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Monday, 14 October 1991
Page: 1860

Mr SINCLAIR(8.14 p.m.) —- Can I say to the honourable member for Dobell (Mr Lee) that I am delighted that he was here at 8 o'clock. I was not. I thought the honourable member for Grey (Mr O'Neil) would be continuing, but he did not. There are several aspects of this Special Broadcasting Service Bill. To start with, for me there is a measure of deja vu. Both Tony Staley and I tried hard to introduce this legislation 10 or more years ago. In part we failed because the Opposition did not want it. Of course, at that stage, there were other factors about. The legislation did not get up then because the role of the ABC was not defined, and this is part of the trouble all of us have had.

There is a difficulty in the legislation now before us. I do not want another ABC. The SBS is not the ABC. The SBS's charter is different, and part of the reason for its success is that it has been different. If it wishes to emulate the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, it will fail.

As one who appointed Sir Nicholas Shehadie as Chairman, I am delighted to see that he has survived the years. Could I say that Bruce Gyngell, the first Chief Executive I appointed long ago, really did a remarkable job. Bruce and I were in the Citizens Air Force long ago and flew Mustangs and did other things. I must admit I did not really see him in those days as a television entrepreneur. Yet he was one of those who really began television in Australia. He has demonstrated his talent in his success in the United Kingdom in recent years. The point I raise with respect to Bruce is that he initiated the concept which has given the television part of SBS its character.

Although we are now considering legislation--and there will perhaps be a few amendments before the legislation finally passes through the Parliament--the important point for the SBS is that if in its television service it moves away from the general character that Bruce Gyngell initiated, it would be a pity. It has done a great job. It has not just provided a special language and cultural service for those Australians of more recent origin, but it has also brought something of cultures other than our own to those of us who are not of a cultural diversity that others enjoy. For that reason it has provided something very special. Indeed, I know of no other service anywhere in the world that equates to the television programs that SBS offers. Now that it has legitimacy and now that it is to have its own Act, it would be a great pity if it changes its image and its direction. I would give this quite strong and severe admonition to SBS, `For goodness sake, do not try to do something different. What you have is great, what you have is appreciated'. The honourable member for Dobell has identified the tremendous range of programs. Let us try to preserve that. That is the first thing.

The second is that there are problems in trying to identify how one will be able to provide adequate diversity in language programs through the broadcasting as distinct from the television part of SBS. People tend to think SBS is just a television station. It is not. It has a range of radio programs which are important and which have caused problems to both sides of politics over the years. When a language that is not common to all of us and that most of us do not understand is used for the purpose of broadcasting material, it is very hard and inevitably there is a bit of apprehension about what the devil is being said, and why and how. Yet that is a very difficult and important part of SBS's responsibility. I am delighted that the ABC has started to use languages other than English for a few of its programs. I hope those who are public broadcasters will continue to do the same.

For a long time I felt that part of the problem, both in radio and television--and this is not peculiar to SBS but applies also to the ABC--is that we have not given the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal a responsibility in this area. I notice in this legislation that there is a requirement that SBS complies with advertising standards. I do not really see that that is the way to go. I am not happy about the legalistic direction of the ABT in recent years. It was far better when it was oriented towards the practical production of an emphasis that looked at the interests of the community and consumers and when it did not require 10 silks and accompanying juniors to present a simple case for the renewal of a licence.

I am concerned that we try to maintain a diversity in language broadcasting in radio that does not look to the SBS providing the only programs. If we had the ABT as the backstop, then it would not matter who provides it; you would have somebody who would be able to keep a check on whether it becomes too political or something like that. Really, this is my main concern. Where we have very real difficulties, as there are between Croatia and Serbia and other former member states of the Yugoslavian nation, that do reflect on the prejudices and concerns of Australians, they should not in any way be related to the broadcast of programs within Australia. I know that inevitably we will have views expressed, but that is not what I am talking about. I do not want to see the translation into our Australian idiom of some of the prejudices and animosities that, sadly, exist--not peculiarly between those states I have mentioned but also in the Middle East, Ireland and too many other countries around the globe. I do not want to see those things translated into Australia.

Indeed, from my point of view, I want to see one Australia with all Australians' paramount concern being for this nation, with English as our predominant lingua franca, and with a capacity to preserve and protect our culture, traditions and origins. We should encourage those who have diverse backgrounds to retain their pride in their ancestry and in its succession, but not to translate their hatreds and animosities into our society. I am concerned that the ABT is not, apparently, to be responsible for the SBS, any more than it is for the ABC, and I think that that is a deficiency.

I come to my third matter concerning the nature of this legislation. The honourable member for Dobell and others have spoken about advertising and sponsorship. I have no worries about the powers in this legislation. I think that, provided that they are carefully exercised, they should work well; and I think that if they are carefully exercised they will enable the resources of the SBS to be extended. But, as I started by saying, let us not have the television part of SBS try to extend its charter. If it tries to produce programs and do what the Australian Broadcasting Corporation does, it really will be taking a lot of resources from the commercial channels--and that is not what it is about. There is reason to show The Civil War and programs of that ilk; there is reason for us to look at soccer; there is reason to produce particular rock programs. All those programs are great. But let us not try to get the advertising revenue that will make the SBS another commercial channel. If we do, again, that will change its character, and I do not think that is really what we are about.

The fourth thing that I wanted to address is a real concern, and one which I know is shared by the honourable member for Cowper (Mr Nehl), who has just joined me in the House. A considerable number of us are very concerned that although the signal for SBS is available on Aussat and on the whole of the satellite service, it is not available, without some sort of encrypting decoder, in a lot of places in Australia. I regard that as absolute nonsense. This legislation is about a public broadcasting service. We call it special, and that term is part of a name that I guess I as much as anybody gave it long ago. But I want to see that it is available, and I see no reason why that SBS service should not be available.

I am not referring only to a satellite service. I see no reason why translators should not be available. My colleague from Cowper mentioned the north coast. Indeed, I understand from him that the previous Minister promised that the service would very shortly be available on the north coast. There are a lot of us who would like to see translators available to provide SBS services to supplement the presently available services in our particular areas. I live in a part of the world where most times we are flat out getting one television station. Sometimes we can get two, and if we could get the SBS it would be a real bonus. We should not have it in our minds that, just because there has been aggregation and change in the management direction of television stations, everybody has access to four television stations, or five if SBS is available; not everybody does, and I would like to see SBS more readily available.

I have read with interest some of the directions included in the second reading speech presented on behalf of the Minister for Transport and Communications (Mr Beazley). Two aspects of that concern me. I read that the SBS will be allowed to undertake `permitted business activities', and that they can be entered into only with the agreement of the Minister. I am cynical about what that means. I do not believe that the SBS should do anything unrelated to its prime purpose. As I started by saying, it is far better doing what it has been doing--acquiring overseas programs, transmitting them and allowing us to see a selection of programs in other languages and from other cultures. It does not really need to do all that the ABC does. In fact, I think the ABC would be a jolly sight better if it scrapped half of what it does do and if it were to be subdivided. That is another aspect of my attitude towards the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that I would like to discuss on another occasion. I know that there are problems with some aspects of that, but we do not want this SBS legislation to be a vehicle by which we have another multiplicity of outlets in the public sector which is not necessary and which is not pertinent to the principal purpose of the SBS.

I see that the SBS will have its board increased by two people. I know it is important that we have young people on the board and that we have a flexible arrangement whereby the main consumer groups can be represented. But I do not really take to the idea of having everybody represented. We are never going to get everybody in Australia represented. We do not need to have too big a board. I would prefer to see a smaller but effective board which is able to come to the compromises that are necessary. Sure, we can still, with that number, do as the Minister said; that is, `seek equitable representation of women, young people and people of different ethnic backgrounds'. But we will not get everybody covered.

One of the plagues we have in our society is that, because we have all these States and Territories, we try to give everybody a guernsey on everything and we forget that we are basically Australians. We do not need to have every ethnic group represented on the SBS. We do not need to have every sector of the community on the board. Sure, we have to have a cross-section, and the principle is great. But let us not increase the number every time we want better representation; let us make the board more efficient and more effective and preserve the task.

I am not convinced that the SBS really needs to produce all its own programs. One of the aspects of the ABC that I have been looking at, and on which I am quite keen, is whether we should not take out of the ABC the production capability. We have produced over the course of the years some wonderful films and some wonderful television material. I am not too sure that that really needs to be under the control of either the ABC or the SBS. I know that the Australian Film Corporation operates separately and that it produces some wonderful material. I just do not want the SBS to feel that, because it now has its own Act, its own charter and all these wonderful plans, it has to set up great studios and do the same as the ABC does. I think there is reason for us to produce programs in Australia. I think we have a talent in that direction. We have some wonderful film makers, producers and directors, just as we have, on the other side, actors, actresses, musicians and others talented in the artistic sense. But we do not need to do it all through the public sector, and we do not need necessarily to do it through the broadcasting agencies.

This SBS Bill really exists to create the transmission facility, not necessarily the creation facility. I am a bit worried about some of the rhetoric in the second reading speech to the extent that the Minister might be thinking that this is the way to do it. I want to see production; do not get me wrong. I want to see Australian production. But I query whether this is the vehicle by which we should get it. I do not really want to see a great amount of public resources going into this area for that purpose when, as I said, the Bruce Gyngell charter--which has been largely preserved since its establishment--has been a very good formula for success and it is one which I think we should protect.

It is difficult to know just what role we should seek for this Special Broadcasting Service. I know that there are those who look at the SBS and ask, `Why can it not be done within the ABC?'. I think that establishing it as a separate identity has more advantages than disadvantages. But there are real worries about the extent to which, looking at the ancillary powers within the legislation, we are really trying to make another Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Let me give another example. Let us look at clause 71 of the legislation, headed, `Lines for conveyance of electric current to transmission facilities'. For the life of me, I am not quite sure why this legislation has to give the SBS the power to provide and operate `transmission facilities for the purpose of broadcasting programs of the SBS'. I know that transmission has been difficult. We have had problems in getting a slot within the UHF frequency which enabled us to get the tower transmission facilities we needed. But I wonder whether the SBS really needs to:

(a) install and maintain any electric line that is necessary for conveying electric current to, or for the operation of, any such facilities; and

(b) arrange for and obtain from any person the supply of any electric current that is necessary or advisable for the operation of any such facilities.

I might be persuaded to the contrary but this is what I mean when I say that we get so much into the particular that I start to be concerned at what the devil we are doing. I want to have the protection of a body which has existed for more than 10 years without legislation, which has done a brilliant job and which has survived in spite of all sorts of political opposition because it has done that job. Do not let this legislation be a reason for it to fail. That really is my final message to the House. When something has succeeded, do not let us plague it by making it almost impossible for it to do what it has done successfully.

I am slightly apprehensive that in the nature and character of this legislation we are not necessarily going to make the Special Broadcasting Service better. What we are going to do is to hem it in and restrain the flexibility that it has enjoyed to date. If that is to be the product and if it will not be as effective as a result, this legislation will fail, which would be very sad. It would not give us what the people want; it would not give us what the audience wants; and I do not believe that it would give the people of Australia what this Parliament intends. I hope that that will not be the product of the passage of this legislation tonight.