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Wednesday, 4 April 1984
Page: 1216

Senator RYAN (Minister for Education and Youth Affairs)(4.46) —I rise to close this debate-a debate which has been the greatest waste of time in this place ever inflicted by the Opposition on the Government. There are matters of public importance which ought to be debated in this place. We do have grave problems in the economy. We still have an unacceptably high level of unemployment. We have many problems in the area of manufacturing industry. We have problems of poverty and remaining problems of discrimination. Those are all matters which this Government believes should be debated in a constructive fashion in this place. But what does the Opposition bring before the Senate today? An absolute non-event which it claims is a matter of public importance; namely, a complaint that as a result of some media reporting of some views that were supposed to be expressed by some members of Caucus yesterday somehow the Government is threatening the independence of the media. What an absurd accusation, and what a waste of time.

The Opposition today has reached the nadir of its parliamentary performance. I cannot think of anything sillier than that at a time when we all admit we have serious economic, social and other problems in our society, all the Opposition can do is to read the newspaper, see a little bit of garbled reporting about what may or may not have been said in the Caucus room yesterday, and try to blow it up into some kind of issue relating to the independence of the media. It is pathetic and displays yet again the total lack of capacity in the Opposition for any kind of analytical approach to the serious problems facing our economy. In a sense, the media are the only opposition in this country. There is no opposition on the benches opposite. The Opposition has no idea how to present views on the serious problems facing our society. If it were not for the media in this country I do not think anything of public importance would ever be raised. The Opposition is clearly incapable of deciding for itself that something is important. Opposition members merely examine the morning papers, pick on the most trivial aspects of reportage and then bring them into the Senate in order to waste everybody's time debating them.

I find it particularly ironical that we suddenly have an Opposition composed of the conservative elements in this place accusing a Labor Government of attempting to interfere with the independence of the media, in particular the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I came into this place first in 1976. During my first few years in this place I, in common with my colleagues Senator Sibraa and Senator Colston who joined me at that time, sat in this place day after day listening to abuse, attacks and accusation about the ABC. Scarcely a day passed without conservative members of the then Government attacking the ABC for political bias and all sorts of Marxist plots. It was a pathetic performance . Not only did members of the then Government attack the ABC for its alleged bias; they made practical attacks and undermined the capacity of the ABC to be this country's major public broadcasting organisation. I can remember a few of them because I sat here day after day and had to listen to them. There were funding cuts.

Have a look at what happened to the budget of the ABC, a matter now of such new and sudden enthusiasm of Opposition members. Honourable senators should have a look at what that Government did to the funding of the ABC during its seven years in government. Have a look at what it did to the staffing of the ABC during its seven years of government. It ran them both down to the stage where we inherited a ramshackle broadcasting organisation in the place of what had once been one of Australia's finest public institutions. Honourable senators should have a look at the talent drain that occurred from the ABC during the period of the Fraser Administration. Journalist after journalist, current affairs analyst after current affairs analyst, left the ABC because they could no longer work in such a run-down organisation, because they could no longer tolerate the political attacks that were being made on them by the Government. There was an exodus of talent from the ABC during that time which greatly weakened its capacity to fulfil its statutory responsibilities to the Australian people. There was almost a cessation of training of new, young talent. Look at any area in the ABC now-the technical, production, journalism, drama and cultural areas-and honourable senators will find that virtually now new young talent has been trained over the last few years; again one of the reasons for the fact that we inherited such a chaotic and ramshackle organisation.

Honourable senators should look at the discriminatory employment practices which prevailed within the ABC during the Fraser administration, documented discriminatory practices-(Quorum formed) It is just further evidence of the absolute poverty of the Opposition's approach to what it alleges today to be a serious topic that Senator Jessop walks in and the only intelligent contribution he can make to the debate is to call a quorum and thus cut short the time allowed for the debate.

I was pointing out that the present Opposition has an appalling record with regard to the ABC. As a result of that when we came into government a year ago we inherited an organisation which had deteriorated drastically from what it had been in its heyday. There was a time when the ABC was one of Australia's finest public institutions in terms of current affairs, dissemination of information, development of Australia's cultural life, education and in bringing services to regional and remote areas. It had an outstanding record. But all of that was virtually destroyed during the period of the Fraser administration.

Now what have we done? My colleague, the Leader in this place, Senator Button, pointed out that we approached the business of restoring the capacity of the ABC to its central role in our democracy in a very open-minded and bipartisan fashion. What have we done to the ABC? We have given it a new board, which was appointed with the consultation and agreement of Opposition members, a land-mark in a bipartisan approach to the ABC. We have given the ABC more money. We have given it a new charter, enormous freedom in its employment and management practices, and the board has appointed a new manager. We hope that it will in time regain the central and constructive place it had in Australian social and political life.

As yet I have not seen a great deal of evidence that many changes have taken place. In fact I feel, I guess along with a lot of honourable senators in this place, a little disappointed that we have not seen more improvements implemented more rapidly in the last 12 months. But being reasonable-and we on this side of the chamber are reasonable-we must recognise that we cannot undo the damage of seven years of attacks, demoralisation and political interference, all of which have been documented in the debate today, in a one year period. So we still have very high aspirations that the ABC will be able to improve its performance, and we look forward very much to that happening, not because we are worried about the occasional criticism or the occasional negative item on the ABC concerning the Government, but because of our deep philosophical commitment to the idea of a publicly funded independent broadcasting corporation which can reflect at the highest possible standards comment, consideration and information on all the major economic, social and cultural issues of our time.

Senator Chaney —Did you tell the Prime Minister that yesterday?

Senator RYAN —They are our aspirations for the ABC. Senator Chaney has just joined the debate. Quite clearly our aspirations have not yet been realised. Obviously a year has not been enough time. I believe that there are still areas of the ABC where the standard of program delivery is poor. I say that without attempting to undermine our aspirations for what the ABC should be. The Opposition, with its incapacity to analyse anything accurately, seems to be unable to distinguish between the criticism that might fairly and justly be made of a particular item or, indeed, of a particular journalist or program, with a fundamental attack on the institution itself. We, in the Australian Labor Party and now the Labor Government, have been the historical, traditional defenders of the ABC, and we continue to be that. Now that does not mean that we must turn a blind eye or must pretend that every item, every program and every journalist is performing or is presented at the highest possible standard. Quite clearly that is not the case.

There are many defects in the performance of the ABC, defects which have their roots in the attacks on it made by the Fraser Government. Obviously members of our Government criticise individual items on the ABC, and the ABC criticises us for criticising it. What is new in that? I am really glad Senator Chaney has come in because he has inflicted this debate on us, he has pretended that there is something novel and shocking in an individual politician being critical of an individual item or even an individual journalist. I think that politicians and journalists are engaged in a natural adversary situation and will continue to criticise each other for as long as we have a democracy in this country. For the Opposition to pretend there is something shocking--

Senator Chaney —Mr Deputy President, I raise a point of order. The honourable senator is totally misrepresenting my case and the case of the Opposition, which specifically said that we were not talking about that sort of complaint.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —The honourable senator is making a point and not a point of order.

Senator RYAN —That is another pathetic attempt by the Leader of the Opposition ( Senator Chaney) to dissuade the listening public from the fact that the Opposition is absolutely impoverished of ideas, absolutely impoverished of any constructive approach to any issue of public importance at all.

I want to pass briefly to the other dreadful attack we are accused of making, on the National Times. Frankly, I am very disappointed in the National Times because it seems to me that the National Times misses many opportunities. This country, this society, really needs a high quality weekly journal that makes critical, informed comment about economic, social and cultural issues and so on. Our society would be greatly enhanced by such a journal. The National Times has been able to fulfil that need in our social and political life for short periods , but too often it misses the opportunity of being what it really could be. Obviously I do not have time now to say anything further, but I simply say that the reporting by the National Times of defence issues has not always been fair and honest and in the best interests of our society generally.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —The discussion is concluded.