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Friday, 29 November 1985
Page: 2620

Senator WATSON(3.56) —The Broadcasting and Television Legislation Amendment Bill 1985 will enable the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to become a more competitive, efficient and profitable organisation and, therefore, this Bill will receive general support. It enables the ABC to establish subsidiary commercial companies, partnerships and other ventures jointly with the private sector to undertake authorised business activities. By doing so, it will be able to utilise its resources and expertise more effectively and efficiently. To be successful, it must be able to compete in an extremely competitive environment. The public purse supports the ABC with an amount in excess of $400m a year and so the profitability and accountability of the Corporation is of vital importance to the taxpayer.

Recent investigations by the Auditor-General and Estimates Committee C have indicated serious deficiencies within the management and operation of the Corporation. Hopefully legislation such as the Broadcasting and Television Legislation Amendment Bill will go some way towards improving the situation. However, I have some reservations about the Board's capacity to direct the Corporation successfully in the commerical market-place. In the report entitled `The ABC in Review', prepared in 1981, one of the general conclusions stated:

The ABC has been led into changes which have ended nowhere, such as the experiment with access radio; on the other hand, it has remained aloof from other directions of obvious change, such as multicultural broadcasting. It stood on its dignity and independence when pressing priorities cried out for attention. It has tried to maintain an idea of Australian society after that idea has undergone change. Its energies have been sapped by bitter industrial conflict. It has not only slipped from the forefront of change but threatens to be eclipsed by it. The ABC has been slow moving, overgrown, complacent and uncertain of the direction it is heading, despite the efforts of many talented and dedicated people who work for it.

In spite of the fact that changes have been made, the ABC still appears to suffer from a lack of direction and control. At present, because of the restrictions imposed by budget and manpower legislation the ABC is essentially a non-competitive and commercially-orientated environments in our society. The ABC and the taxpayer will ultimately benefit from the establishment of self-supporting subsidiary companies and joint ventures with other business groups. The legislation ensures that the activities engaged in by these new ventures will be authorised business activities; that is, confined to the current range of the Corporation's permitted activites.

This Bill also repeals the power of the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) to prohibit the broadcasting or televising of any matter. While I do have some reservations about this lack of control, I feel that there are sufficient safeguards in the existing legislation to ensure that the public is not offended by broadcast material. In a democratic society freedom of speech must be maintained and be seen to be maintained. In the same manner, political parties must be seen to have no power of veto or censorship over the media. An example of that is Mrs Thatcher vetoing the segment on Northern Ireland on British Broadcasting Corporation television.

Despite the poor image the ABC has in the eyes of commercial radio and television services, it has a very strong listening and viewing audience throughout Australia. In fact, the national population study showed that one in three people over the age of 15 listen most days every week to ABC radio. Furthermore, one in two people watch ABC television most days every week. Ninety-three per cent of Australians turn to the ABC selectively for programs that they particularly want to watch or listen to. Thus the ABC, despite its deficiencies, plays an important part in the lives of most Australians and is therefore accountable not only to parliament but also to the people.

However, while I would rise to speak in support of this particular legislation, I am very strongly opposed to the suggestion of an amalgamation between the ABC and the Special Broadcasting Service. The SBS has proven expertise in meeting and serving the needs of the multicultural community and I for one would not like to see such a unique and important service being swallowed up by the present ABC, which is still coming to terms with its own role in the community and its numerous internal problems. At the moment the SBS is an effective, respected and well supported high technology broadcasting organisation with limited overheads, maximum flexibility and high efficiency. Perhaps it could show the ABC a thing or two. A takeover or amalgamation, as suggested, would destroy the identity, efficiency and unique quality currently provided by the Special Broadcasting Service. I commend parts of this Bill to the Senate.