8 May 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the first radio broadcast of the proceedings of the Commonwealth Parliament on 8 May 1945. Regular radio broadcasts began in 1946, while regular television broadcasts did not commence until 1990.
First radio broadcast
At 11.10 pm on 8 May 1945, Acting Prime Minister Ben Chifley formally announced to the House of Representatives the surrender of Germany and the official cessation of hostilities in the war in Europe. After noting with regret the inability of Prime Minister Curtin to make the announcement due to ill health, Chifley began his statement as follows:
The ability of the Nazi regime in Europe to resist effectively the forces of the United Nations has ended. Victory has crowned the arms of those who have stood for so many weary years against aggression. Fighters and workers in the cause of freedom have come through the mightiest convulsion in the world's history.
The announcement was immediately relayed to Australians by radio and was the first time the proceedings of the Commonwealth Parliament had been broadcast. The Acting Prime Minister’s announcement was timed to allow members of the House, and Australians more broadly, to first listen to a radio broadcast of a statement regarding Germany’s surrender by the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
Later in 1945 the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Broadcasting undertook an inquiry into the question of ‘whether the broadcasting of Parliamentary debates is desirable’ and ‘if so, to what extent and in what manner should such broadcasts be undertaken.’ Its report, tabled on 27 September 1945, concluded that broadcasting of proceedings ‘should be introduced in this country as soon as the circumstances permit’ and that ‘the result would be to raise the standard of debates, enhance the prestige of Parliament, and contribute to a better informed judgment throughout the community on matters affecting the common good and the public interest, nationally and internationally.’ The Minister for Information, Arthur Calwell, subsequently introduced the Parliamentary Proceedings Broadcast Bill 1946, which required, following its coming into force on 5 July 1946, the Australian Broadcasting Commission (as it then was) to broadcast the proceedings of the Parliament. These regular radio broadcasts commenced on 10 July 1946.
The Parliament of Australia thereby became the second Commonwealth nation to introduce radio broadcasts of the proceedings of its national parliament. It was preceded by the New Zealand Parliament, where proceedings of the House of Representatives were first broadcast on 25 March 1936. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Broadcasting noted in its 1945 inquiry that the proceedings of New Zealand’s Legislative Council, which was an appointed rather than an elected House, were not broadcast. At the state level in Australia, New South Wales and Tasmania had also briefly experimented with radio broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings in 1932 and 1934 respectively.
Both Australia and New Zealand have been described as ‘pioneers of parliamentary broadcasting in the Commonwealth’, given that other national parliaments within the Commonwealth did not introduce regular radio broadcasting of their proceedings until the 1970s. The United Kingdom conducted experiments from 9 June 1975 and commenced regular radio broadcasts of both Houses of Parliament on 3 April 1978, and Canada commenced both television and radio broadcasting of proceedings on 17 October 1977. Beyond the Commonwealth, the United States Congress allowed one-off radio broadcasts of notable events, such as Presidential addresses to joint sessions, as early as 1922; however, radio broadcasts of the regular proceedings of the House of Representatives did not commence until 12 June 1978, while the Senate appears to have resisted allowing live radio broadcasts of proceedings, with some specific exceptions, until the issue was overtaken by the introduction of television broadcasting in 1986.
Following the commencement of regular television broadcasts in Australia in September 1956, the opening of the 23rd Parliament on 17 February 1959 and the joint sitting of the Senate and House of Representatives on 6 and 7 August 1974 were both televised. However, it was not until the early 1990s that television broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings reappeared, with trial periods commencing in August 1990 for the Senate and in February 1991 for the House of Representatives. Both the Senate and the House subsequently granted continuing approval for television broadcasting on 18 October 1990 and 16 October 1991 respectively.
The United States Congress and the Canadian Parliament commenced television broadcasts of their proceedings somewhat earlier. The first television broadcast of Congressional proceedings occurred on 3 January 1947, but regular broadcasts of the US House of Representatives did not commence until 19 March 1979, with the US Senate following suit on 2 June 1986. As noted above, the Canadian House of Commons authorised radio and television broadcasting simultaneously on 17 October 1977. In the United Kingdom, television broadcasts of the House of Lords commenced on 23 January 1985 and the House of Commons on 21 November 1989. The proceedings of the New Zealand House of Representatives were first televised in 1962, but it appears that, with the exception of a week-long trial in 1986, television broadcasts of proceedings were not endorsed until 1989, and that regular live television broadcasts of the House of Representatives did not commence until 2000.