The Role and Future of Radio Australia and Australia Television



Establishment of Inquiry

1.1 On 13 February 1997, the Senate unanimously referred the matter of the role and future of Radio Australia (RA) and Australia Television (ATV) to the Committee for inquiry and report by 15 May 1997. The Committee agreed that it should present its report by 5 May 1997.

Conduct of the Inquiry

1.2 The Committee advertised the inquiry in the national press on 19 February 1997 calling for written submissions to be lodged with the Committee by 10 March 1997. The Committee's advertisement was also broadcast on RA and ATV so that interested listeners and viewers could provide their views on the two services to the Committee. The Committee is grateful to RA, ATV and the ABC central office for their co-operation in making these broadcasts. The advertisement was also placed on the Committee's Internet web site and that of the ABC.

1.3 The Committee received 2,211 written submissions, which all except three support the retention of RA and ATV in their current forms. A list of submissions is contained in Appendix 1. The Committee is appreciative of RA's assistance in translating a number of submissions written in languages other than English.

1.4 The Committee conducted public hearings in Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney at which 62 people, appearing on their own behalf or representing organisations, gave evidence. A list of the people who appeared at the public hearings is contained in Appendix 2. In addition, the Committee visited the offices/studios of Radio Australia in Melbourne on 12 March 1997 and of Australia Television in Sydney on 13 March 1997. Although the Committee was unable to visit the Australia Television office/studio in Darwin, staff representatives from the Darwin office of ATV gave evidence to the Committee in Canberra.

Lack of Departmental Co-operation

1.5 The Committee wishes to draw attention to the lack of co-operation by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in this inquiry. In accordance with usual procedures, the Chairman of the Committee wrote to Mr Downer on 24 February 1997 seeking a written submission from his Department and the appearance of departmental officers at a public hearing. The Committee received neither an acknowledgement nor a substantive reply from Mr Downer.

1.6 The Department did not make a written submission to the Committee. Officers of the Department did, however, appear at a public hearing on 2 April 1997. At the hearing, when asked by the Committee why a submission had not been made, Mr Bill Fisher, First Assistant Secretary, Public Affairs and Consular Division, replied:

1.7 At the hearing, the two officers of the Department refused to answer most questions put to them about RA and ATV. At the beginning of the hearing, Mr Fisher explained:

1.8 When asked shortly afterwards about RA, Mr Fisher responded:

1.9 The fact that a matter is being considered by the Government is not, and never has been, a reason for a departmental officer to refuse to answer questions relating to that matter. Parliamentary committees often inquire into matters which are subject to Government consideration during the course of those inquiries.

1.10 It was obvious that the DFAT officers were acting on instructions, presumably from the Minister, not to assist the Committee.

1.11 The approach taken by the DFAT officers was contrary to both the practice of our parliamentary system of government and to the Guidelines for Official Witnesses before Parliamentary Committees and Related Matters. Under the heading of accountability in the introduction to the Guidelines, it is stated:

1.12 The Committee is well aware of the restrictions in the guidelines on what public servants can discuss when appearing before the Committee. The Chairman issued the normal warning regarding policy matters in his comments at the beginning of the hearing. The witnesses were not asked to comment on policy or on the advice which they might have given in the formulation of policy, or even identify the considerations which the Government has been taking into account in deliberations at that time.

1.13 Neither the Minister nor the Department has made any claim that the information was withheld on public interest immunity grounds. The Committee therefore believes that the Minister's action in gagging the Department was a blatant attempt by him to prevent the free flow of information to the Committee and through it to the Australian public. In so doing, he was showing contempt for the normal processes of parliamentary accountability.

1.14 In a submission dated October 1996 to the Mansfield inquiry into the ABC, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade strongly supported both RA and ATV. In a letter dated February 1997 from the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the Minister for Communications and the Arts , which was leaked to the media, the Minister for Foreign Affairs argued strongly for retention of the two international broadcasting services.

1.15 In the light of Mr Downer's putative support for RA and ATV, it is almost incomprehensible that he would not allow his department to co-operate with the Committee in this inquiry. The Committee is also disappointed that DFAT did not provide any information or views on RA and ATV given that Mr Mansfield had not considered these issues and further believed that the Government did not have enough information to evaluate their performance. When interviewed on ABC Radio National Breakfast on 26 February 1997, Mr Mansfield said that 'If you look at my terms of reference, I only had to look at the ABC. I didn't have the task and wasn't asked to look at Australia's foreign policy'.

1.16 The Committee was also dissatisfied with the level of assistance afforded the Committee by the Department of Communications and the Arts. Its submission was not received until 10 April 1997, a week after officers of the Department appeared before the Committee. Given the bland nature of its submission, there is no reason why it should have been so late. Furthermore, it was apparent to the Committee that the Department's choice of witnesses was not in accord with the Guidelines, which provide that:

1.17 The Committee noted that officers with direct responsibility and expertise in the areas covered in the hearing were not nominated by the Department to give evidence to the Committee. The officers giving evidence to the Committee were not able to satisfy the Committee's requirements because of their obvious lack of detail of the matters under discussion.

1.18 The Committee did, however, receive submissions and took evidence from other expert witnesses.

Timing of the Inquiry

1.19 The Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator Alston, has made it clear that the Government will consider the future of Australia's international broadcasting services in the Budget context without waiting for the release of the Committee's report.

1.20 Mr Mansfield's report was released on 24 January 1997. Parliament did not resume sittings following the summer recess until 4 February 1997. The Committee considered the proposed reference on 6 February and on 13 February the Senate referred the matter of the role and future of RA and ATV to the Committee. In other words, the Senate acted very quickly to establish this inquiry. This refutes any suggestion made by Senator Alston to the contrary.

1.21 When Senator Alston appeared on the Network Ten program Meet the Press on 16 March 1997, in reply to a question from Mr Paul Bongiorno about the relevance of the Committee's inquiry, he said:

1.22 Senator Alston did not table the Mansfield Report in the Parliament so that it could be given proper parliamentary scrutiny. He did not encourage public debate on Mr Mansfield's far-reaching ramifications. His disregard for the Committee's inquiry and the precipitate way he has been pursuing the demise of RA and ATV, despite the fact that Mr Mansfield did not consider the matter in any detail, demonstrates that he has been treating the whole matter as a fait accompli without giving any consideration to the ramifications of what he has been trying to do.

1.23 It should be emphasised here that both Houses of the Parliament have the right to inquire into any matter relevant to the Parliament on behalf of the people of Australia, even if the Government is proceeding with its decision-making processes in relation to the matter. The Budget may be prepared by the Government but it is still subject to parliamentary scrutiny and parliamentary approval. Obviously, the Senate will consider the Committee's findings and recommendations during the process of budgetary scrutiny.

1.24 This inquiry has, at least, given thousands of people in Australia and viewers and listeners around the world an opportunity to comment on the changes to Australia's international broadcasting services as proposed by Mr Mansfield and Senator Alston. Their opinion, expressed through written submissions and oral evidence given to the Committee, virtually unanimously, is that Radio Australia and Australia Television should not be closed or reduced in size or commercialised.

1.25 If the Government makes decisions about the future of RA and ATV contrary to the recommendations of the Committee, it has to wear the opprobrium of millions of listeners and viewers within Australia, the Asia Pacific region and beyond, many of whom depend on RA and ATV for news and current affairs, their English language training and entertainment. Moreover, it will do lasting damage to Australia's reputation and interests.

1.26 The Committee notes that contrary to the Federal Government's position, there is strong support for the retention of RA and ATV from other Coalition Governments and representatives throughout Australia. For instance, all State Premiers and Territory Chief Ministers, seven out of eight of whom represent Coalition Governments, support the retention of the two organisations in their present form. So too do the Victorian State Liberal Council, two branches of Coalition Parties (which made submissions to the Committee) and former Liberal Prime Minister, Mr Malcolm Fraser. Former Liberal Member of Parliament, Mr Bill Yates, strongly supported RA in written and oral evidence.


[1] Committee Hansard, p. 55.

[2] Committee Hansard, p. 52.

[3] Committee Hansard, p. 53.