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Friday, 29 November 1985
Page: 2618


Senator VIGOR(3.44) —The Australian Democrats will be supporting the Broadcasting and Television Legislation Amendment Bill 1985. I support all the remarks that were made by Senator Peter Baume earlier in the debate about the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Indeed, we will be supporting him totally in trying to get this Bill through as fast as possible. I am very surprised at Senator Puplick's statement that he wishes to refer this Bill to a committee, which would delay it even further. In fact, we have had this Bill on the Notice Paper now since May and there has been plenty of time to refer it to a committee.


Senator Puplick —Had it come up for debate.


Senator VIGOR —I believe that anybody could have sought leave to have the Bill referred to a committee. I believe that this is yet another instance, similar to the one in the transport legislation, where the Opposition at the last minute is using delaying actions, although this does not seem to square with a number of its other actions.

The Bill is very important because the ABC needs it. The ABC needs to be put on a better footing to pursue its associated business ventures, such as the ABC shops, and its production ventures. The Bill also removes the possibility of the Minister having censorship powers, as has been stated by Senator Puplick. It formalises the position of the staff-elected member of the ABC Board, which I think is admirable, and it puts this into legislation. It brings certain ABC staff provisions into line with Public Service practice, which again I think is very important for the ABC. For this reason we hope the Bill will be passed during the current session and will not have to wait for another three months. Two of the measures contained in the legislation are very significant to us because my colleague Senator Chipp, during the debate on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Bill in 1983, called for their implementation, particularly those measures removing ministerial censorship and the formalisation of the position of the staff-elected member of the ABC Board. Had time pressure not been on us at this stage of the debate, we intended to move an amendment to clause 5. Clause 5 does not state how a casual vacancy for the staff-elected director or deputy staff-elected director can be filled. However, we have received an assurance from the Minister's office that this matter will be covered by the regulations under this Act. I point out that it is much more usual for provisions such as this to be in legislation but, because of the time constraints, we will not be proceeding with our amendment.

Both this Bill and the amendment that Senator Puplick is to move raise important matters. In a dictatorship the flow of information is restricted to ensure that only one viewpoint-that of the ruling regime-is heard. In a democracy the Government must ensure that information is freely available and that a diversity of views are heard, including opinions critical of the government of the day. I refer to provisions such as those in section 78 of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act and section 77 of the Broadcasting and Television Act, which give the Minister power to censor the broadcast of material which he or she does not consider to be in the national interest. I would not expect to see these provisions in a free country. They are an invitation to blatant political censorship and their repeal by clauses 13 and 16 of this Bill is very much overdue.

Section 116 (2) of the Broadcasting and Television Act provides:

The Commission or a licensee shall not broadcast or televise a dramatization of any political matter which is then current or was current at any time during the last five preceding years.

We believe that that is also an unreasonable restriction. However, during the Committee stage I will explain the history of this matter and I hope to move an amendment to make that one year instead of five years rather than completely getting rid of it. My reasons for this will be explained at that stage. Honourable senators will probably have different views as to whether there should be any restriction at all, and we will have to come to that at the Committee stage.

I would like to look at the concentration of ownership in the Australian media. The proposed changes will not give Australia the media a free society should have. Australian television is dominated by overseas programs and by five networks, three of them controlled by Murdoch, Packer and the Fairfax Herald and Weekly Times media conglomerates. The others, of course, are two national networks. We need to examine the potential of public radio and public television networks to give us some aspect of localism and some aspect of the community talking to itself through television and radio. We already have a strong public broadcasting sector. I will pick up Senator Peter Baume on his statement that the ABC was public broadcasting. I believe there is a recognised public broadcasting sector which is separate from the national broadcasting sector. I wish to point out that that sector is alive and well.

In 1954 the Royal Commission on Television reported that some limitations on the concentration of control of television is necessary in the public interest. Every government since 1954 has agreed with that statement, yet control of commercial television today is as concentrated as it has ever been. One means available to a government to increase the range of information and views available is support for the ABC and Special Broadcasting Service. I recommend this popular course of action.

The measure in this Bill to give the ABC greater independence in its commercial dealings should strengthen the ABC by providing it with another, admittedly small, source of income and should fit in adequately with the Opposition's policy of privatisation to a certain measure. The 1985-86 Budget forced the ABC to consider cutting its Australian productions by 140 hours. This is a tragedy in a country dominated by American and British programs. The latest figures in the 1984-85 annual report of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal shows that Australian drama comprises only 2.8 per cent of all programs shown on ABC television. In fact, only 4 per cent of all programs shown on television, including ABC, SBS and all commercial stations, are Australian-produced dramas. We have a strong industry which needs to be supported. I believe the Government is not doing enough and the ABC is not doing enough to support local Australian industry. What does this do to our view of the world? At least with the ABC, 27 per cent of prime time viewing is taken up with current affairs and information programs. However, the figure for the commercial networks is dismally low at 9 per cent. Some concern has been expressed to me that, by allowing the ABC to run its own commercial operation, the ground is being prepared for the further cut backs in government funding. I sincerely hope that this is not the case. I would appreciate an assurance from the Government during this debate that this is not the Government's intention.


Senator Walsh —What is that?


Senator VIGOR —That the Government has no intention at this stage of cutting back the ABC on its funds, or of merging the ABC with the SBS. A free media cannot be bought on the cheap. If the Government is not willing to pay the price of a strong, independent ABC and SBS, the community eventually will bear the cost.

Finally, I wish to put on the record some concerns expressed to me about the ABC and Aussat. I have found the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) very accepting and very helpful on any type of constructive suggestions. He treats with concern any administrative problems that are brought to his notice. In this case I hope for a response in due course to the following questions: Firstly, will Aussat's third party carriage regulations limit the opportunities for the ABC's subsidiaries and joint venturers to make use of the leased transponder capacity? I think it is extremely important that we know how these commercial subsidiary organisations will be able to make use of the facilities which the ABC has been forced by government policy to lease from Aussat. Secondly, do the contractual arrangements between the ABC and Aussat allow the ABC total jurisdiction over the nature and form of all services transmitted?


Senator Peter Baume —How many questions are there, Senator?


Senator VIGOR —There are three. Thirdly, are any radio transmitters being installed with the 61 earth stations to carry ABC radio via Aussat in areas where the remote area television service is being discontinued? Intelsat carried only television. On 18 December that will be discontinued and people will not be much better off with Aussat unless radio transmitters are associated with the receiving stations. People in those communities in the outback who need this service will generally not have individual homestead and community broadcasting satellite system receivers and, hence, they will be dependent upon the provision of these radio transmitters. This is an extremely important problem for communication in Australia's outlook.