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Thursday, 4 May 1989
Page: 1784

Senator LEWIS(1.14) —On 23 June 1987, the Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, announced the opening of his campaign for the election that he had called because he had seen a political opportunity of being re-elected. He announced that the great agenda for the Hawke Government during its third term would be micro-economic reform. One of the areas where he announced there would be major micro-economic reform was broadcasting. The Prime Minister, in that campaign policy launch, said:

Labor proposes also to reform substantially the Broadcasting Act, rendering this nightmarish piece of legislation simpler, easier to understand and administer and shorn of unnecessary burdens currently suffered by licensees and the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal.

The truth is that, like every other area, there has been no micro-economic reform in the broadcasting area, notwithstanding the rhetoric of the Prime Minister or the grand promises that he made in that speech and subsequently. There has been no micro-economic reform. What we have had in the broadcasting area are insignificant, minor Bills, such as this one-so unimportant that it is debated during a Thursday lunchtime. There will be no discussion about it and no major speeches from the Government about it. The Minister representing the Minister for Transport and Communications in the Senate, Senator Gareth Evans, will not even be present in the chamber while the Bill is being debated, because it is so insignificant.

The Bill fixes up some mistakes to do with the grandfathering clauses in an earlier piece of legislation, the Broadcasting (Ownership and Control) Bill. They are absolutely insignificant and not worthwhile dealing any further with. There are major matters of concern to all who are interested in broadcasting which have not been dealt with by this Government, but have been allowed to lapse.

Let me mention the inaction of the Minister, Mr Willis, who has taken over the portfolio of Transport and Communications. Three months ago I asked for a departmental briefing on a very minor matter that was stage two of the Government's announced national metropolitan radio plan. Every other department that I have ever been involved with has been able to provide me with a briefing within 48 hours. I know that this Department was able to provide me with a briefing within 48 hours because my staff was told that the briefing was ready, but that the Minister wanted to have a look at it before the departmental officer came to speak with me about the matter-as if the departmental officer was going to tell me something of major significance that the Government did not want me to know. The Department was also talking about sending over with the departmental officer an officer from Minister Willis's personal staff. What happened? I had requested the briefing repeatedly. My staff had requested it repeatedly. At one stage we were told that the briefing had been taken by Minister Willis overseas, so that he could consider it while he was there. Glory be! A departmental briefing was requested for a shadow Minister, and the Minister is so reluctant to allow anyone to know what is going on in his department that three months later I still have not received the departmental briefing.

That is an indication of the snail-like pace that this Minister is displaying in relation to the whole of his portfolio. He has been given one of the major portfolios of the Hawke Government-Transport and Communications, an area where micro-economic reform is absolutely essential to the future of this country. This country is going down the drain at the rate of $15 billion a year. Micro-economic reform is the one area where the Government can actually do something to address the issues, and the Government has given the major portfolio to Minister Willis, who is incapable of crawling anywhere at any pace to do anything. It is a disgrace that the Prime Minister does not call him in and remind him of the agenda that the Prime Minister announced in 1987 for bringing in micro-economic reform.

The Broadcasting Ownership and Control Bill (No. 2) 1988, this Bill, was introduced in the other chamber in November last year. The Bill has taken until May this year to get into the Senate and it is absolutely, totally insignificant.

What is the Government doing about the lack of powers of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal as it faces the problem of how it is going to deal with the Bond matter? That is a matter of major importance. What is the Government doing about it? It is doing absolutely nothing. There are no Bills before us, no proposals, no press releases, no statements-nothing. The Government will allow the Broadcasting Tribunal to get further and further along the road, give it no help, force it ultimately either to make the terrible decision it is faced with, or do nothing. The Prime Minister, this Minister and this Government have known about this problem for 18 months. Fifteen to 18 months ago it was mentioned by the Chairman of the Tribunal.

Let me give a practical example. Recently there was an application for the renewal of a television licence for television station BKN in Broken Hill. The question of the adequacy and comprehensiveness of the service was canvassed and the member for the Broadcasting Tribunal who was dealing with the matter found that the service was not adequate and comprehensive. So she found against the television station, but she could do nothing about it other than to revoke the licence. She knew that if she revoked the licence the people of Broken Hill would not have a television service. So what did she do? She had to renew the licence because she was not prepared to deprive the people of Broken Hill of the service. That example has nothing to do with the Bond matter, but it is the sort of problem which the Broadcasting Tribunal is now being confronted with in regard to the Bond matter-and this Government does absolutely nothing. There is not even a press release-not a Bill rushed through the Parliament to give the Tribunal some additional powers to cope with its problem-nothing.

What is the Government doing about audience reach? We know that in the television area at least two networks appear to have exceeded the statutory limitation of 60 per cent of audience reach, and what are those companies to do about it? It appears that they may be forced to divest themselves of some of their licence ownership. Who will suffer? The people who will suffer will be the people of Adelaide because the licences that would most easily be disposed of are the licences for Adelaide. That would mean that there would be a network all around Australia except for Adelaide. The people of Sydney, the people of Melbourne, the people of the other capital cities would be part of the network, but the people of Adelaide would not. They may be able to buy into the network-they may be able to use the network in some way or other-but their companies would have an insignificant input into the nature of the programs being put on the network because they themselves would be so insignificant. So the people of South Australia, the people of Adelaide, are the people who will suffer as a result, again, of this Government's inaction.

The current audience reach limit is 60 per cent, but the coalition policy is to extend it to 100 per cent if the Government does certain things to free up that sector of the broadcasting network. We have said that the Government should allow the introduction of pay and cable television, which it is doing in some respects in a Bill we have before us for consideration at present. It should substantially streamline the television licensing procedure. It should enact cross-media ownership rules between pay and cable television, which it is not doing, and it should order an inquiry by the Tribunal into the issuing of new television licences. We have said that if these things were done we would support a 100 per cent audience reach.

The Government's policy is to extend the audience reach from 60 per cent to 75 per cent, but is the Parliament going to be given the opportunity to consider any of these matters? No, certainly not under Minister Willis. Certainly, in no way under Minister Willis will anything be done which in any way might be controversial or which might bring the matter forward for consideration or debate. Under this Minister nothing is done. Everyone has to remain silent because they are frightened that they are in the run-up to another election. They feel that they are operating in an area where it is best to do nothing. To be seen to do nothing is apparently more acceptable to this Government than to bring any of these matters forward for consideration.

Today the Senate is faced with a minor, insignificant broadcasting Bill dealing with some technical changes to previous legislation. The amendments are of a minor technical nature. They involve no change in the Government's policy. They are irrelevant and uninteresting. That is what the Prime Minister brings forward through his Minister, Minister Willis. That is what the Government brings forward as part of its great agenda for micro-economic reform-the major piece of reform brought about by the Hawke Government during its third term. It is a wimpish piece of legislation that deals with nothing. It is all we have seen as the fruits of the Government's proposed substantial reforms of the Broadcasting Act.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time, and passed through its remaining stages without amendment or debate.