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Wednesday, 4 April 1984
Page: 1203

Senator BUTTON (Minister for Industry and Commerce and Minister Assisting the Minister for Communications)(3.26) —Mr Acting Deputy President, that was a fine piece of rhetoric for a government in exile and, of course, the real sting in the tail is, I suppose, the allegation that the Government is maintaining its popularity by doing nothing. That comes strangely from the lips of the Leader of the Opposition (Senator Chaney). This Government is popular because it has done something. It has restored the economic health of this country after seven years of economic disaster under the Fraser Government.

Opposition senators interjecting-

Senator BUTTON —Honourable senators opposite can speculate on all those things, but the fact of the matter is that it is popular for that reason. Not only have its major economic decisions been applauded by the electorate, they have been applauded by the Opposition's Deputy Leader in the House of Representatives.

Senator Messner —What economic decisions?

Senator BUTTON —Many of the decisions made by this Government, such as the floating of the dollar-something which the Opposition did not have the guts to do-have been applauded by the Deputy Leader of the Opposition. The decision on lump sum superannuation was a matter of some-

Senator Messner —Where is the legislation?

Senator BUTTON —I said that the decision on lump sum superannuation was applauded by some members of the Opposition. The decision to impose the means test on over 70-year-old pensioners was something which Senator Chaney, as Minister for Social Security, ran away from for years, and the Opposition knows it. There are a number of other decisions that fall within that category. I am sorry to stir the Opposition about these sorts of issues which are not relevant to the subject matter of this debate.

Senator Messner —You raised them.

Senator BUTTON —I raised them. I will continue to raise them if necessary, and I will probably do better at raising them than Senator Messner does at Question Time. But let me say this: The subject matter of this debate is something of a storm in a teacup and something of a perennial. Senator Chaney relies on information-I forget how he put it, it was a most unfortunate word he chose- which seeped out of a meeting of the parliamentary Labor Party yesterday. He alleges from that, on the basis of doing a Rorschach chart of the various newspapers on a bit of blotting paper or something, that as the reports are somewhat similar in various newspapers, they are accordingly all correct.

Now when I say this debate has something of a perennial flavour about it, let us look at what was said by one of my predecessors in the Senate, Senator Withers, who has now left the chamber but who, as leader of a government in the Senate had this to say on 24 March 1976:

Do not raise the Australian Broadcasting Commission. You blokes have been leaning on it for years. It is full of your supporters and has been pumping out your propaganda year in and year out. This is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of notoriety. The sooner it is cleaned up the better as far as I am concerned.

A then senior Minister in the Fraser Government had that to say on the public record. He did not say it in any party room, he said it here in the Senate. If those words are not a threat to the independence of the ABC what is? Senator Chaney, in trying to make his case today, has relied on alleged comments by the Prime Minister, alleged comments by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Hayden-

Senator Chaney —You should correct the transcript.

Senator BUTTON —No, I will not correct the transcript. He has relied on comments by those two Ministers and, for the purposes of the debate, has elevated Mr Hayden to a status which even he would not claim in terms of the importance of the remarks which he made.

Senator Lajovic —Not yet.

Senator BUTTON —Hope springs eternal in the heart of Senator Lajovic. 'Not yet', he says. Let me say at the beginning that I affirm and agree with some of the points made by Senator Chaney. First of all, this is a very popular Government. I affirm and agree with that, and it is important to put it on the record right at the beginning. Secondly, I agree with the suggestions made by Senator Chaney about the importance of the independence of the media, particularly the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I assert the right of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to make, within the law, what programs it wants to make . Indeed, this morning it had Senator Chaney on a program called Politicians and Their Music. During that program it was revealed by the Leader of the Opposition that he used to practise hand jiving while listening to the Darktown Strutters Ball, and it was further revealed by the Leader of the Opposition that he so loved the film The Graduate that he now drives an Alfa Romeo Spyder, as did Dustin Hoffman in the movie. I wonder whether the Leader of the Opposition shares the other fantasies of Dustin Hoffman in the film The Graduate. That was not revealed in the program. It is very important that the people know the views and fantasies of the Leader of the Opposition as revealed on that Australian Broadcasting Corporation program. I assert strongly the right of that sort of program to be made even if the views expressed may be reprehensible to people of my degree of propriety in these matters; even if I may find some of Senator Chaney's habits and tastes slightly distasteful.

The subject of this matter of public importance is faintly ironic. Let me be frank about this: There has been a long history of politicians from both sides of the Parliament, during times when each side has been in government-the coalition happens to have been in government for longer than we have-attacking or criticising the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the media. We are criticised for the alleged competence of the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) in handling the media; of course the last Prime Minister had his own competencies in that regard too. He was the inventor of the doorstop interview as a means of communicating with the electorate. At the heart of this whole topic, brought forward allegedly as a matter of public importance, is the suggestion that the Government is somehow threatening the independence of the media. That is just an absurd overreaction to the stories which Senator Chaney alleges have seeped out of the Caucus.

Let me look at what has actually happened. Certain members of the Government are reported in today's media as having criticised individual Australian Broadcasting Corporation programs and certain newspaper articles. That happened; there is no doubt about that at all. Indeed, in respect of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation program which I understand was the subject of criticism yesterday, Senator Sir John Carrick asked a very proper question the other day which by implication-I do not say this in any critical way of the honourable senator-

Senator Sir John Carrick —There was no criticism at all; it was seeking to see whether an objective job had been done.

Senator BUTTON —I am not seeking to criticise the honourable senator in any way. All I am saying is that his question carried with it the implication that perhaps there were some inaccuracies in that program.

Senator Sir John Carrick —On a very complex matter.

Senator BUTTON —It was on a very complex matter, and certainly that was the subject of discussion in the Parliamentary Labor Party. There was criticism by some members of the Party in respect of the contents of the program.

Senator Chaney —That is a very different sort of criticism.

Senator BUTTON —And a very important one. There was an expression of disagreement with the views expressed in some of those programs and indeed with the views in some articles in the National Times. Those opinions hardly amount to a threat by the Government to the independence of the media. That is the issue with which I want to deal. If the Opposition seriously asserts-I do not believe Senator Chaney did-that no-one in parliament, in government or opposition, has a right to question or comment on programs or newspaper articles , that is absurd.

Senator Chaney —I specifically dealt with that.

Senator BUTTON —I said that I do not believe the honourable senator was saying that.

Senator Chaney —Before you came in I specifically dealt with that.

Senator BUTTON —All right; Senator Chaney specifically dealt with that. I accept his assurance. Of course members of parliament have a right to criticise programs and articles in the media and in so claiming that right they, in my view, by implication assert the right of others to make those criticisms. I think that is the essential point in this debate. As I was saying, the truth is that everybody in the community has a right to criticise the media just as they have a right to criticise those of us who are engaged in politics. I would have thought they exercised that right in an atmosphere of great freedom. If I might say so, I believe they exercise that right with some exuberance and at times, indeed, flamboyance. That is something from which we all suffer in the particular occupation we have.

So there is no truth in the suggestion that the Government would in any way seek to circumscribe the independence of the media. If the Opposition wants to know what the Government's policy is in relation to the independence of the media, particularly the ABC, it has to have a calm look at the facts. There is no confusion about them. The Government's view of the independence of the ABC is evidenced by the new ABC legislation which this Government introduced and which ensures the independence and integrity of that organisation. That is very different from saying that the ABC or any other form of media is immune from criticism of any kind, as I said earlier. There has been no attack on the integrity and institutions of the media. Certainly quite forceful comments have been made about programs, and I see nothing exceptional in that.

If one looks first of all at what the Government has done and at the legislation which was passed last year in relation to the ABC one sees that the legislation places the responsibility for maintaining the independence and integrity of the new Corporation on the Board of the Corporation. There can be nothing clearer than that. I go back a step further and say that the Government' s attitude to the independence of all forms of media is laid out in the Federal platform of the Australian Labor Party. While the uranium policy might be open to different interpretations, this section of the platform is not. I quote that section of the platform:

Information and comment by all forms of media should be governed by fair and democratic principles, and not by ministerial or other political interference, nor by any sectional or private interest, including that arising through monopoly control.

With respect to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation which is the principal body concerned in this little bit of brouhaha going on here today, it was spelt out by the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) in his second reading speech in these terms:

. . . this Government is committed to maintaining a strong and independent ABC, able to meet the broadcasting needs of the Australian people.

I contrast that attitude to the establishment of the independence of the ABC by legislation last year with the attitude of the previous Government. The coalition, when it was in government, concocted an elaborate commissioner of complaints structure whereas the Dix Committee of Review of the Australian Broadcasting Commission recommended only an ABC appointed community affairs officer to receive complaints. If ever there were an overreaction by a government it was that absurd commissioner of complaints proposal. This commissioner of complaints proposition, which was in the ABC legislation of the previous Government, which fortunately as a result of the election never saw the light of day in Parliament, provided for an outside fully fledged statutory officer appointed by the Government who would have the function of dealing with complaints and imposing penalties, if you please, in respect of complaints.

That immediately raised the question of whether that sort of procedure was applicable to ordinary broadcasters. It was a threat and it compromised and confused the role of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and its Board. That Board, not an outside body appointed by government, is supposed under the present legislation to be responsible for the Corporation's performance. That sort of proposal compromised totally investigative journalism if we consider the complaints procedure put forward by the Fraser Government. The Complaints Commissioner would have investigated 'unfairness, bias and defensiveness' not just in relation to individuals but generally. Thus if ever there was a vehicle trundled forward by a government for muzzling serious criticism in this country that was it; it was the classic sort of Trojan horse of 1982 in the hands of the Fraser Government. The then Chairman of the British Broadcasting Corporation had this to say about the Fraser Government's proposal:

the whole package of legislation is so bad and so discriminatory that if I were a member of the ABC I would say let's down tools and walk off in protest.

Senator Dame Margaret Guilfoyle —Who wrote that?

Senator BUTTON —That was Mr George Howard, the former chairman of the BBC, the man who owned that fine house in that excellent serial, Brideshead Revisited. They are strong words indeed from the then Chairman of the British Broadcasting Corporation. They were made here in this country in late 1982 as a comment on the Fraser Government's proposals for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. They are strong words indeed in terms of the Opposition's over- reaction to reported remarks made yesterday. No criticism like that has ever been levelled at the performance of this Government in relation to independence of the media. The then Government, of course, was forced to abandon that legislation and was tipped out of office before it could be passed. By abandoning that legislation it acknowledged its errors; so the case is proven against it. This is not the first time that the Opposition has tried to stir up unfounded criticism over allegations of political interference. I will come to that in a minute. I just want to deal with one other very important question relating to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The Board of the Corporation is appointed by government. For the first time in the history of the Corporation this Government adopted a policy of submitting to a joint party committee names for the Board of the Corporation.

Senator Chaney —How many names?

Senator Sir John Carrick —Seven to be chosen from nine?

Senator BUTTON —I am not sure of the exact number.

Senator Chaney —That was a rort.

Senator BUTTON —Senator Chaney regards it as a rort; he would not have done it in a fit. Under his Government his Minister used to come to me and tell me the names he proposed to put forward for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. I would approve the names as being fine and independent and the then Minister would put them up. Those names all got knocked over. Some of them were knocked over because in 1975 they signed letters objecting to the course which the later Fraser Government took. That is what Senator Chaney's Minister did. We submitted names and it does not matter how many names we submitted for the purpose of starting this process of bipartisan consultation. The Opposition's representatives on that body fully accepted and congratulated us on the process, not only at the meeting, but also here in the Senate. Senator Sir John Carrick can mumble about it now but that is what Senator Peter Baume said in the Senate. The members of the Opposition on that committee approved the names that were submitted by the Government. I hope that that process will be able to be expanded because it is another important step in securing the independence from government of the ABC.

I said that this is not the first time that the Opposition has stirred up unfounded criticisms. Only last year, on 18 October, the now departed Mr Anthony alleged in Parliament that the Australian Labor Party Government had leaned on the ABC over election time in Queensland. These allegations were totally baseless. As a result of that the Minister for Communications began defamation proceedings against Mr Anthony. These sorts of things have happened over a long period. These things, like the allegations by Mr Anthony, debase the process of politics in this country. Likewise, this MPI has been stirred up on the basis of loose Press reports and a great reading into those Press reports of all sorts of suggestions. Like the allegations stirred up by Mr Anthony and the threats made to the ABC by Senator Withers in 1976, these unfortunately are the perennials of Australian politics. They are contrived just as is this MPI.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Elstob) —Order! The Minister's time has expired.