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Tuesday, 5 November 1996
Page: 5059

Senator ROBERT RAY —My question is directed to the Minister for Communications and the Arts. Minister, have you written to Mr Brian Johns, Managing Director of the ABC, asking the ABC either to delay or abandon its TV coverage of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras; why shouldn't Australia's gay community have their major social event carried on the national broadcaster; since when has the minister for communications had the right to interfere in the program decisions of the ABC; and have you raised this matter with Mr Donald McDonald, the Chairman of the ABC?

Senator ALSTON —I did write to Brian Johns on 22 October. I wrote to him in terms of an inquiry, not in any shape or form seeking to impose a personal view, and certainly recognising that programming is the sole responsibility of the ABC. I did this on the basis of about 60 letters that have been received by my department since the beginning of the year, most of those calling for the program to be taken off air completely but a number of others simply asking for it to be rescheduled.

The purpose of my letter was simply to inquire and to seek advice on behalf of constituents and members of the general public who choose to write to me on the issue so that I can properly inform them about the current state of play. There is nothing exceptional about that; there is nothing unusual. Indeed, I would have thought it is a dereliction of duty not to ensure that the minister is fully informed about decisions that are of consequence and of interest to those who write in. That is simply what I did.

I asked Mr Johns to advise me whether or not the ABC had any plans to take the program off air or to reschedule it to a later time slot. In that context, I do not think anyone would construe that as me somehow leaning on the ABC or trying to tell them what ought to happen.

Senator Neal —Will you table the letter?

Senator ALSTON —I am happy to table the letter. I mean, the letter consists of three paragraphs. It reads:

I write concerning the telecast by the ABC of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. I have received a significant number of complaints regarding the screening of the Mardi Gras, copies of which I have referred to you.

As you would be aware, in 1994 a large number of parliamentarians including myself—

and, I might add, including a number of people from your side of the chamber—

signed a petition requesting that the ABC re-schedule the program to a later timeslot than 8.30 p.m.

Given the significant level of community concern over the years, could you advise whether the ABC is proposing to reconsider telecasting the event or at least broadcasting it in a later timeslot?

Quite clearly, this was not seeking to impose any personal view and was not trying to argue the case.

Senator Bob Collins —Oh, no!

Senator ALSTON —If it had been, I would have been writing to him on day one, wouldn't I? I would have been making sure that they understood that we did have a view on the matter. It was only after I received a significant number of letters from a number of people on the issue that I thought it was desirable to inform myself and to take the matter forward so that I could properly respond.

Senator ROBERT RAY —I direct a supplementary question to the Minister for Communications and the Arts. I almost got the impression that you were writing to them on a constituent matter as a senator from Victoria. Do you see a problem or any potential problem in a misunderstanding at the ABC when the minister writes rather than you in your role as a senator for Victoria; secondly, can the minister indicate on how many other occasions—or was there any occasion—you have written to the ABC about programming matters on the basis of letters sent to you as minister for communications?

Senator ALSTON —I do not think people were writing to me as a senator for Victoria; they were writing to me as the minister.

Senator Bolkus —There you go.

Senator ALSTON —There you go, that is right. Out you go. They were asking me what the position was. In fact, many of them were arguing in very trenchant terms about their opposition to the issue. I have sent on each of those letters—that is the standard practice. They have each gone to Mr Johns individually. I cannot tell you off hand how many other letters. I would be prepared to go—

Senator Robert Ray —Have a guess. None?

Senator ALSTON —No. There have been a large number of complaints about three or four programs in particular. I think question time was one of them. They were appalled at your attitude to Telstra. But I have generally ignored that because I thought the point had been well made. There have been a number of programs on which the ABC has actually indicated to me that, with hindsight, they thought their approach had been inappropriate and they have apologised. (Time expired)