understand it, the memorandum and articles of association of the company holding the licence limit their voting rights to 15 per cent. That situation illustrates that, side by side with a limitation of voting rights to 15 per cent., it is possible to have a shareholding much in excess of that figure.

Senator O'Byrne - By wangling the books.

Senator COHEN - I do not say wangling the books, but a distinction is drawn between the percentage of permissible shareholding, on the one hand, and the percentage of votes which can be exercised, on the other hand.

Senator McClellandhas handed to me a "Hansard" report of 23rd April 1964 which contains an answer by the PostmasterGeneral in another place to a question asked of him by the honorable member for Hughes (Mr. L. R. Johnson). The PostmasterGeneral said -

I made a public statement in relation to the matters to which the honorable member refers. It is true that the Ansett group has acquired some 49 per cent, of the shares in this company. The licence will be issued to Universal Telecasters Queensland Limited.

Senator Webster - The honorable senator should not be concerned about Ansett in this instance. He is being hurt by this Bill.

Senator COHEN - I do not know that he is. I say that this Bill does not hurt anybody who is already in a sitting position.

Senator Webster - Yes, it does.

Senator COHEN - Will the honorable senator show me where it does?

Senator Webster - It does not make the others divest.

Senator COHEN - The honorable senator put his finger on one point that might have been raised by the Government. The legislation might have provided that those who have offended against the spirit, if not the letter, of the law, should have been required over a period of years to divest themselves of what they have obtained by taking unfair advantage of the existing law.

Senator Anderson - Is the honorable senator putting Ansett's holdings in that category?

Senator COHEN - If the Minister does not mind, this is not a seminar. I would like to go on and put the point of view I want to state on this issue. Whilst it must be conceded that the Bill, on the face of it, tightens up the control position and may well close loopholes for the future, it does not act effectively to break up in any way the monopolistic type of control that is being exercised over the television industry. I think that on all sides there is recognition of the fact that the television industry is substantially, though not exclusively, in the control of the large newspaper interests. All I can say about this is that, looking to the future, it is almost irrelevant for the Government to say that the law will now be clear and effective to deal with the situation. I' believe, and I think that every other honorable senator believes, that it is in the highest degree improbable that these commercial newspaper and television interests will ever be wanting voluntarily to dispose of part of their shareholdings or give others a chance to share control with them. That is the political reality and that is what makes this Bill a toothless wonder, because it is closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Some years ago it might have been said with truth that the control structure of the Australian television industry was in a state of flux, and in the formative years of the industry, the early years of the industry, there was a real opportunity for manoeuvring and perhaps for some diversity in the capital that was to be invested in the industry and in the control that was to be exercised over it. But the experience has been that within a comparatively short time those interests that were capable of being acquired by the newspaper proprietors have in fact been acquired, and I do not believe that they are going to get rid of them. I think they realise full well that their control is effective, and they have no intention of divesting themselves of what they have. The only type of legislation that would have been effective on this occasion would have been legislation which had some kind of retrospective operation or to put it, perhaps, in the manner suggested by Senator Webster, some kind of phased divesting of their interests and a phased withdrawal from control. That is not provided for here and we are really conducting some sort of academic exercise, because we are patting the Government on the back for having put the legal position right long after such action has ceased to be effective.

Senator Wright - Speak for yourself if you think anybody deserves to get a pat on the back for this Bill.

Senator COHEN - I am damning it, I think, with faint praise. If the honorable senator wants to spell any support for the Bill out of what I am saying, I do not think it is there, but I am being charitable because I. enjoy being charitable. The most that one could possibly say of it is that it has shut the stable door after the horse has bolted and that is not going to achieve anything in practical terms.

The Minister's reply to this is to say: " Oh, well, it is difficult. There are formidable difficulties in the way of making the legislation operate retrospectively." He says that apart from being required to divest themselves of interests held directly in licensee companies, the persons and companies involved would, in many instances, be required to divest themselves of shareholdings in companies other than licensee companies. He goes on to develop the practical difficulty. His second reason for putting forward legislation in this limited way is to explain his impotence in the past. What he says, in effect, is: " Under the section as it exists, I am able to refuse my approval of these transactions only if they offend against the law and, looking at the existing section 92F, I have been unable to find that the proposed changes in the beneficial ownership of the shares in the companies that have been the subject of applications to me for approval have been offensive to the section. Therefore, reluctantly and recognising that Government policy is being flouted, I find myself in the position of being unable to refuse my approval."

That may be strictly correct, having regard to the meaning of existing section 92F, but that does not matter because had the Minister been firmly committed to a policy of standing up to these vested interests, he would have appreciated that he had other powers under the existing Act. The most significant of these powers is the power to be found in section 86, that is, the power to suspend or revoke a licence where the Minister is satisfied that one of a number of grounds exists. Ground (d) is that it is advisable in the public interest for a specified reason to do so. I suggest to the Senate that if the Government had been really serious about confronting these marauding interests the Minister could have said: " 1 just will not sanction an arrangement which is contrary to Government policy and contrary to the spirit of the Act, and I will revoke or suspend the licence until the matter is put right." Nobody is going to stand in this Senate and tell me that the Minister did not have power to do that if he thought it wise to do so. The fact is that if the Governemnt is seriously interested in fighting these monopoly interests it has to take a firm step. That has been conspicuously missing from any of the policy attitudes in the legislation that this Government has introduced to date.

If ever anything were needed to reinforce that statement, it is the discovery that Senator McClelland made and mentioned in the opening remarks in his speech today, of how the second reading speech has been fiddled with between its introduction in the House of Representatives on 13th May and its introduction by the Minister for Customs and Excise (Senator Anderson) today. When I say " fiddled with " I make plain exactly what 1 mean by that. The wording has been altered to cut out the only two uses of the word " monopoly " in the speech. That is of the utmost significance. The PostmasterGeneral, on the very first page of the circulated copy of the speech which he delivered in the House of Representatives, spoke about " the monopolisation of programmes ". He put those words in inverted commas. When the Bill went through the House of Representatives and was introduced into this chamber a few hours ago, that expression " the monopolisation of programmes" had been eliminated and there had been substituted for it the milk and water expression " problems in respect of programme matters ".

The other example appears at page 6 of the circulated copy of the speech of the Postmaster-General in another place. It reads -

In introducing the 1960 Bill to the House my predecessor explained that the provisions of section 105a were intended primarily to prevent any monopolising of television programmes.

When the matter comes to be dealt with in the Senate at page 5 of the circulated copy of the speech delivered by the Minister for

Customs and Excise (Senator Anderson), we read -

When the I960 legislation was introduced, it was explained that the provisions of section 105a were intended primarily to prevent the " cornering " of television programmes.

It is perhaps possible to dismiss that alteration as being a mere difference in the choice of language. Lt cannot be done as easily as that, because here there are references to monopolisation. That is what this Bill is about, or supposed to be about, yet the very word is eliminated, no doubt because between the time when the measure was introduced in the House of Representatives and the time when it came to the Senate the monopoly interests which support this Government up to the hilt said: " Let us not have any talk about monopolies ".

Senator Cormack - This is just a matter of semantic discrimination by the Minister in the Senate.

Senator COHEN - That may be so. On the other hand, it is more consistent with the view that these interests said: " One anti-monopoly bill every year is enough. One was introduced on another subject in another place last week. Let us not have too much talk of monopolies." The point is made, and I do not want to labour it.

Senator Wright - I do not think it would bear labouring.

Senator COHEN - Well, I have made it. I do not propose to keep on making it. I think it is a good point and I think it shows the Government's attitude on this question very clearly.

Reference has been made on this occasion, and on other occasions, to the effective control of television stations by newspaper interests. This is very well documented at pages 33 to 37 of the annual report of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board for the year ended 30th June 1964, the last occasion on which the Board reported to the Senate. I think we have to say of this present legislation that it does not really get down to the essential questions, which are, of course: Who controls television and broadcasting? In whose interest is the control exercised? Are licensees fulfiling their obligations to the community?

The Senate Select Committee on television, of which I had the honour to be a member, dealt with the three-fold re sponsibility of the commercial licensees. That is now a matter of record in the Committee's report. The Committee stressed the great importance of appreciating the national responsibility which attaches to the grant of a licence, that it is a privilege in the nature of a monopoly and u privilege which has to be exercised with a full sense of responsibility to the public. Senator McClelland's amendment, which I support fully, underlines, the importance of that proposition and gives an opportunity to the Senate to say that it is interested enough to have an inquiry into that aspect of television which was not entrusted to the other Select Committee.

The last Select Committee dealt with programme matters and specifically with the many problems of encouraging Australian content in Australian television programmes. But it did not deal, nor was it asked to deal, with the questions of control of networks and of shareholdings, so that the real ramifications of control and shareholding interest in the television industry could be examined and assessed and recommendations made for the future of the industry, so far as those aspects are concerned, in the light of the evidence and the material that came before such a Select Committee. I ask the Senate to vote for the amendment I hope particularly that those who have shown some interest in the work of the last Select Committee will see their way to support the proposition advanced by Senator McClelland.

Of all the media of mass communication, this is the most important, with the greatest potential for good or evil. Mr. Newton Minow, the man appointed by the late President Kennedy to head the agency in the United States dealing with this problem of television, referred to the vast wasteland which the television industry had managed to create in the few years of its existence and operation in the United States; of the great deficiency in the manner in which the industry fulfilled its responsibilities to the public; and of the vast potential that was going to waste because of failure to measure up to public responsibiltiies in a truly national way.

It should, of course, be appreciated that commercial television stations are not in existence merely to do what others tell them to do. They have an interest in producing their own programmes, a legitimate interest.

They have an interest, so long as the present kind of commercial licensing system operates, in making their shareholders happy and keeping their enterprises buoyant. While the present system continues, I do not think anyone would want to be understood as trying to interfere wilh efficient functioning in that direction. But there must be a recognition of a primary responsibility to the public.

In matters of standards and of programming much remains to be done. I appreciated what Senator Webster had to say about his. disappointment that the Government has not yet seen fit to put into legislative operation or administrative practice the recommendations of the Select Committee. Surely (he Senate should be concerned about that. Surely we are not to be put through exercises merely for the sake of indulging our own fancies. The Select Committee was appointed on the motion of a Government senator. It haj the support of the Government and it had a majority of members from the Government side. Of the seven members, four were from the Government parties and three from the Opposition. But, as Senator McClelland has said, we have not yet received any indication from the Government that it is interested in carrying out any one of the many recommendations which were made by the Committee. The report received widespread support from the interested sections of the community.

Senator Dittmer - Including financial support from the community.

Senator COHEN - To a certain extent 1 think that may be so. but centainly there has been the widest expression of support for the general approach of the Committee as outlined in its report.

I believe that both these matters - the question of programmes and standards, and the question of control - are important. I strongly support the amendment moved by Senator McClelland which, if accepted, will enable this Senate to appoint a committee to do a thorough and workmanlike job in ascertaining, first, the facts. There may be a great deal of invective and perhaps prejudice about these matters but a Senate select committee, following the traditions of fair mindedness and co-operative attitudes between the parties which have operated in the past, would, I believe, do a great service to the community in unravelling the intricacies of these controls, in assessing their impact in a factual manner and in laying the basis for some kind of new look and new approach to the problems of the television industry. For that reason I second the amendment.

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