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Thursday, 14 November 1974
Page: 2375

Senator Douglas McClelland (NEW SOUTH WALES) (Minister for the Media) -I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

This Bill comes to the Senate in a form which is somewhat different from its original form. It now includes amendments which were inserted by the Government in another place in an attempt to clearly spell out the Government's intentions with this measure. These intentions have been the subject of some misunderstanding, to say the least, in recent weeks. The Government, by this legislation, basically is seeking to remove any legal doubt about whether or not the Australian Broadcasting Control Board has power to carry out its functions and to exercise its powers under the existing Act.

I think it is fair to say that the Opposition in another place, through the form of amendments it moved to this Bill, has indicated an awareness that it is universally accepted practice throughout the world that the privileges granted to licensees of radio and television stations are subject to regulation by Government or Government bodies in the public interest. Certainly that practice has been accepted in this country ever since the establishment of the Australian Broadcasting Control Board in 1948.

Unfortunately, however, the advice tendered to the Government, and also tendered to the previous Government, is that the instrument by which this regulatory process was initiated- that is, the Broadcasting and Television Act- contains several defects of major significance. The major purpose of this legislation is simply to remedy these defects. As is the case with many pieces of legislation brought before the Parliament, it is possible to achieve the general intention of the Government in a number of different ways, but it is important that the method which is decided upon by this Parliament to remedy defects in existing legislation should be a method which minimises the possibility of further legal doubts being raised.

With legislation of this kind the Government accepts that it is important that the method chosen to amend the legislation should be one which offers the best safeguards against possible abuse of power. To this end the Government will be proposing a further amendment to the legislation to ensure that any rules or standards determined by the Broadcasting Control Board, or the Australian Broadcasting Authority as it is to be known, will be subject to scrutiny by the Parliament in the same way as regulations. This is a matter on which I would like to go into more detail shortly, but at this stage I think it is important to make it clear that the Government believes that if this amendment is accepted there can be no valid justification for any suggestion that the Bill opens up the possibility of dictatorial control of the media. On the other hand, I should also make it plain that the Government believes that if the defects in the existing Act are not remedied, the Australian community faces a serious situation.

The problems I am referring to arise from two particular points which in the opinion of the Government require urgent attention. The first concerns the powers of the Broadcasting Control Board to regulate appropriately the programs of commercial broadcasting and television stations. This power existed in the Act until it was amended in 1956. Prior to that time it was provided that stations must present programs 'to the satisfaction of the Board', but in 1956 this was amended to provide that stations' programs must comply 'with standards determined by the Board'. In recent years some stations have challenged the Board's powers in the programming area by relying on a narrow legal definition of the word 'standards', and the Government's legal advisers have confirmed that this approach may have some validity. The Board has consistently drawn attention to this lack in its powers of the past 7 years, but no action was taken by the previous Government to correct the anomaly. The relevant section of the Act is section 16, which sets out the powers and functions of the Board. The major function of the Board is stated in that section to be:

To ensure that adequate and comprehensive programs are provided by commercial broadcasting stations and commercial television stations to serve the best interests of the general public.

Unfortunately, however, the Act does not provide the Board with a power comparable to that function. The proposed amendments to section 16, which are included in clause 6 of the Bill I now present, specifically provide the Board with a general power to carry out all its functions. Further, it inserts two new specific powers. The first will become paragraph (e) of sub-section

(3)   of section 16, and provides that the Board shall have power to determine rules and standards to be observed by licensees in relation to commercial broadcasting and television programs. The second new power is provided by the new sub-section (3A) which specifically provides power to the Broadcasting Authority to determine, subject to the Minister's approval, requirements with regard to programs of Australian origin.

Under amendments moved by the Government in another place it has now been spelt out in the Bill that any rules laid down by the Broadcasting Authority shall be of general application and may not unfairly discriminate against a particular station or particular stations. The two new powers I have referred to will place beyond question the powers which, I think it is fair to say, the general public, and indeed the Parliament, have always thought the Board to have. I believe they should be generally welcomed within the industry itself as putting these matters which have been the subject of disputation beyond doubt.

Under section 16 of the present Act it is provided that representatives of commercial broadcasting and television stations shall be consulted by the Broadcasting Control Board in the exercise of its functions and powers as outlined in that section. This, of course, is one safeguard that licensees have and will retain under the present Bill. The Bill also provides, however, that the Broadcasting Authority shall consult such other persons as it considers appropriate. The intention here is to extend consultation to representatives of the trade unions in the media industries and to other organisations that might be interested in radio and television services. Some concern has been expressed in recent years that the only consultation required under the Act has been consultation with the licensees or their representatives. This obviously could result in a one-sided approach to the industry and the Government believes it is certainly more consistent with democratic principles to amend the Act to ensure wider consultation.

The second important matter which is dealt with in the Bill is contained in clause 1 1 which has been amended at the Government's request in another place. The clause now provides that instead of the present licence renewal period of 12 months, licences may be renewed for variable periods ranging from 6 months to 3 years. An identical proposal for variable licence renewal periods was put forward by the previous Government in 1972. In the circumstances, the Government believes this proposal as amended naturally should be acceptable to both sides of the

Senate. The amendment by the Government of the lower limit for licence renewals follows discussions I have had with representatives of the television industry since the Bill was introduced in the House of Representatives, who suggested that the 3-month period would raise some practical administrative difficulties for them. I accept that point of view, but would simply point out at this stage that a variation in licence renewal periods will hold considerable advantages for the overwhelming majority of licensees who comply with the requirements of the Act.

I think honourable senators will be aware that the majority of other amendments proposed in this Bill are largely of a machinery nature or are amendments complementary to the measures I have outlined. Detailed discussions of such measures are perhaps best dealt with at the Committee stage of consideration of this Bill. At this time, however, I want to deal with an important amendment the Government will propose in the Committee stage. This amendment was foreshadowed by my colleague the Minister for Science (Mr Morrison) in the debate in another place. He indicated that the Government saw some merit in the apparent intention of an amendment proposed by the Opposition in that debate. The intention appears to have been to subject the powers of the Broadcasting Authority to the scrutiny of the Parliament, insofar as they deal with the regulation of the hours of transmissions, of programs and of advertising. Certainly, this Government's policy has always been to provide for adequate Parliamentary supervision of the activities of Government bodies and agencies. My own personal philosophy as a parliamentarian has prompted me to seek adequate provision for Parliamentary responsibility wherever this is possible. In this Bill, I believe this is both possible and highly desirable.

The program and advertising standards of the Broadcasting Control Board have never been subject to full parliamentary scrutiny in the past. The previous Government made no provision for this in the Broadcasting and Television Act on any of the numerous occasions when it sought to amend the Act in its 23 years in government. The Labor Government, however, accepts the desirability of such a measure, and will propose it in debate on this Bill. In the Committee stage, I will move an amendment that will require that the determinations of the Broadcasting Authority relating to hours of transmission, rules and standards for programs and conditions for the broadcasting or televising of advertisements will be subject not only to Parliamentary scrutiny, but also to disallowance by either House of the

Parliament. The amendment will require the Authority's determinations to be tabled in both Houses of Parliament and subject to the same treatment as regulations. I believe that this amendment will provide genuine safeguards for freedom of expression, by providing an ultimate appeal for all individuals to the Parliament itself. The activities of the Australian Broadcasting Authority will be properly open for inspection and discussion by the Parliament to which it is responsible as a statutory body.

The Austraiian people have always believed that the Australian Broadcasting Control Board should be clothed with adequate powers to ensure that the highest possible standards are maintained by commercial broadcasting and television stations. Likewise the Government believes it has a responsibility to ensure that those who have sought to employ their creative, technical and performing talents in the media industries in Australia should have continuity and security of employment and expanding opportunities for the use of their talents in their own country. I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Guilfoyle) adjourned.

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