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Tuesday, 18 May 1993
Page: 672

Senator SCHACHT (Minister for Science and Small Business and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Science) (10.33 a.m.) —I apologise to the Senate for not being here from the start of the debate. I was caught short by the efficiency of the Senate business this morning. After the Senate's performance over the past two weeks, I thought we would be lucky if the second reading debate was resumed by midnight. I apologise particularly to Senator Ferguson, who has already spoken in this second reading debate.

  In speaking on behalf of the Government, I am pleased to note that, apart from a couple of clauses that relate to one issue, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Amendment Bill 1992 [1993] is being accepted by the Opposition and the Australian Democrats. I would like to make a couple of points about the issues raised by Senator Ferguson and Senator Bourne. First of all, I can count as well as anybody, and the Democrats and the Opposition combined have the numbers to carry the amendment. I want to put on the record the Government's view about the issues they raised with regard to the amendment.

   In 1991, after a review process involving extensive consultation with all stakeholders, the Government decided to establish the National Transmission Agency, NTA, as a separate body to provide, operate and maintain the Commonwealth's network of transmission facilities. The Government decided that this was the best means of ensuring the effective delivery of all national broadcasting services, not only ABC services but also SBS television and radio services and parliamentary broadcasting services.

   The NTA was established under an administrative arrangement as a separate cost centre within the Department of Transport and Communications to operate on a more commercial basis, using accrual accounting to fully disclose the costs of operation of the transmission network, with commercially oriented performance targets under a resource agreement negotiated with the Minister for Finance (Mr Willis)—I must say that it is no mean feat to achieve that outcome with the ministry of finance—and with obligations to tender work for the transmission system to a number of service providers, not just Telecom as in the past. These arrangements were established on an interim basis for 18 months and were designed to achieve greater economy and efficiency of service delivery, together with better information on costs of operating the transmission system.

  At the end of the trial period the Government will review whether the NTA should be converted to a government business enterprise. The ABC amendment Bill before us would amend the Broadcasting Act 1983 to remove the obligation for the Minister to transfer to the ABC transmitters used for the purpose of broadcasting ABC programs to the public, which is an important element of the Commonwealth's transmission facilities.

  Why do we want to amend the Act now? The existing provision is inconsistent with current Government policy and longstanding administrative arrangements. This anomaly was noted in Auditor-General's report No. 22 of 1989-90 on national broadcasting transmission facilities which recommended that arrangements for the ownership of, and the funding of costs associated with, the ABC and SBS transmission facilities be clarified and that future arrangements be consistent with all the relevant legislative provisions.

  The Government subsequently considered the arrangements and agreed to establish the NTA and to amend the legislation to align with its policy and actual practice. I would emphasise that the amendment does not pre-empt any future decision about ownership of the transmitters. Under the terms of the amendment the transmitters could continue to be operated by the NTA or, alternatively, the national broadcasters could be funded to arrange their own transmitting facilities. The Bill specifically enables the ABC to own and operate transmission facilities if the Government provides it with funds for that purpose.

  To remain with the current legislative provisions would be inconsistent with arrangements approved by Parliament in 1991 for the SBS in the Special Broadcasting Service Act 1991. The SBS has not made any criticisms of these arrangements.

  Transfer of transmitters to the ABC in isolation from other transmission facilities would result in a split responsibility for transmission infrastructure. To transfer all transmission facilities to the ABC would not take account of the reality that these facilities are also used for the broadcast of SBS and the parliamentary service, as well as commercial and community broadcasters and radio communications operators.

  Finally, will the NTA review consider transfer of ownership to the ABC? Senator Ferguson and Senator Bourne specifically raised this issue in their remarks. The Government has decided that, within 18 months after the set-up of the National Transmission Agency, the situation should be reviewed to establish whether the National Transmission Agency should become a government business enterprise. The review will also consider whether funds should be transferred to the ABC and SBS to pay for transmission services. If the Government concludes that it is not appropriate to establish the NTA as a GBE, it will consider alternative arrangements.

  That is the background for the Government's view about the transmission facilities with the NTA. I think it is quite a reasonable proposal. It certainly does not close off the option, which I know the ABC management has been concerned about, of the facilities being transferred to the ABC. I must point out to the Senate that the facilities are not used purely for the ABC; those facilities are also used for the SBS and other bits and pieces. In the end I do not think that some of those other users would automatically welcome having the ABC run their transmission facilities. We would then be back here arguing whether there should be further amendments to split those transmission facilities off to the SBS or to the other users.

  In my view, I do not think the Senate should be greatly concerned that there is a hidden agenda. Maybe the criticism could be that for a long time it has been in the Act that the facilities would be transferred to the ABC. Those opposite may say that the Government has hastened very slowly to reach that outcome. I know that is the view of ABC management.

  I ask the Senate to consider that the Government is very open about this process and that there is no hidden agenda. My personal view—and I have had some interest in broadcasting matters for a long time—is that there is a good case for the ABC to have control of its own transmission facilities and the same principle to apply to SBS. Each should take responsibility for those facilities. It is not a one way street.

  If an organisation is running the transmission facilities then it will need to manage them efficiently. It cannot whinge and whine and if something goes wrong somebody will bail it out. It could be argued that the ABC and the SBS in running their own transmission facilities need the discipline to run those facilities and if they get it wrong they have to take the consequences. I understand that argument.

  I believe that the review which is under way at the moment and will continue for another 18 months will not unduly cripple the ABC, the SBS or the other operators. I think it will give us an opportunity to make a more considered decision. I put that view in closing the debate on the second reading, and I ask the Senate to consider the view that the Government has no hidden agenda and it is not an unreasonable proposition that we are putting.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.

  Bill read a second time.

  The Bill.