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Tuesday, 12 May 1987
Page: 3034

Mr DUFFY (Minister for Communications)(9.53) —At this stage I would like to indicate a couple of matters before summing up the second reading debate. I firstly indicate that in the Committee stage there will be four government amendments to the Communications Legislation Amendment Bill. They have been circulated. Those amendments will provide for the adoption of the Australian Table of Frequency Allocation as the first spectrum plan under the Radiocommunications Act. Under the Act the spectrum plan is the basis of planning in Australia, and this has been the accepted role of the Australian Table of Frequency Allocation since it was published in 1982 following extensive consultation with industry and with users of the radio frequency spectrum. I will make a further brief statement on this matter explaining the amendments during the Committee stage of the debate.

There are no government amendments to the Broadcasting (Ownership and Control) Bill, but an addendum to the explanatory memorandum has been circulated. The reason for that is significant. The addendum to the explanatory memorandum was necessary and has two purposes. Firstly, it corrects a technical error in the explanatory notes on sub-clause 22 (2) of the Bill dealing with the application of the two-station rule; and, secondly, it clarifies the operation of the cross-media directorship provisions in the new section 92fad, sub-clause 27 (1) of the Bill. This arose because the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills suggested that there is a possible ambiguity in sub-clause 22 (2) of the Bill. That sub-clause provides that no contraventions of the two-station rule can arise between 28 November 1986 and the commencement of the 75 per cent reach rule. The Senate Committee has suggested that sub-clause 22 (2) of the Bill could be interpreted as providing that no contraventions of the 75 per cent rule can occur between 28 November 1986 and commencement. On the basis of this latter interpretation, the existing two-station rule would continue to apply in this period. The possible ambiguity raised by the Senate Committee turns upon whether the reference in sub-clause 22 (2) of the principal Act refers to the provisions of the existing principal Act which contains the two-station rule, or to the provisions of the principal Act as amended by this Bill; that is, which contains the 75 per cent reach rule.

The parliamentary draftsman has advised that the reference could be only to the existing principal Act, as no contravention of the 75 per cent reach rule could have occurred by reason of the holding of a prescribed interest before the commencement of this legislation. The explanatory notes on sub-clause 22 (2) of the Bill contain a technical error through a reference to paragraph 21 (1) (a) of the Bill, the 75 per cent reach rule, instead of the correct reference to paragraph 92 (1) (a) of the existing principal Act, the two-station rule. To remove possible confusion on this issue the addendum corrects this technical error. Information on this matter was distributed to the Opposition earlier today.

The second matter to be dealt with in respect of that addendum to the explanatory memorandum arises as a result of advice from my own Department of Communications of a suggestion that the cross-media directorship provisions in the new section 92fad, clause 27(1) of the Bill, could possibly be interpreted as prohibiting the holding of a directorship in a single company holding cross-media interests. Such a prohibition would be unnecessary because the cross-media interest provisions in the new section 92fad, clause 27(1) of the Bill, prohibit a company holding such interests subject to the period of grace provisions in that section. Such a prohibition would be contrary to the operation of those period of grace provisions because the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal would automatically be required to refuse approval of a transaction involving a company acquiring cross-media interests on the basis of the breach of directorship limits. Such an interpretation would be contrary to the grandfathering provisions in sub-clause 27(2) of the Bill, because a grandfathered company holding cross-media interests would be prevented from appointing any new directors on the death or resignation of existing grandfather directors.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Millar) —Order! Reluctantly I interrupt the Minister, but it would appear that he is addressing matters which should more properly be dealt with in Committee, as in the opinion--

Mr DUFFY —Mr Deputy Speaker, could you bear with me for a moment? If you want this address in the Committee stage, that does not concern me, but it will take me only about one minute to dispose of this matter. It is a matter of only putting it on the record.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER —If the Minister could relate the comments to matters raised during the debate I will then allow him to proceed for that time that he seeks.

Mr DUFFY —Thank you. The parliamentary draftsman has advised that the cross-media directorship provisions do not apply to the holding of a directorship in a single company. However, to remove any legal doubt on this issue the addendum to the notes on section 92fad clearly states the policy intent of these provisions. Honourable members will be aware that section 15ab of the Acts Interpretation Act 1901 allows the explanatory memorandum to be taken into account by the courts in resolving any possible ambiguity in interpretation. I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for your indulgence in this matter.

Whilst it is extremely difficult to agree with everything that is said in second reading debates, I would like firstly to thank honourable members for their contributions and then deal with some of the matters that have been raised. I would like to thank the honourable member for Kalgoorlie (Mr Campbell) for his undertaking of support from his faction which can be crucial in the deliberations of the Government from time to time.

Mr Spender —Can he deliver?

Mr DUFFY —He is one of the few people who can deliver because his faction is of one. It was difficult to follow all of what was put by honourable members on the other side of the House this evening because of the new position of the Opposition, the National Party and the Liberal Party being separate entities. Liberal Party members support an amendment requiring the Government to commit itself to calling for applications for new commercial television licences in Melbourne and Sydney within two years and in other capital cities by 1992. Various Liberal Party speakers ranged across pay television and direct broadcasting but at the same time talked about localism. They did, however, support the cross-media rules. It was interesting to note that the honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd) and subsequent speakers on behalf of the National Party did not support cross-media legislation. It was interesting but not surprising, for the reasons pointed out by the honourable member for Aston (Mr Saunderson) in his interesting contribution earlier this evening.

The thrust of the proposal by the honourable member for Deakin (Mr Beale) cannot be accepted by this Government. We have a broadcasting system where planning is not meant to be arbitrary and capricious. Under the present law governments must consult with licensees in making planning decisions. That consultation has been painted tonight as something terrible. However, one has to look at major planning decisions which can fundamentally alter the structure of markets, put at risk the profitability, and even the viability, of existing licensees and radically alter the nature of programming. That was another matter raised at some length by the honourable member for Aston.

Let me give the House some examples of the major planning decisions that are conventionally approached. The area of equalisation decisions is one of the areas which, interestingly, honourable members opposite seem to be united on. They propose to deny extra services to regional Australia. It will be interesting to see National Party members trying to justify this approach to the constituents they purport to represent. The equalisation decisions were preceded in the planning process by a public report. There was a forward development unit report by my Department which explored options-it did not make recommendations-for increasing the number of television services in rural areas. The report was followed by a public comment phase and an exhaustive round of community and industry consultation.

We followed a similar path in relation to the extension of FM radio. We do not accept that so fundamental a change to the broadcasting system as the Liberal Party now proposes can be introduced in this way. There has been no examination of its implications for programming, the viability of licensees, employment and no opportunity for community discussion. The proposal, to put it mildly, is in my view an immature and undeveloped approach. To announce it here without doing anything more than moving it by way of amendment should be condemned as an arbitrary and quite pathetic performance by the Opposition.

I put it to the Opposition that it does not seem to have considered what would happen if, as the honourable member for Aston said, operators had licences `coming out of their ears'. He then mentioned the fact that one could watch a station one night and it might disappear the next. These are very important matters which the honourable member for Deakin, on reflection, will probably give more thought to. For example, a question we on this side of the House consider important is Australian drama and Australian programming generally. It is worth mentioning that the Australian drama content of 104 hours per channel costs about $50m a year. There is the requirement of eight hours of children's drama. There is the requirement relating to religious programming, news, current affairs and other programs under the adequate and comprehensive cover required by the Act. Those matters seem to have been thrown out the window by the Opposition which suddenly says that licences should be issued. I said earlier that another member of the Liberal Party-not the honourable member for Deakin-talked about pay television, direct broadcasting satellites and, at the same time, localism. It is worth noting, for the benefit of regional television operators, that how that can all happen at once and how we can retain localism are totally beyond my comprehension. It will also be beyond the comprehension of honourable members opposite when they sit down and think about it.

I have already referred to the need, in making major planning decisions, to explore the implications of change. It is worth pointing out a number of matters which come to mind immediately. It may seem rather boring to honourable members on the other side of the House-this was mentioned by the honourable member for Goldstein (Mr Macphee)-but in all these matters we have to consider the question of the availability of frequencies. People can be critical of engineering decisions. One of the defences of lawyers is that when one asks two lawyers for an opinion one will finish up with three. If one asks two engineers for an opinion one might finish up with four. Nevertheless, the issue of the availability of frequencies has been completely skated over tonight. There are no VHF frequencies available for new television services in Melbourne and Sydney. Yet it is put to us tonight that we should introduce new television services by July 1989 in Sydney and Melbourne and by July 1992 in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart. But as I said, there are certainly no VHF frequencies available in Melbourne and Sydney; so any new services would be UHF, with all that implies in the commercial sector about the character of competition between the new licensee and the existing licensees.

Another implication, which I mentioned earlier but which I wish to repeat because it is one of the most significant aspects of this debate, is the impact of extra commercial licences on Australian content. Seventy per cent of Australian made television programs are made by or for the three television organisations in Melbourne and Sydney, Channels 7, 9 and 10. Any proposal to divide the pool of advertising revenue available in those markets must impact on the capacity of the existing licensees to meet their Australian content obligations. Let there be no mistake about that. One cannot divide that advertising cake and then require the Australian content this Government believes in. If honourable members opposite do not believe in it, it is about time they came out and told the people of Australia. We will see how they like that.

I do not propose to dwell on the contribution by the honourable member for Goldstein because I know that he has very strong feelings on these matters, but he kept talking about a certain concept. He mentioned Huw Evans. I assume that he was talking about some sort of Channel 4 concept which perhaps ought to be considered by this Government or some other government in the context of some sort of public access television. But I remind the honourable member for Goldstein that that is not what the amendment moved by the honourable member for Deakin is saying. He was talking about something entirely different. If one looks at the amendment, one will see that it refers to the calling of applications for at least one additional commercial television station. So I think the honourable member for Goldstein ought to be very clear about what we are talking about.

Finally, I would like to make a few observations about priorities. This Government believes that rural people should have access where possible to the same level of services as is generally available in cities. Technology provides the capability, and sensibly structured or commercial broadcasting systems can provide those services profitably. We say that this is the priority and we have been saying if for a long while. It is very illuminating to hear-and I think that the National Party ought to think about this a little-where the priorities of the Liberal Party lie. It says that it does not like equalisation. It voted in the other place to block a Bill which would give two extra services to country people. Now it says: `Let's have more licences in the cities'. We are not talking about regional Australia here; the Liberals are talking about Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Tasmania. They want more licences in those places, thereby widening the gap between the cities and country even further. I suppose that the Liberal Party will say that this is a market outcome. If it thinks that it will give country people some comfort to know that they have been denied services that people in the cities have taken for granted because of the almighty market, I suggest that it is sadly out of touch with the realities of Australian political life. It will justifiably pay the penalty for that at the next election.

We have heard a lot of bleating about regional television from the National Party, and what it wants to do and what it does not want to do. Localism is something it keeps talking about. The fact is that if regional television does not have competing services which provide a diversity of choice, where that can be achieved on a population basis, as I said earlier, similar to that provided in the cities, it will not be possible for regional television to survive because technology will be the problem. The system will be there to deliver signals to country people. As I have said consistently since 1983, there is no way that we will be placed in a situation where we can have direct broadcasting from those commercial channels and in fact we are going to say: `No, you can't have it'. The Government rejects the amendment to the motion for the second reading moved by the honourable member for Deakin on behalf of the Opposition.

Debate interrupted