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Wednesday, 4 April 1984
Page: 1214

Senator MESSNER(4.31) —The Senate is debating a matter of public importance which was ably brought forward by the Leader of the Opposition , Senator Chaney. The matter of public importance reads:

The threat to the independence of the media posed by the Government's absurd over-reaction to any critical comment.

This matter has arisen as a result of remarkably uniform publicity which appeared in today's newspapers. The stories which appear today in various newspapers right across the nation bear a very great resemblance to one another. Those newspapers contain reports of the Australian Labor Party Caucus meeting which was held in Canberra yesterday. The newspapers commented upon certain statements made by both the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, other Ministers and other members of the Parliament with regard to the effectiveness or otherwise of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

I would like to make the point that Senator Coates, who has just finished his speech, acknowledged the very point that we are making and the points that were made in today's newspaper articles. Clearly, Senator Coates stood up here today and defended the independence of the ABC and other Press organisations to put down a critical view of the Government. That point, of course, has been clearly acknowledged. It is the basis of our matter of public importance today. We are very glad that Senator Coates has seen fit to support the Opposition on this matter. I hope that he has a great deal of satisfaction in addressing that matter to the Prime Minister. No doubt he will seek to make that point in the course of debate in the Caucus when the next occasion arises.

The point clearly has to be made that the Government, through the Prime Minister, apparently as a result of the articles which appear in the Press, is clearly trying to browbeat the Press and the independent media in this country. I do not have to put forward those words on my own behalf. I need only quote what was said by that very significant, independent and very well respected political reporter, Robert Haupt, when interviewed today in Canberra on the Channel 7 Today show. He said that that was exactly the objective of the Prime Minister yesterday-to browbeat the media into accepting the line which the Government wants to put down. He drew the attention of the public to this very significant attempt to muzzle the independent media which, of course, is the funnel for dissenting views in this country.

I think it is very obvious that, if one follows the course of events in recent times that the Prime Minister has taken, one can see that he appears to be so brittle when under attack. The fact is that he so easily falls apart at the seams when asked questions about his personal life of matters affecting his policies which are not accepted at face value by the media or others. These are the occasions on which this kind of attack commences. We have seen this a number of times not only from the Prime Minister but also from leading members of the Government. We recall Senator Button's outrageous attacks on Professor Dame Leonie Kramer last year. All of us will remember that particular episode which brought degradation to Senator Button's reputation. Of course, this attack was very ably handled by the Chairman of the ABC who as a result, of course, was fired from her job.

Senator Ryan —What?

Senator MESSNER —The Government, of course, will deny that. Obviously that is a very clear statement in the light of the events that occurred at that time. Then , of course, there was the famous Rugby League issue that the Four Corners program had the temerity to bring forward. It was claimed that leading members of the Australian Labor Party were involved and they were referred to. There were inferences in connection with certain activities on the part of leading members of the Labor Party.

Senator Robert Ray —Oh, rubbish.

Senator MESSNER —Well, why was the Government so sensitive about it? Why did the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Lionel Bowen) get up at that time and deny that point so clearly? Why did he criticise and attack the ABC for having the temerity to get up and say these things in public? They were not the only cases that have occurred in recent times. In the last few months we have seen attacks on the National Times and in particular the Age newspapers by Senator Evans, the Attorney-General. The first law officer of the country, who is a champion of civil rights, has been attacking the independent media. But again he has used the power of his position and that of the Government to browbeat the media into submission to the Government's particular viewpoint. We saw this only in the last few days in regard to the National Times articles about defence leaks. Consequently and obviously the sensitivity of this Government knows no bounds. Senator Coates and his colleagues have made pathetic attempts to defend the Government's point of view. Indeed, they have fallen for the trap of admitting the problem and supporting the Opposition and as a result indirectly criticising the Prime Minister. I would like to reiterate an earlier point that I made, and that is that there is a remarkable consistency in the articles which appeared in the newspaper today.

Senator Coates —That proves that they are right, does it?

Senator MESSNER —Whether the honourable senator claims they are right or wrong is beside the point. It appears to me that someone in the Government has a very clear objective in mind because the leak was quite obviously released in such a way that one can see that the Government is out to damage the media generally. It appears to me that this is a determined and deliberate attempt to muzzle the media in these circumstances. Why else would these reports read in such a consistent manner? Every newspaper, every reporter appears to have been given the same story. This is quite clearly the way in which this exercise has been undertaken. This Government stands absolutely condemned in the eyes of the public for its attempt to deny independence to the media which, is, of course, its basic right.

Let us look at the reasons why the Government perhaps has chosen to do this at this time. For the last several months we have been warmed up to the idea that we should have an election this year. The Prime Minister has very coyly hinted at an election either in the latter part of this year or in the early part of next year. The story about elections, of course, is well known. Every time a Prime Minister, especially a Labor Prime Minister, seeks to go to the polls such a step must be clearly to his advantage. Therefore, we are being exercised towards a point of view which accepts that an election this year is good for the nation, just as everything else that the Government claims to do is good for the nation. The timing of that election is critical to the fortunes of the Government. It is the Prime Minister's intention to ensure that there is no election next year. We must ask: Why does he want an election this year? The answer is obvious. He knows that he cannot win an election next year because of the collapsing policies of his Government.

Senator Ryan —That is ludicrous. Don't you read the newspapers?

Senator MESSNER —I can read the gallup polls as well as the Minister for Education can. However, those polls do not tell the whole story, and she knows it. She knows that the Government wants an election this year so that it can confuse the people in putting back the present Government on the basis of false promises and false premises. The policies of this Government that were announced before the election last year have either not been put into place or have been totally denied. One has only to quote the assets test as an example. The Minister for Industry and Commerce, Senator Button, in his remarks dealt with the lump sum superannuation tax. I remind the Government that it is now 10 months since that announcement was made, and still we have seen no legislation on that topic. Is the Government running scared? Indeed it is. It does not want that legislation in the Parliament while it is thinking of an early election. So it is the case with the assets test and many other matters.

One has only to examine the Senate Notice Paper to realise how little legislation the Government is bringing forward for discussion. For all the business the Government has put on the Notice Paper we could easily pack up here tonight and go home. The Government is hoodwinking the people of Australia on the basis that it wants to be elected this year. It has not got the guts to go to the people next year when the result, as it knows, will be entirely different . This is at the base of the Government's attacks on the media and the way it has undertaken those attacks in an orchestrated way in the last few days. Those matters are at the core of the Government's intention and lie clearly before us all as an obvious attempt to pull wool over the people's eyes.

The activity in the last day or two is not the first attempt-and it will not be the last-by the Government to try to confuse people through control of the media . Before the last election great concern was expressed by Senator Button, who criticised the former Government for its activities carried out through the Government Information Unit. Yet this country has seen established the greatest example of thought police in this country's history through the establishment of the National Media Liaison Service, which is spending more than one million dollars a year. Today senators had put on their desks another edition of a wonderful document which claims that the Unit is putting the Government's activities in focus. It is doing it in such a way that one can see nothing else in the photograph but the Government and its so-called achievements. There is not a mention of the issues which it has avoided. No publicity is given to the Opposition and its views; merely favourable news is presented in a biased way in the document. It presents no balance, even though the Government claims to have a monopoly in such matters. The document is an absolute disgrace.

It is an attempt to issue pure propaganda to the public over the name of and printed by the Government Printer. It is outrageous that the Government has undertaken that kind of activity.

The point has been well and truly made in this debate that this Government is deliberately setting out on a campaign of muzzling the media in an election year . It knows that it will be going to the people this year, preferably before the Budget, when it has to disclose the size of the Budget deficit and when it has to admit that it cannot offer the tax cuts it claimed it would give to the people. Already the present Government has laid the groundwork for that kind of proposition. Consequently, the Government will continue its obvious activities to hoodwink the people of Australia. Let the Government, in all the honesty over which it claims to have a monopoly, examine the activities of the National Media Liaison Service. I challenge Senator Coates to examine what is going on in that bureau in Tasmania. If he can satisfy himself as to the honesty of its activity, that it is providing a genuine service for all parliamentarians, I will withdraw my remarks, but I guarantee he will find the opposite to be true. If the Government wants to prove the honesty of its position, let it challenge the National Media Liaison Service now.