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Thursday, 19 May 1960

Mr WHEELER (Mitchell) .- Mr. Chairman,this is the first time that I have entered into the committee stage of the discussion on the bill. I have only a few brief comments to make on this clause and the succeeding clause 28. [Quorum formed.] I view with mixed feelings the calling of a quorum by the honorable member for Watson (Mr. Cope) because I thought, at one stage, that he was a friend of mine. 1 want to address myself to clause 27 because 1 believe that this clause will eventually prove a splendid example of the isolation of practice from theory. The ramifications of this clause cover many aspects and upon its practical implementation a book might well be written. Elsewhere in the bill, the Government has strained at a gnat but in this clause it easily performs the feat of swallowing a camel. One hesitates to offer an opinion based on commercial experience because here the value of practical experience is somewhat at a discount, lt is a pity that the Government's manner of presenting a bill - not this bill in particular - prevents private members, in their own capacity, from making a useful contribution to proposed legislation, although each private member, in his own right, has some valuable experience to draw upon; otherwise he would not be here.

This clause is designed to cover future activities but it is also aimed at existing ownership. It restricts ownership to two licences in respect of commercial television stations in Australia and goes on to provide that no one person shall hold more than 15 per cent, of the voting power. I think that that is a reasonable attitude. The general requirements for stock exchange listing, for instance, are that shareholdings be well spread and twenty of the largest shareholders collectively must not exercise more than 66 per cent, of the voting power. The Taxation Branch, of course, rules that if the twenty largest shareholders in a company hold 75 per cent, of the voting power such a company will be taxed as a private company and not as a public company.

I believe that the provision in this bill concerning the 15 per cent, interest is reasonable. It could, of course, easily follow that six persons could hold 15 per cent, each and the remaining 10 per cent, of shares could be placed in the names of reliable nominees. I applaud the provision of 80 per cent. Australian ownership but the Postmaster-General (Mr. Davidson) must not deceive himself that he can police completely that provision. The overall picture of government control contained in this clause is not a happy one, but where the Government enters into direction and control there must be the inevitable amount of red tape and restrictions.

The holders of a licence will be subject to the vagaries of administration by succeeding governments, but that must be a calculated risk associated with this venture. Proposed new section 92f of the principal act will virtually give the Government control of the share register of any company holding a licence, because it provides that the licence is subject to a condition that substantial - I emphasize the word " substantial " - changes in the beneficial ownership of shares in the company must be approved by the Minister. This may be a good provision, because it will restrict dummying of the kind which has been revealed in the evidence taken at the television inquiry which is continuing its marathon run in Melbourne. But what is the definition of " substantial "? I realize that there must be an elastic figure, but the interpretation is so vague as to be inherently dangerous in administration. Generally speaking, I subscribe to the view that the provisions of this clause are as wide open as are the Sydney Heads, and I have no doubt that if the Attorney-General (Sir Garfield Barwick) goes back into private practice he will have no difficulty in advising his clients how these provisions may be easily circumvented.

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