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Friday, 29 November 1985
Page: 2614

Senator PETER BAUME(3.19) —The legislation before the Senate, the Broadcasting and Television Legislation Amendment Bill 1985, has been in the Senate since, I think, the end of the autumn session and we have been waiting for this debate for some six months. The legislation makes five changes to the operation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It may be an unfashionable view to put, but I would like to place on record my belief that the ABC, as a broadcaster, is a great national institution. As I look back over my own radio listening lifetime it seems that I owe an awful lot to the ABC for its contribution over a number of years. I think about its coverage of sport, which is unequalled by any other body; its dedication over the years to giving people an opportunity to hear classicial music of good quality; the fact that there is good drama available through the ABC; the fact that it has had an outstanding news service over the years; the fact that it ran and sponsored the youth concerts which were so important to many of us; the fact that it has had an interest in orchestras throughout Australia; and, not least, the fact that it has some specialist programs which are held in the highest repute, and I think, for example, of Robin Williams's Science Show as the kind of outstanding program one finds in this country only on the ABC. Any chance to discuss this great body with its history has to be taken against the background that one is examining a body with a record of achievement and contribution to this nation-to its daily life, to its intellectual life, to its cultural life and to its sporting life.

The five changes which are to be made by this legislation to the operation of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation include four changes which widen the operational capabilities of the ABC. Firstly, these will enable the ABC to establish subsidiary companies and joint ventures to undertake authorised business activities. Secondly, they will enable the staff-elected director on the board of the Corporation to have this or her position formalised within the statute. Thirdly, they will allow the ABC to appoint officers as unattached officers in line with the provisions of the Public Service Act. Fourthly, they will cause ABC staff to forfeit their offices in the same circumstances as are provided for under the Public Service Act. One thinks of the circumstances of people seeking election to public office and such matters. Fifthly, the Bill will repeal the power of the Minister for Communications to prohibit the broadcasting or televising of any matter. We are told that this will not prevent the operation of section 118 of the principal Act which will continue to make it an offence to broadcast or to render for broadcasting matters which are blasphemous, indecent or obscene. The Opposition does not oppose the removal of that censorship which probably posed an unnecessary threat to the independence of the ABC.

It is claimed that the operational changes will equip the ABC better to establish and effect a profitable operation within the limits of the definition of authorised business which is confined to the current range of the Corporation's permitted activities. So the Opposition does not oppose this legislation. We see it for what it is-an attempt to assist the ABC in the functions it undertakes, to allow it to carry out these functions more effectively and in a more contemporary fashion.

But it is impossible to consider any legislation which relates to the ABC without pausing, at least for a moment, to observe some of the current difficulties which the ABC faces and which it has faced. The changes in this Bill must be assessed against the background of the ABC's current operation, management and performance. We must look closely at both its management and performance to ask ourselves how effective the ABC is today in carrying out the functions which it has carried out historically and how good is its record of performance over the last couple of years.

It is possible that 1985 may prove to have been a watershed year for public broadcasting in Australia. Whether it is justified or not, the ABC has been under sustained attack for most of 1985. Interestingly, it has been under attack from groups on the left of politics and groups on the right of politics.

Senator Georges —Not from me.

Senator PETER BAUME —I am really grateful to hear that Senator Georges is not attacking the ABC this year or any other year. It has been under sustained attack not only from the left and right of politics but also from the Government. It has been under attack from the Opposition and from the general public. Whether or not these attacks are justified, we have to examine some of the difficulties which face the ABC to ask ourselves what is the strength of some of the expressions of concern and what, if anything, needs to be done to allay those concerns.

There has been a real cut of 3 per cent in the ABC's budget for this financial year. This is the accumulation of a funding run-down experienced over the last 10 years under governments, I hasten to acknowledge, of both persuasions. It is a fact that the Minister for Finance (Senator Walsh), the Treasurer (Mr Keating) and other Ministers who control the economic policies of the Government have demonstrated contempt for the Corporation. This was climaxed when the Treasurer made a recent statement that the ABC `would not get another zack out of the Government'. For the benefit of those modern honourable senators, I must tell them that the word `zack' is an archaic term referring to currency which was in operation during my younger days. He went on to say that the Corporation `only seemed capable of whingeing about its own causes'. That was a public outburst by the Treasurer of the nation about the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I would have thought that the Government would have plenty of avenues within government through which such views could have been conveyed. That a Treasurer would make such a stinging attack upon the ABC is unusual.

We have to ask: Why have so many attacks been mounted upon the ABC? We have had the unedifying experience this year of one director in the Corporation taking the chief executive and the rest of the Corporation to court to establish whether it is operating properly at board level. Is public broadcasting in Australia destined to wander down the same path that has made it virtually irrelevant in the United States and Canada? That would be a tragedy.

I started off by emphasising the important unique central role which the ABC has exercised in this country to remind honourable senators that for many Australians it is the only medium available to them. They depend upon it. We cannot imagine welcoming a situation in which public broadcasting could continue under attack from within the Government and become in any way irrelevant. Will it be forced to accept commercial sponsorship? Will it be forced to accept advertising? Will it fade into the background or has the Government plans to make sure that the operation of the board, the officers and the ABC itself, will be able to restore public confidence and put an end to many of the attacks which have been taking place?

I want to see an ABC which offers programs of the quality to which I was accustomed. In our household we chose the ABC television news at night. We no longer do so. I would like to be able to do so again. Why is it that what was the best quality, the preferred medium, is no longer the best and preferred medium? Is it just that the commercial channels have found some secret, or has the ABC, perhaps courageously, embarked upon an experiment which has alienated part of its traditional audience? For example, I would like to know that I can continue to find high quality music if that is what I want to hear. I am prepared to use FM but I want to be able to get that from the ABC.

I cannot try to suggest to the experts in the Corporation exactly what they should do with its programming but I believe that it needs to remember the goal of comprehensiveness, excellence-I particularly stress excellence because many people worry that its excellence has suffered in the last year-innovation and some experimentation in the operations of the Corporation. Its programs still need to extend our range of ideas and experience. We still need from the Corporation programs with a significant intellectual thrust. It is not good enough for the Corporation to want to follow the anti-intellectual bias that is evident in so many of the commercial programs. I want the ABC to continue to give an intellectual lead which will help to influence opinion makers throughout the country. Of course, we can always argue then about the quality or the balance in such programs but I want the programs to be there. I do not care whether it is sport, news, current affairs, drama, children's programs or even gardening news, the ABC's programs must still project a special quality. They must be free of bias and free of the constraints of sectional interests but they must be high quality, above all. They must be seen by the public as valuable. There is no doubt that in the last year hordes of traditional ABC viewers have abandoned the Corporation and no longer look to it as their first choice for their viewing or listening.

A former senator in this place, and now retired judge, the Hon. James McClelland, said of the ABC that `it should attract most Australians at some time, not some mythical mass audience'. I endorse the words of James McClelland. I want to see the ABC continue to attract most Australians at some time and to forget the job which it cannot do, that is, the pursuit of a mythical mass audience. If it does that, it will lose its soul. Past surveys show that in previous years the ABC has been able to attract a mixed audience reflecting all sections of society.

I could develop further this whole theme about the operations of the Corporation and of its broadcasting and televising in the past year, but many of the travails are only too well known and I am looking to them to be overcome. If a battle develops as to who is to run the ABC, whether it is the Board of Directors and the Chief Executive Officer or whether it is the staff of the ABC, there is no doubt where I stand. The Board of the Corporation, appointed by the Government, should run the Corporation and should be answerable for what it does. If its members need to know whether they will get support if they take certain actions, let me say that they will get support, certainly from some of us, if they go out and do their job, even if it brings them into conflict with some of the more militant members of the staff.

It is necessary in the Committee stage of this legislation for certain amendments to be moved. My colleague Senator Puplick will be offering to the Senate an amendment on a very significant matter, which is to omit sub-section (2) of section 116. I shall leave it to my colleague to argue this later, but it is entirely consistent with the unanimous recommendations of a joint select committee of this Parliament. I hope that, when my colleague Senator Puplick argues this, he will attract support from the Parliament.

In Committee I shall be moving one other amendment on behalf of the Opposition. It relates to the time within which officers in the Department of Health may delay the approval or non-approval of certain advertisements which have to be submitted before they can be televised. At present there is no time limit. We have had representations from industry about delays that have occurred. We are not objecting to the fact that the approval should be obtained from the Department of Health. We are simply saying what is a reasonable maximum time for the Department of Health to have to approve such advertisements, and our amendment will suggest what that appropriate time should be.

We welcome the fact that this legislation has now come before the Senate for its approval and for determination. It has waited far too long. There is no real reason why we could not have done it in the first day or so of the Budget session, when we sat around for some time doing very little. If this legislation offers new strength, new options and new support for the ABC and its operations, it will have the Opposition's support. But within the constraints which I have laid down and the caveats which I have laid down about the necessity for the ABC to perform with efficiency and effectiveness, and for the ABC to continue to inspire Australians as it has over the years as a first-rate broadcasting and television service, which is not trying to be a populist commercial channel-let us leave that to the commercials-let us keep the ABC for what it is: A great national treasure.