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Monday, 11 November 1991
Page: 2843

Senator ALSTON (5.37 p.m.) —The Special Broadcasting Service Bill 1991 is a very important piece of legislation. It gives the Special Broadcasting Service greater freedom to manage its own affairs, it provides a new charter and it makes the SBS a statutory authority with similar powers and operational structure to the ABC. However, unlike the ABC, it does allow limited sponsorship and advertising.

  The SBS was established as an independent authority by a coalition government in 1978. Since that time we take the view that SBS has performed a very valuable service, not just to the multicultural community but, indeed, to the wider community. There is no reason at all why the SBS should not be given its own degree of independence, its own separate charter and, therefore, its own ability to function according to its own rules rather than simply being treated as another element of broadcasting.

  When the second reading debate was taking place in the House of Representatives, the shadow Minister for communications, Mr Smith, reiterated that the Opposition has been very happy and satisfied with the way that the SBS has been run. He said that, for his own part, he had been very impressed with the way that it conducted its programming and, more particularly, its commercial operations. I can certainly say that that was my experience during the time that I was shadow Minister for communications prior to the last election. In general terms, the Australian public can be very satisfied that they are getting value for money from what is currently a Budget allocation in the order of $66m. One is tempted to say that that pales into insignificance alongside the budget for the ABC, but it is also true to say that the ABC has many more responsibilities and takes on board many more production activities than does SBS.

  Nonetheless, we regard SBS as a lean and efficient organisation, providing consistently high quality programs, and an organisation which is not shy when it comes to taking initiatives and purchasing overseas material. I think, therefore, that we ought to be prepared to give SBS every incentive to become, to a greater extent, self-funding but also to have more flexibility in its funding arrangements. SBS, for example, is in the process of purchasing its own headquarters for a fairly expensive sum of money, but to the extent that that will give it additional independence I think that is desirable. It currently spends very little on Australian production initiatives, and if it is able to raise additional funding by way of sponsorship and advertising that would seem, on the face of it, to be a desirable outcome because it will enable it to undertake more production activities and, hopefully, to fund further capital intensive expenditures, such as being able to broadcast to regional areas which currently do not receive the SBS signal. There are some fairly high expenses involved in conversion from VHF to UHF and no doubt the more funds that it has available the quicker that it can achieve that wider coverage.

  Certainly SBS's news and current affairs programs are of a very high quality. For my own part, I watch as many of its current affairs programs as I can and programs such as Dateline and its other news summaries are very useful and give an international perspective in much more depth than one is likely to get from the ABC on a regular basis, and often at prime time. So, in every respect, I think SBS is delivering what we would want from it; that is, it has identified a niche where it can deliver high quality programs that are of particular interest to people who might come from countries where programs are sourced or stories are based but which have a much wider appeal to Australians who do not come from that region. I think its current affairs analyses and assessments are generally of the highest order.

  We support this Bill. We also take the view that the advertising and sponsorship announcements are acceptable, given that there will be strict limits on the extent to which SBS can broadcast them. Advertisements and sponsorship announcements will be able to go to air only between programs or during natural program breaks and they will be restricted to a maximum of five minutes in any 60 minutes of broadcasting. This compares with 12 or 13 minutes under the self-regulatory regime of the commercial broadcasters. Whilst there is not a definition of natural program breaks, one would think that it is not too difficult to identify what the channel ought to have in mind, and clearly the half-time break in football and other sporting programs is a fairly common occurrence. The topping and tailing of programs so that good quality films are not massacred by advertisements is something that most people will readily identify with and recognise the breach of very quickly. So the guidelines would seem to be quite sufficient at this stage. We believe that the guidelines that are to be developed by the board ought to be subject to the Acts Interpretation Act so that they become a disallowable instrument and so that there will be some ongoing parliamentary scrutiny of the way in which those guidelines operate.

  The corporate plan which is proposed in the Bill is not subject to any overall ministerial review other than in a very limited form. As a result, we will be moving amendments to change that situation to allow the Minister for Transport and Communications to have the power to vary the corporate plan. At the moment, the Minister may give the board such written directions in relation to the performance of SBS's functions as appear to the Minister to be necessary in the public interest. This could well cover the corporate plan, but the Minister may still only give directions for prescribed matters or in prescribed circumstances. We think that that ought to be wider, that there ought to be more discretion, and therefore more ability on the part of the Minister to provide guidance. We would certainly not expect that to cover programming or anything of that nature, but it would enable a review of commercial content and other matters.

  One of the other amendments deletes a clause exempting the SBS from paying sales tax. In general terms, it is moving very much down the path of commercialisation. I think its ability to stay within its own budget and to generate additional income is commendable and suggests that there is therefore no good reason why it ought to be given any free kick in this regard.

  We support the legislation. We accept the charter and the limitations on advertising sponsorship that are proposed. We think they will go a long way towards enabling the Special Broadcasting Service to have a measure of self-funding and therefore give it a greater degree of flexibility and power to take initiatives and, in the ultimate, that it will be an even better and stronger and higher quality organisation as a result.