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Wednesday, 12 September 1984
Page: 1090

Mr CHARLES(10.17) —I am very honoured to speak in support of the appropriations for the Department of Communications. We obviously have a Minister who has fought very hard and long for appropriate allocations of funds to his Department and to the various bodies under his administration. Before I move on to that I wish to make a few comments on the contribution to this debate of the honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd), who preceded me, although I am sure that the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) will pick them up in more detail when he summarises this debate. We heard about the satellite, how this Government has supposedly done nothing and how the previous Government, of which he was a member, was on track to a successful conclusion of the satellite proposal. That is clearly not correct. The facts are quite to the contrary. If my memory serves me correctly, the question of the satellite arose in 1977, some six years before this Government came into office. After six years we were really no better off. We had certainly gone a little way down the track, but I think the word 'little' must be emphasised.

Mr Ian Cameron —We still don't know.

Mr CHARLES —There was no clear indication of ownership or who was going to control the satellite, what the resources of the satellite would be, what it would provide, who would provide it, whom the services would be provided to, how they were to be provided to remote areas, et cetera. It is interesting that a member of the National Party of Australia interjects. Members of the National Party did nothing for their constituents, the people in remote areas-absolutely nothing. The National Party, on this question of satellite broadcasting, would represent hypocrisy in the extreme. Members of that Party did nothing for the people they represent in the remote areas of the country throughout the years of this debate. If they had been game enough to go back and tell their constituents that, they would not have been re-elected.

Mr Hollis —They will not be next time.

Mr CHARLES —That is absolutely correct. The truth is that they did nothing in the years leading up to the election of the Hawke Government. This Government has put the satellite in train. It has settled the ownership question. An excellent statement was made to the House by the Minister on 15 November last year. The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal report was put in train. It has now come before the Government. I will not go into that report now; time does not permit that. It is not for me to pre-empt those decisions, but the Government will be making decisions to finalise the whole satellite question and many of the points raised by the honourable member for Murray about remote area television within, I believe, the next few weeks.

Also, the honourable member for Murray talked about how the ownership question was raised in the report. One conclusion to which the report comes is that governments should be looking at taking away a licence from the major networks, the big three, and then moving them into a major consortium-a breaking down of their influence, so to speak. Whether or not that would work is another point. On the question of ownership, however, one has only to look back at who gave the licences in the first place, in the 1950s. It was the conservative Menzies Government. When that Government realised in the early 1960s that the matter was running out of control, it decided that it would have to limit the licences to two. Even though television in Australia was less than a decade old-it would then have been only five or six years old-that Government still did not do the right thing and implement its decision right through. It invented the infamous grandfather clause, which meant that certain companies which held a number of licences could continue to do so. That is still the case today. We saw alterations to the Broadcasting and Television Act in 1981 that made it even easier, in some areas, for people who were not resident in Australia to hold major licences in this country. We had a complete mess of things in the early days of television from the conservative Menzies Government and they were never corrected throughout the many years of conservative governments.

I return to the Appropriation Bill specifically. We have seen a very generous allocation to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. At this time of the new Board and new set-up, the Government has done the right thing in appropriating substantial funds, $340m. It is an increase of over 12.5 per cent, which is a substantial increase in real terms. There are sufficient funds in that $340m for expansion on capital equipment which the ABC desperately needs. That has not been there for many years. Much of the ABC's present equipment is very antiquated and should be replaced. This Government, through the Minister, has appropriated sufficient funds, $340m this year, which augurs well for the ABC in the coming 12 months. As one can see, through broadcasting and television $450m has been allocated. That is an increase of 12.7 per cent, which is, again, a substantial real increase in funds over the next 12 months. It shows the importance that this Government attaches to the communications of this country.

I now ask the Minister a couple of questions, which are partly for himself and partly for the Minister for Finance (Mr Dawkins). The first question is rather straightforward. How much money does the Commonwealth expect to get in 1984-85 from Telecom Australia by way of interest payments? I believe it is a substantial figure. If that substantial figure was not required to be paid by the Australian Telecommunications Commission, what would that mean? I think this is the more important question: Would it mean lower charges by the Commission and/or would it mean extensions of very important capital works on behalf of Telecom? The payment by statutory authorities of substantial interest payments or dividends to the Government, which in effect owns and controls them, is a point raised with me on a number of occasions.

The communications of any country are an extremely important element of its society. It is worthy of note that this Government obviously has attached high importance to it in the appropriations it has brought down. The Government will be making a number of decisions in the next few weeks regarding the satellite and the future of communications in this country. This should be the completion of a series of statements to finalise this very important new technology. That will have been done within 18 months of this Government coming to office. That is quite a comparison to the many years of inactivity and botch-ups we have seen from previous conservative governments. I congratulate the Government and the Minister on the allocations of funds and the high importance attached to this important industry by this Government.