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Thursday, 22 May 1980
Page: 3114

Mr INNES (Melbourne) -The Opposition supports this Bill which seeks to amend the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1905-1973. However, it should be clearly understood that there are certain things in this legislation which are of concern to the Opposition and on which I would like to elaborate. The first point to be made is the Bill is a private members Bill. There is nothing wrong with that per se. But what it means by corollary is that it is not a Bill introduced by the Minister for Post and Telecommunications (Mr Staley) on behalf of the Government. It is a poor reflection on the administration of the Wireless Telegraphy Act by the Minister for Post and Telecommunications and his Department that it was necessary for a private member to redress a situation. The honourable member for Wilmot (Mr Burr) has participated in the introduction of this Bill and he is to be congratulated, as are the honourable member for Denison (Mr Hodgman) and Senator Rae. However, the fact remains that it has been necessary to correct a situation caused by the failure of the administration to overcome an obvious problem.

The honourable member for Denison pointed out in his short address that the Bill will not only correct a theoretical anachronism but also redress an injustice facing a fisherman who may have had $4,500 worth of radio equipment confiscated by the Commonwealth and been fined for the failure to pay a $50 licence fee. The unenviable position in which that fisherman found himself could have been redressed had the Government introduced an amendment such as the one we are now discussing. I make the objective point that there is a whole range of legislation, not only the Wireless Telegraphy Act, which is antiquated and to which this House ought to have regard. But the Government and the Minister for Post and Telecommunications, who is the Minister responsible, have done nothing of the sort. In fact, I am informed that the fisherman's plight could have been corrected without resort to legislative changes. It is the opinion of certain of the Commonwealth law officers that the position could have been remedied by purely administrative action. All the Minister had to do was to make a few changes within his Department. I repeat that no such action was forthcoming. It was left to the initiative of private members- Senator Rae and the honourable member for Wilmot- to take action to have this situation redressed. The resolution of this matter, need not have taken the time of the Parliament. The matter could have been handled by the Minister acting in a purely administrative capacity. In these circumstances the action that has been taken is all the more to the credit of the people to whom I have just made reference.

The second matter that concerns the Opposition is that this amendment to the Wireless Telegraphy Act is in isolation from many of the other needed changes to the Act. Many of the penalties contained in the Act are quite draconian. They were instituted at a time when the Commonwealth was fearful of its own integrity in the light of the new technology of radio communications. Consequently a State monopoly of the use of radio transmitters was decreed and appropriate penalties were set for unauthorised use. Of course, those days are long gone, but the penalties remain. The amendment to the Bill gives the Minister discretion in the application of those penalties under one section of the principal Act and many such penalties remain unchallenged.

Let me give an example of the problems within the ambit of the Act. A person is liable to a fine of $1,000 or five years imprisonment for transmitting or receiving messages by wireless telegraphy except as authorised under the Act. Radios on overseas ships while in Australian waters are subject to the control of the Minister and may be used only by his authority or in accordance with the Act. The operation of private radio stations, such as the rather famous ones which operate outside of British territorial waters, are subject to penalties of up to five years in gaol. Our friend the honourable member for Holt (Mr Yates) waves his head about. For the information of people in the public gallery that is a natural consequence of his operation. He does nothing more than that in the Parliament. There are further provisions which allow for summary treatment by the courts of offenders under the Act with penalties of up to six months imprisonment or a fine of $100. Clearly there are entailed in this Act excessive and contradictory penalties that are indicative of the thorough overhaul for which the Opposition believes the Wireless Telegraphy Act is long overdue.

There is a whole range of areas in which the Minister has failed purely and simply in an administrative sense. The Minister has had an opportunity to correct a situation, but this has not happened. I am not complaining about the manner in which this legislation was introduced because I have already gone to greater lengths than necessary to congratulate those who are responsible for this legislation. In fact the Opposition could have taken such action. I have made a range of investigations. I might add that I spoke to Senator Rae before this legislation was introduced as a private members Bill. I wanted to ensure that it had a clear passage. We are not arguing about that. As the shadow Minister I have investigated over a long time a whole range of areas which could be handled by administrative operation rather than by the legislative process. We should be looking at the draconian implications of what happened so many years ago when legislation was introduced for a completely different purpose. Many things have changed in the meantime and therefore the legislation ought to be changed as quickly as possible.

The third matter which the Opposition finds worrying is the general administration by the Postal and Telecommunications Department and the Minister of the system of radio licensing. Most honourable members will be aware, no doubt if only as a result of the voluminous representations that they have received, that the Government's decision to raise radio communication licence fees last year was poorly received by most groups of licence holders. In fact it is quite likely that the fisherman whose plight prompted this amendment was caught without a licence after his refusal to pay when his fee was doubled to something like $50. That is not an incredible amount of money but it's one of the many licensing imposts under the Wireless Telegraphy Act that ought to be considered. Revenue from recent fee increases is expected to leap from $8.3m to over $ 14m despite the total cost of only something like $7.7m for administering the radio spectrum. The services provided to spectrum users by the Postal and Telecommunications Department are entirely inadequate. One example is the policing of the private use of the air waves. In this respect the Government has embarked on an exercise designed almost to double the revenue.

Changes in staff ceilings for radio inspectors and officers working in other problem areas were promised. The Government has a hypocritical and the isolationist attitude to safety programs. The prime concern is not safety but is the amount of money that can be collected. The Minister ought to apply himself to that matter. There has been a tremendous response from the boating organisations, from those who, I guess, have enough money to buy a boat and from other groups which are affected by the increases and which police certain areas of responsibility, including fire protection. Councils from as far away as Western Australia have written to me as the shadow Minister for Post and Telecommunications. They have been carrying out their responsibilities with regard to paying of licence fees. The whole thing needs to be dealt with in a more professional way than the Minister has dealt with it until now.

The Minister announced a further fees review, and reports are now appearing in the Press suggesting that for most users fees will be decreased. But the fact is that the whole operation has been a shemozzle. It is to the discredit of the Minister that it has operated in that way. However, the revenue will not decrease. The Department is to engage in that favourite action of government, shuffling cards from one deck to another. Commonwealth users of the radio spectrum previously exempt from fees are now to pay fees which will more than make up the expected shortfall from the coming reductions in fees. Of course, it is as plain as a pikestaff that such an exercise will bring only an illusory increase in Government revenue. An increase in income for the Postal and Telecommunications Department will be matched by corresponding outflows from other Government departments. There will be more eggs in one basket and fewer in others, but the number of eggs will remain constant.

As I said when beginning this address this evening, the Opposition completely concurs with this amending Bill. It regrets the necessity for such a Bill and points out the necessity for further amendments to the principal Act. I also repeat that the Opposition is aware of the criticism of the Minister and of his Department's lax administration which has meant that such necessary amendments are not being debated here today. The Opposition is similarly critical of the Minister's handling of radio communication licence fees. After a mishmash of increases, reviews and reductions, no just and proper policy has emerged. All these matters are apposite to the Bill under discussion today. Perhaps we ought to consider the principal Act as a whole. I point out that it ought not to have been necessary for Senator Rae to have gone to the lengths that he went to. Who will suffer the consequences of the mismanagement and inappropriate actions of the Government? The sufferers will be those individuals who have been affected in the past. I do not know which Minister will reply to me this evening.

Mr Kevin Cairns - The Minister for Veterans' Affairs is paying attention. Give him a run.

Mr INNES - I hope that some honourable members are paying attention because I am showing the inefficiency of the Ministers involved.

Mr Ellicott - I take a point of order. The honourable member for Wilmot is here to answer all the questions. This is a private member's Bill.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER -(Hon. Ian Robinson)- There is no point of order.

Mr INNES - I am very pleased the Minister for the Capital Territory has intervened in this debate. I thought that mouth to mouth resuscitation was confined to the beaches. Now we have it in the Parliament. We have seen the Minister for the Capital Territory advising the back bencher who is the Charlie McCarthy about the place to stand up on behalf of the Minister for Post and Telecommunications, who has seen fit not even to attend this evening; he is not even in the House. I understand the next member of the High Court, perhaps the next Chief Justice, is a very eloquent and admirable person to represent the Minister for Post and Telecommunications. I congratulate him on one of his major speeches in the House this session! But the Minister for the Capital Territory has not answered the question. The Minister for Post and Telecommunications had a responsibility to exercise whatever authority he had under the principal Act. Whichever way the Government twists and turns, those who have had their equipment confiscated as a result of the Minister's failure to act over this period can place the responsibility at the feet of the Minister for Post and Telecommunications. No matter how much his colleague would like to protect him, it is his responsibility.

It seems to me that we could have done a range of things with regard to the Act if the Minister had acted responsibly. We would not have needed a private member's Bill dealing with such an important aspect of it if the Minister had acted in a proper way. I repeat what I said in the first instance. The Opposition is not opposed to this Bill. I had a long discussion with Senator Rae, who introduced it into the Senate. We ironed out all the problems that might have arisen out of some of the Bill's technicalities. I congratulate him for his initiative in introducing it. We have made a long examination of the Wireless Telegraphy Act and, whilst we support this Bill, we give notice that in the future we will introduce some amendments to the legislation to clear up some of the difficulties which have arisen out of the failure of the Minister and those responsible to face up to their responsibilities.

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