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Thursday, 14 November 1985
Page: 2200


Senator VIGOR(6.06) —I thank the Minister. I will present these questions to the Minister at the next possible time. I seek leave to have the questions incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The questions read as follows-

TELECOM: COLONIAL MENTALITY ON TECHNOLOGY

On 10 September (Hansard page 85) Estimates Committee C was told by Telecom's representative:

``Our research and development efforts are basically an attempt to have an understanding of the current technologies, run trials and make an assessment of their suitability for application in our network. An important part of that is to decide when the technology is mature enough for it to be prudent for us to commit ourselves to investment in the network''.

This is most unsatisfactory when Telecom's buying muscle and Australian research and development skills could enable an export-capable Australian industry to be established in the telecommunications area. Will the government consider making it a statutory obligation upon Telecom to foster research and development in Australia and to encourage the development rather than the modification of communications technology here?

AUSTRALIA POST CONTRACTUAL ARRANGEMENTS

Only 69% of Express Courier articles were delivered on time in Western Australia, while in Victoria the success rate was 75%. I understand that a good part of the problem lies in airline uplift arrangements at Tullamarine and Adelaide. In answer to a question I asked on Tuesday, 10th September at the Senate Estimates Committee C, I was told that the airlines are required to uplift, on flights specified by Australia Post, all airmail tendered to them.

Are there any remedies in Australia Post's contractual arrangements with the airlines that cover noncompliance on the part of the airline?

If so, why has the management done nothing about the 31% and 25% respective late delivery figures for Express Courier deliveries in Western Australia and Victoria? Surely no private enterprise would allow that situation to continue if competitors were getting an advantage in a tight market, as is the case with competition between Australia Post and private courier services?

If there are no penalties for noncompliance, when do the contractual arrangements end, and what encouragement will the government give the negotiators to ensure that the airlines cannot walk away untouched, from failures to deliver as contracted?

Will the Government, in the mean time, legislate to permit Qantas to carry mail throughout the country, thereby adding further incentive for the domestic airlines to honour their agreements?

AUSTRALIA POST: INDUSTRIAL DISPUTATION

We have just seen a major dispute that arose when New South Wales management tried to gear work practices to peaks of mail throughout. In response to a question by Senator Parer, Estimates Committee C discovered that last financial year it cost 11 million dollars in additional overtime to clear New South Wales mail backlogs caused by industrial problems.

I have had Question on Notice No. 113 on the Notice Paper since 19 March, dealing with how disputes arise, and what sort of planning has gone into the establishment of new mail centres. There is no indication that an answer is anywhere in the offing. I am happy to modify the question if a particular part has created compilation problems in answering. I would like to get an answer. I am sure that honourable Senators and the general public would very much like to know what management is doing to settle matters before they develop into disputes. It is in Australia Post's interests to release this information to the public. I hope that the interest of the Minister for Communications will help get this information into the open so that the mail situation in New South Wales can be properly assessed.

PUBLIC BROADCASTING

I make two points: (1) Funding levels kept the same despite more stations and especially greater levels of aboriginal broadcasting; (2) From the written evidence, there was a tug-of-war between the Departments of Aboriginal Affairs and Communications over who should control the funds for aboriginal broadcasting.

At page 861 of the Estimates Hansard of Friday, 20 September, we were told that the Explanatory Notes do not reflect the arrangements involving the Public Broadcasting Foundation. This was, and I quote, because the Explanatory Notes ``were prepared before certain Government decisions were taken''.

That, I understand, is bureaucratic language to indicate that the Minister for Communications successfully restored the funding to the Public Broadcasting Foundation on the eve of the budget speech. I applaud the Minister's determination. It would have been better still if he'd been able to get an increase in funding to take account of the additional aboriginal broadcasting to occur this year. In fact, the whole of the public broadcasting network of some 60 stations around the country costs around 7 million dollars to run. That's what it costs for the running of the EA stations in Melbourne and Sydney. The Government provides about 1.3 million dollars to the public broadcasting sector, with more than half of that going to cover part of the costs of ethnic broadcasting groups which buy station time.

The public broadcasting sector in turn provides training skills for thousands of people. It has in many ways taken over from the ABC in giving training to new people.

I believe that the government would give long-term sustenance to the public broadcasting sector by making a one-off endowment. That would enable the Public Broadcasting Foundation to make appropriate investments, so that recurrent funding wasn't a major problem. There will alwyas be a lot of frantic fund-raising. Budgets will generally operate on a shoestring. But at least with an endowment, we wouldn't find any future government taking political action against the public broadcasters by withdrawing funds.

I note, in the response to a question I put on notice, that the Treasurer has arranged to consider sales tax exemption on capital equipment purchases. This move, would certainly assist communities involved in public broadcasting. They certainly provide the training that leads people to employment in the media. They also provide an excellent outlet for self-expression in various forms. The Australian music industry has certainly been given a major fillip with the growth of public broadcasting. Groups that have always found the conservative approach of the commercial broadcasters insurmountable, have found an audience on public radio. Some of them have then gone on to major commercial success also.

On behalf of public broadcasters and participants around the country, I ask the Minister whether there is additional information available on Government attitudes towards a one-off endowment and sales-tax exemption for public broadcasters and public television.

FORWARD DEVELOPMENT UNIT

The Forward Development Unit has been given substantial new staff resources.

When it was established in February, its terms of reference were to deal with the medium and long-term future for commercial television-and to look closely at opportunities brought by advanced delivery technology.

At the end of April, the Minister reaffirmed that equalisation was a long-term objective. Yet the report of the Forward Development Unit dealt only with the short-term, and was quite nebulous about how many longer-term rearrangements might occur. Did the Minister for Communications modify in writing the terms of reference, or did the Unit reinterpret the terms of reference in the light of policy announcements made in May? Is this a case of ``Yes, Minister''?

In the light of strong statements in favour of giving the supplementary licence scheme a fair trial-these have come from within the ACTU and public interest groups-can the Minister say whether any part of the supplementary licence approach will be retained?

And if so, what will be done to get the Department to process material more quickly? Only 4 of the original 98 applications have gone to the Tribunal, and the television one in Canberra has been put under pressure by both commercial interests and the Minister.

LICENCES FOR NEW STATIONS

According to page 436 of the Estimates Hansard, there are currently 835 Expressions of Interest (not all compatible) from people hoping to obtain a broadcasting licence awaiting processing by the Department of Communications. In addition, the Department is currently assesssing 128 firm proposals for broadcasting licences, plus more for supplementary licences. Clearance of television stations from Band II will take up additional Department of Communications resources. Only about half the planning resources will be available for broadcast station planning, and consequently they expect to process only between 15 and 20 of the proposals before them this year.

The Department of Communications is being given additional resources, but not the Broadcasting Tribunal. The Tribunal gets very little advance notice of licence applications.

The Annual Report of the Department of Communications indicates that low-power community stations are being planned for the Melbourne metroplitan area. But in answer to my question on notice No. 193 in Hansard of March 29th 1985, the Department could not predict how many new public stations might be licensed over the next three years.

Will the government be setting priority areas for the Station Planning Branch to tackle, or will we continue the very slow progress of the previous years on a large number of fronts?

In a letter dated the 28 October, the Minister for Communications has indicated to me that he is aware of the planning delays, and that he has asked his department to examine ways in which some of those delays may be overcome. Has the Minister given the Department a deadline by which it is to report on these matters? Can the Minister tell me now how the Department plans to overcome those delays?

LICENCE FEE COLLECTION

Last year the High Court ruled that the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal could not ask for extra financial documents where it wasn't satisfied that figures presented as a station's gross earnings, were actually a fair reflection of what was going on. Has the government examined simplifying the process by basing licence fees purely on advertising revenue?

If so, when can such a change be anticipated?