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Tuesday, 25 June 1996
Page: 2104

Senator BOURNE —My question is directed to the Minister for Communications and the Arts. Does the minister recall his own conclusions, as the Chair of last year's Senate Select Committee on ABC Management and Operations, that `the basic structure of the ABC is sound, the organisation is considerably stronger and more relevant to the Australian community now than it was 10 years ago' and `the ABC is strongly placed to meet the challenges ahead'? Does the minister stand by those conclusions? If so, why is he now attacking the ABC? If the minister does not stand by his own words of last year, why has his attitude changed?

Senator ALSTON —I think it is very important to understand that there is a very big difference between commercialism and operating in a business-like manner. I saw this mistake made by Lindsay Connors, a former deputy chair of the ABC, in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald the other day. It is very important to understand that the ABC is a major national cultural institution which I think all sides of the parliament very much support. What it ought to be is a quality alternative to the commercial sector.

Because you are strongly supportive of the ABC does not mean that you simply allow it to operate in whatever fashion it chooses. Indeed, if you look at what Lindsay Connors had to say, all you needed on the board were people who were intelligent, hard working and, presumably, well motivated. My point is that you want people—indeed, you are required by the ABC act to have people—with the necessary financial and management skills and broadcasting expertise. If you have those sorts of people on board, you are much less likely to go down the dry gulches that the ABC went down in relation to pay TV where, as you would be aware, $6 million was basically thrown away. You know of some of the other exercises that were not successful, such as BNA, where they tried to set up a competitive alternative to the AAP news wire service. You would also be aware of the ABC's efforts in relation to the marketing of D-Cart and, of course, you would know about the ongoing saga of ATV.

All of those exercises tell me, not that the ABC itself is not a very valuable institution, but that the ABC needs to operate in a business-like fashion. It does not mean that you treat the whole of the ABC as a business with a commercial motivation to simply maximise revenue, but it does mean, for example, that if you are getting over $100 million, as they currently are, from ABC enterprises, you do look at whether they are getting the best rate of return on the funds outlaid. If the profit figure is about $6 million, it is a legitimate question to ask whether they might be able to do better by contracting that service out or by looking at other ways of ensuring that their cost structure is adequate for the purpose.

None of that for a moment detracts from the proposition that the ABC is worthy of strong support from all sectors of the community, that it has a valuable role to play. Indeed, it has charter obligations, nebulous as I have said I think they are in some respects. But the fact remains that that is no excuse to simply turn your back on a requirement for any government funded organisation to operate in the most effective and efficient manner possible. We are talking about a $600 million corporation. This is not some mickey mouse outfit where it does not really matter as long as you have got people with good intent. I would have thought you would be interested in value for money. Taxpayers expect us to exercise responsibilities on their behalf, and we do that by ensuring that the ABC has the best possible people there to discharge its responsibilities.

Senator BOURNE —Let me start my supplementary question by reminding the minister that, with regard to the `dry gulches' of pay TV and ATV, the ABC was forced to go down them when this parliament, including the current government, voted for that. When he says that the ABC must act in a business- like fashion, is he saying that the ABC is now not acting in a business-like fashion? What priority does he put on business for the ABC versus honouring their charter and providing a service for all Australians?

Senator ALSTON —As I have made clear time and again, I think section 14 of the ABC act imposes obligations on the government of the day to appoint people with the requisite qualifications. Now you explain to me how someone who gives his occupation as student—as does a former Premier of South Australia who happens to be a board member—possibly qualify under that heading. That is what is important in this regard, that you have people who are going to be there to ensure that the ABC is operated in the best manner possible. I would have thought Senator Bourne would recall that pay TV—it was called part 7 of the Broadcasting Services Act—was actually taken out, referred to a select committee—

Senator Schacht —Who will you support? John Elliott? Ron Walker? Peter Scanlan? All your old mates from Victoria.

Senator ALSTON —Senator Schacht, of course, has only the vaguest notion of all this, even though he was chairman of the committee at the time, but he ought to remember that after it had been examined by that committee it came back to this parliament where it was supported by all sides. In other words, the ABC was then given the ability to go down that path, but that is no reason why it should not operate in a businesslike fashion. (Time expired)