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Wednesday, 18 May 1960

Mr DAVIDSON (Dawson) (PostmasterGeneral) (2:53 AM) . - Mr. Speaker, I wish to speak to the amendment. Last night, in leading the debate on this bill for the Labour Party the Leader of the Opposition (Mr. Calwell) used the measure as a vehicle to vent that particular hate which he always seems to exhibit when talking about broadcasting or television - a hate against the boards that are responsible for the administration of those services. He used the bill also to peddle his particular theme - the nationalization of broadcasting and television. It is just as well for us to realize that that is still the objective of the Leader of the Opposition and no doubt, in this matter at any rate, he would receive the support of those who sit behind him. He admitted quite frankly that he had never liked the legislation that set up this dual system of broadcasting and television. It was perfectly obvious that, should he ever again get into power, the commercial service which we have built up would be in danger of being wiped out and the television service would be in danger of nationalization.

He said that the Opposition would prefer a government monopoly. Let us be quite clear on the point. We believe in neither a government monopoly nor a commercial monopoly. This bill is directed to the prevention of any possibility of a commercial monopoly developing and yet I find it very hard to understand the attitude of some Opposition speakers to-night. The Leader of the Opposition, the honorable member for Kingston (Mr. Galvin) and several others have referred to the danger of commercial television getting into the hands of the big newspaper interests and so on, and yet they are indicating their intention to vote against a measure which would obviously prevent any such monopoly from developing. That is completely irresponsible and inconsistent. It is inconsistent, even for the Labour Opposition, which attempts to make a virtue of inconsistency.

In the case submitted by some Opposition speakers there is another point to which I wish to direct attention. I heard with surprise - -almost amazement - that it was being contended that the Australian Broadcasting Control Board was responsible for this bill, that in some manner it had drafted the bill and had got the Government to bring it down in order to help the board out of its difficulties. That is a fantastic suggestion. I advise the House that the Broadcasting Control Board had nothing whatsoever to do with either the inception, the initiation or the development of this bill. It is a bill produced by the Government, as the result of the experience gained in the last four years from the development of television.

Then the Leader of the Opposition put forward an extraordinary proposal. He said that he wanted to move an amendment to the second reading motion. He had previously - and other Opposition members have since followed him - roundly condemned the Australian Broadcasting Control Board and then, in his amendment, he put a strange responsibility on this board, of which he professes to have little opinion. I think that not many members in this chamber have realized the fact. The amendment reads -

That consideration of the bill be deferred until after the presentation to the Parliament of a report from the Broadcasting Control Board on its provisions . . .

Those are the provisions of the bill which we are putting forward. He then suggests that the bill should be referred to the Australian Broadcasting Control Board, of which the Opposition speaks in such very poor terms, for a report - on its provisions with particular reference to the practical effects of those provisions purporting to limit or restrict control of companies owning or operating broadcasting or television stations.

What an amazing proposal, coming even from the Labour Opposition, that a bill of any sort should be referred to a board and for the board to report to the Government on the provisions which the Government has put in the bill. It is an utterly fantastic suggestion and I do not think the Opposition realized what it was doing in the matter.

I pointed out just now that this bill arises from nearly four year's experience of television, of the movements in shareholdings which have taken place in licenced companies, of the companies' financial agreements which have been worked out from time to time and of certain other developments which we felt would inevitably lead to monopoly control of this medium of communication. Experience has shown us that according to a legal interpretation of " control ", one person can control two television licences in Australia. We say that is proper and the position is not altered in any way in this bill. At the same time, according to a legal interpretation of the provision dealing with the control and ownership of licences it would be possible for that person or company, already controlling or owning two television stations to hold 50 per cent, of the shares of any number of licences and still not be in control of more than two licences. That, in brief, is the position regarding the bill as it stands and it is that provision which we have set out to rectify. Yet some speakers complain because we have taken action to define " control " as consisting of the holding of more than 15 per cent, of the voting power of a company.

Mr Bryant - In a third station.

Mr DAVIDSON - Exactly. We are not altering the right of any person or company to control two stations. We think that is a fair proposition for the Government to provide. Every one knows that the ownership of 50 per cent, of shares, or just under 50 per cent., must constitute control. That is as matters stand at present. The Government has realized, further, that there are other methods of control which can be quite as effective as shareholding or voting control. There are methods such as financial agreements which can be entered into between individuals or companies, which would give, in an indirect way, control of a company that was holding a television licence. There are also directorships which could be utilized for the purpose of control, and there could also be programme control. So this bill, which deals with all those possible methods of control, is, as I say, a sincere attempt to halt the development of monopoly control while there is still time.

I say this deliberately because I want it to be understood that there has not been that development towards monopoly control which occurred in the early stages of broadcasting, and which placed my predecessor, in the early stages of his occupancy of this portfolio, in the position of having to confer for quite a considerable period with various companies, and get them to cut down shareholdings and sell out some of their interests for the purpose of holding in control the monopoly which was developing in broadcasting. We set out to halt any such development in television before it reached that stage.

In the debate last night and this morning I have noticed that there has been little criticism of the first three methods of control which we set out to deal with - that is to say, the shareholding, the financial agreements and the directorships. But there has been some considerable criticism of the provisions that we have put in this amending bill to ensure that there can be no cornering of programmes. The Government firmly believes that if that avenue for evasion of our proposals was left open, then the other attempts that we have made, with respect to shareholding, directorships and so on, would be quite ineffective, because an effective and adequate control could be exercised, by the holder of one licence, over other stations, simply through the process of programme control.

It has been said that this method of programme control is now unnecessary because there is evidence that ample programme material is now available. I am prepared to concede that there is, to the best of my information, more programme material readily available than there was six or nine months ago. But I am also fully aware of the fact that at least one of the reasons why that is so is that the Government made it plain, in respect of the investigations that it was about to carry out into the extension of television into country areas, that it would require the Australian Broadcasting Control Board to inquire into the availability of programmes, and it made this one of the board's terms of reference. Certain practices were being indulged in at about that time. I know this was so although there was no admission of it in black and white; people do not put that sort of thing on paper. Persons holding licences were going round the country, telling intending applicants that unless those existing licensees gained some form of control over the stations - assuming the applicants were successful in obtaining licences - those stations would not get programmes. I know that this practice was being indulged in, and I say that it is not so widespread now, simply because it became evident that the Government would not tolerate it.

I say, therefore, that although there may not be a great need for this provision just now, the Government still considers it wise to retain the provision, to ensure that the situation which was developing six or nine months ago will not develop at some time in the future.

I want to point out that the Government has gone to considerable pains in this matter to protect the proper rights of the owners of television films or programmes, because the Government acknowledges the fact that a person who has taken the trouble to acquire a programme has some right in regard to it, and that those rights should not be infringed.

Sir Wilfrid Kent Hughes - What rights have you with regard to price-fixing?

Mr DAVIDSON - The honorable member knows very well that we have nol any rights with regard to price-fixing. We acknowledge the rights of the owners of films and other programmes, but we also recognize the fact that there is a responsibility on the Government, which has provided an applicant with a licence, to ensure that the benefits of such a licence are as widely spread as possible, and that through some form of programme monopoly the control of licences or stations should not rest with only a few. For that reason, and in order to protect the proper rights of the owners, the AttorneyGeneral (Sir Garfield Barwick) and I went very carefully into this matter, and we set out to devise a list of qualifications which would exempt the owner of a programme from being required to make that programme available on fair and reasonable terms to another applicant. Those qualifications will exempt the owner if a person makes an application for the purchase of a film.

I think it was the honorable member for Chisholm (Sir Wilfrid Kent Hughes; who asked where this would lead. The position is this: These provisions are drawn in such a way as to deal with television only. There is nothing in the bill which suggests that the provisions would apply to a film like " The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll " or programmes of that kind which have been mentioned. The provisions of this legislation have no relation to some of the other matters that have been mentioned.

Sir Wilfrid Kent Hughes - Why not?

Mr DAVIDSON - Because, for one thing, the Government is dealing with people to whom it has granted licences for television, and it is dealing with television programmes solely. It is within the competency of the Government, as it has given out a licence, to ensure that programmes, which are essential to the success of the licence, are available to the person who has been granted the licence.

As to the provision for a board such as the Australian Broadcasting Control Board to act as arbiter in the case of a refusal to make a programme available on just and reasonable terms, it has been suggested that this is of such basic importance that there should be some provision for an appeal against the determination of such board.

As I indicated this morning, and as has been stated to a few persons privately, the Government has had a look at this matter and is prepared to agree to the inclusion of a right of appeal to a competent court. The appeal would be available to the owner of a film in the event of the board giving an order that he should make the film available. There will be no right of appeal for the applicant whose application is refused; the right of appeal will exist to protect the owner.

While dealing with the amendments, I should also announce that it has been suggested that there should be some protection for the invested capital of licensees who have been given a licence, who operate it for some time, and who, for some reason or other, have the licence suspended, and who are in danger of having the licence revoked. In the act at present there are provisions governing the actions of the Minister in such cases, but there is no right of appeal against a decision of the Minister that a licence should be revoked. We are including two amendments to the clause dealing with this matter. One is to the effect that the Minister cannot act in the revocation of a licence unless the board, having investigated the case, actually reports to the Minister and recommends that the licence be revoked. The second amendment provides for the right of appeal for a licensee to a competent board. These amendments are now in draft, and I expect to have them ready to submit to honorable members at the committee stage.

I want to refer briefly now to some of the various points that have been made during the debate. The honorable member for Farrer (Mr. Fairbairn) spoke, as he has done previously, on the need for the extension of television to country areas. The honorable member for Moreton (Mr. Killen), who supported the honorable member for Farrer, said the development of television in his opinion had been phased the wrong way. While I agree that it is highly desirable to get television into the country areas as soon as possible, I cannot agree that the method adopted by the Government in developing and extending television has been wrong. As was stated at the beginning, the Government adopted a policy of introducing television in a relatively small way in the larger city areas where there is a great volume of capital and large viewing audiences giving the new companies all the opportunities to develop successfully and gain knowledge and knowhow which would be available and valuable to other licensees following them. If it had been the other way about and we had started in the smaller country areas, we would not have got nearly so far as we have, either technically or in the programme field. I believe the country areas will find that they will benefit greatly from the way this matter has been tackled by the Government.

Mr SPEAKER - Order! The Minister's time has expired.

Motion (by Mr. Killen) put -

That the Postmaster-General be granted an extension of time.

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