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Friday, 29 November 1985
Page: 2616

Senator PUPLICK(3.34) —The Broadcasting and Television Legislation Amendment Bill is the first of two pieces of legislation which the Government is bringing forward to make certain changes in the whole broadcasting regime in Australia. The other piece of legislation-the Broadcasting and Television Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 2)-was introduced into the Senate this morning and undoubtedly we will have an opportunity next week to discuss its provisions. However, it arises mainly with reference to problems which have been found with the powers of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal arising from the Herald and Weekly Times case and from the so-called Saatchi case.

The Broadcasting and Television Legislation Amendment Bill, however, relates primarily to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and to broadcasting in the public domain. There are two parts to this legislation, one dealing with the ABC and the other dealing with certain ministerial powers touching on the power of the Minister to give directions to broadcasters. My colleague Senator Peter Baume has covered all of the matters dealing with the ABC and, given the strictures of time, I do not intend to repeat any of his comments, but will simply endorse what he said about the ABC and say that the Opposition supports the proposals in the legislation which touch upon the establishment of subsidiary companies and joint ventures for the marketing of ABC products, for the appointment of unattached officers under the Public Service Act 1922 and for the forfeiture of office for ABC staff in certain circumstances.

There is only one part of the legislation dealing with the ABC to which I make very brief reference. That is, that the legislation provides for a formalisation of the position of staff elected director. The first staff elected director's position on the Board of the Corporation was established by the Whitlam Government in 1975 and Mr Marius Webb served in that position. The incoming Fraser Government decided that it did not support the continuation of the position of a staff elected director and the position lapsed. Indeed, the Dix Committee of Review of the Australian Broadcasting Commission did not support but actually opposed the creation of a staff elected directorship. However, in 1983 the Hawke Government re-established the position and Mr Molomby was elected to the position and, in the course of last week, he was re-elected for a full term.

Because of the hour, I do not think it appropriate to go into the difficulties which have been faced in terms of Mr Molomby's action against the Board or his relationship with Mr Whitehead. I simply say that is a matter that could well have been handled better by both sides. A little more discussion at Board level and a little more sensitivity between Mr Molomby and Mr Whitehead would have spared the ABC a good many problems and a great deal of difficulty.

The second part of the legislation relates to the power of the Minister essentially to issue prohibitions against the broadcasting of certin material. Section 77 of the principal Act provides:

Subject to this Act, the Minister may, from time to time, by telegram or in writing, prohibit the Commission from broadcasting or televising any matter, or matter of any class or character, specified in the notice, or may require the Commission to refrain from broadcasting or televising any such matter.

Progressively, we have been going through this Act removing prohibitions on broadcasters. In 1983 we passed the Broadcasting and Television Amendment (Election Blackout) Act which did away with the blackout on the reporting of material germane to an election. We are now dealing with section 77, which has been used on only a few occasions. In 1943 the ABC was prohibited from broadcasting barrier positions in horse races. In 1946 it was prohibited from broadcasting radio talks relating to venereal disease. That is actually an instruction which is still in force. It has never been repealed, but certainly it has also never prohibited the ABC from discharging its proper responsibility in that regard. In 1963 the Menzies Government engaged in an act of overt political censorship when it prohibited the ABC from broadcasting an interview with Monsieur Bidault, a former French Premier who was then an opponent of President de Gaulle. That caused some degree of controversy. Again, in 1980, the Fraser Government failed to obtain an injunction to restrain publication of the substance of information about American military involvement in Australia, relations with Indonesia and other foreign affairs matters, but did later obtain an injunction to prevent breach of copyright in certain official documents. I think it is a good thing that the Government is now getting around to removing the power of Ministers to censor the broadcasts of the ABC. That is something which is supported by the Opposition. It is, however, a pity that the other side of that, section 64, has not been addressed. Section 64 of the principal Act provides:

Subject to this Act, the Commission shall broadcast or televise free of charge from all the national broadcasting stations or national television stations, or from such of them as the Minister specifies, any matter the broadcasting or televising of which is directed by the Minister in writing as being in the national interest.

We have removed the power of the Minister to prohibit the ABC from broadcasting certain matters. We have not removed the power of the Minister to direct the ABC to broadcast certain matters. I think in some ways it is a pity because if we trust the judgment of the Board sufficiently to remove the prohibition, to remove the censorship provisions, we should trust the Board sufficiently to allow a determination of what is in the national interest and what is not in the national interest in terms of matters which it is required to broadcast. Nevertheless, that is not addressed in the Bill we now have before us.

As my colleague Senator Peter Baume said, in the Committee stage I will be drawing attention to the need the Opposition sees to amend sub-section (2) of section 116. I will deal with this in Committee. Section 116 goes to the prohibition on this occasion of the dramatisation of political events occurring in Australia within five years of their having occurred, the classic case being the television program The Dismissal, which could not be broadcast until five years had elapsed after the events of November 1975. But there are other examples. This has become entirely clouded and muddied by the presence of great satirists. How one can say, for instance, that Mike Carlton's puppets or Max Gillies's show does not constitute a satirisation of current political events is hard to understand. They certainly constitute a satirisation.

The law is stupid to provide that an event may be satirised the day after it occurs but that it may not be dramatised until five years after it has occurred. We will be moving an amendment in the Committee stage to delete section 116, sub-section (2) so that that prohibition is removed altogether. I might say that that is in accordance with the recommendation made by the Joint Select Committee on Electoral Reform. Indeed, it will be interesting to test the Government's bona fides in this matter because the Minister for Communications, Mr Duffy, put out a Press release on 24 July 1985 in which he said:

A ban on radio and television stations dramatising political events occurring during the immediate preceding period of five years is to be lifted by the Federal Government.

That Press release was put out in July. The Government had not yet done it. We are now introducing legislation in order to assist Mr Duffy to give effect to the statement he made and we expect the Government to assist us in this regard.

In the interests of time, I think, I should conclude my remarks at this stage. I wish to indicate that, upon the passage of the second reading of this Bill, we will formally move, under Standing Order 196A, for the reference of this Bill to a committee. I have no doubt that if the Australian Democrats indicate that they are not in support of that move the matter could easily be resolved, and it would not necessarily be something we would want to press to a division. However, it is the sort of Bill which in the normal course of events, if the Parliament were not being rushed into producing this legislation in order to fit in with the legislative timetable, would be fit and proper for a Senate standing committee to investigate. The Opposition supports those sections of the legislation to which I have referred. We will move our amendments in the Committee stage and we look forward to receiving the support of the Senate for those amendments.