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Tuesday, 12 May 1987
Page: 3046

Mr DUFFY (Minister for Communications)(11.10) —The first matter that I wish to refer to in relation to the amendment moved by the honourable member for Gilmore (Mr Sharp) concerns amendments to the Overseas Telecommunications Act. It was disappointing to hear opposition to those amendments by the National Party of Australia. This may have been a result of some misunderstanding of what the Communications Legislation Amendment Bill proposes to do. This legislation will enable the Overseas Telecommunications Commission to participate in Australia in telecommunications activities that do not have a direct international component. The amendments will enable OTC to participate in activities such as: Membership of the telecommunication trading and development company, proposed by the Australian Industry Development Corporation, which is a significant factor for OTC, and; commercial developments of research and development projects sponsored and financed by OTC-for example, antenna design with universal applications. I suggest that the honourable member for Gilmore give some thought to that because a tremendous amount of work has already been done by OTC which could be of considerable benefit to people in the country for whom the honourable member for Gilmore and the honourable member for Maranoa (Mr Ian Cameron) so eloquently express concern in this House.

Other activities are the marketing of specialised computer software and undertaking domestic consultancies. OTC will not be empowered to compete domestically for the provision of basic telecommunications services. The amendment excludes OTC from the establishment, operation, provision and maintenance of telecommunications services. Ministerial approval will be required before OTC exercises its new domestic powers. It is anticipated that domestic activities will be undertaken under the umbrella of an arm's length subsidiary to ensure that there will be no cross-subsidisation between domestic and international activities. That is a matter about which the honourable member for Gilmore expressed tremendous concern. I repeat for his benefit that activities will be undertaken under the umbrella of an arm's length subsidiary to ensure that there will be no cross-subsidisation between domestic and international activities.

The honourable member for Gilmore expressed concern on behalf of the industry regarding a reduction in public consultation requirements for the making of standards, spectrum plans and frequency band plans. I am extremely interested that so much concern has been expressed to him by the industry because the honourable member for Deakin (Mr Beale) has obviously not been inundated with such concern and, I assure him, nor have I. The issue here is the reduction of consultation requirements in relation to standards, spectrum plans and frequency band plans, which are justified, especially given that once the standard has been made the supply of substandard devices or the possession or operation of a substandard transmitter will attract a maximum penalty of $10,000 in the case of an individual or $50,000 in the case of a corporation. I understand that the honourable member probably raised this matter because of the substantial penalty involved. But I do not think that there has been anything like the outrage which he had indicated is in the industry because the industry understands what this is about.

The answer to the honourable member's problem is that as the Radiocommunications Act presently stands, even the most minor technical and totally insignificant amendment which may be proposed to a standard or plan following the first round of public consultation has to be published for comment. So there is a first round of public consultation, but however minor the amendment may be it has to be published for comment. Under the proposed amendment it will still be open to a Minister to republish a plan or standard for comment where significant alterations have been made to the document in response to the first round of consultations. Therefore, I think the concerns expressed by the honourable member are not really justified on that basis. The amendment will do away with the cost of needless public consultation in the making of plans and standards. But it does not take away what the honourable member seemed to think that it did in relation to that consultative process. I think that it probably meets the concerns that he has raised-I hope it does-which were in fact not properly placed.

As to the pay television moratorium, I find it extremely interesting that the honourable member is saying that the people in rural Australia see pay television as some sort of answer to their problem. I doubt that very much. As the honourable member for Maranoa is aware, as he made reference to this in his wide-ranging contribution, this Government is committed to providing a remote commercial television service--

Mr Ian Cameron —When?

Mr DUFFY —I can assure the honourable member that it will be provided as soon as possible, but I am not in a position tonight to tell him exactly when. I am becoming extremely tired of people coming into this House and saying: `Yes, the Minister has concern for people in the country'-I hope that is correct, and I think it is correct-`We are doing everything that we can'. But let us just go back a little in time. Tonight we heard accusations that this Government has allegedly given preferences to certain people. We all make tremendous mistakes in this game, but the biggest mistake that I can recall having made was fighting the fight for regional television in relation to remote commercial television services.

Mr Ian Cameron —Where is it now?

Mr DUFFY —If the honourable member would listen, I will explain. The mistake was this: The regional commercial television stations put together a consortium to provide remote commercial television. The competing operators who wanted to provide that service at that time were in fact the networks. Networks 7, 9 and 10 were also interested in providing it. The dangers in that were obvious at that stage to commercial regional television in rural Australia, and that was why this Government decided-it was not an easy matter for the Government to decide-in fact to give the opportunity for applications for licences for the remote commercial television licences to consortiums of regional television stations rather than to the dreaded networks that we have heard so much about tonight. The time has come when we are not going to be able to let it go on for very much longer unless the regional consortiums are prepared to deliver. They said they could deliver that service, but at this stage they have not shown any real indication as to when. They have not even signed a contract with Aussat Pty Ltd. I am telling honourable members that if it is at all possible that service will be provided. If the remote commercial television service cannot be provided by a consortium of regional television stations, which have said that they could provide it but which are now having second thoughts-and that is not surprising-because of the--

Mr Ian Cameron —You forced them to aggregate.

Mr DUFFY —We are not conducting a conversation on this matter. If the honourable member wants an explanation as to what is happening, I will give it to him. If he wants to conduct a conversation across the chamber, I will talk to him privately at some other time. I am not going to stand here all night and conduct a conversation with him on this matter. Although the current licensees are not prepared to say that they will enter into a contract to provide this service-negotiations are in fact going on at the moment in relation to this matter-a remote commercial television service will be provided. This Government is doing everything in its power to have that matter finalised, insofar as the arrangements can be finalised at this stage, as quickly as possible. I can say no more than that. I find it surprising that pay television is the answer for rural Australia suggested not by the Liberal Party but by its country cousins, who seem to be saying: `The best way to provide television for remote Australia is by making people in remote areas pay for it'. The Liberal Party does not seem to be saying that and this Government is not saying it either. We are saying that the people of remote Australia are entitled to a commercial television service which is free to air and which is not a pay service. That is what this Government will provide.

I find extremely interesting the great impatience of people who ask: When is it going to happen? The Opposition was in government from 1975 to 1983. When we came to government the National Party had some sort of concept of a second homestead and community broadcasting satellite service which, as much as one can piece it together, was a remote commercial television service. But the National Party had no idea where it was going. We have run into difficulties in this area because of a problem which I think even the honourable member for Maranoa will understand-the viability of a remote commercial television service. The service will be provided as soon as possible. The second reading amendment moved by the honourable member for Gilmore to delete the pay television moratorium provision, the Overseas Telecommunications Commission provision--

Mr Beale —Why do you need the moratorium?

Mr DUFFY —The honourable member may well question the need for a moratorium. As indicated earlier, the moratorium on pay television is a major policy decision.

Mr Ian Cameron —Come on, you are protecting the networks.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Millar) —Order! The honourable member for Maranoa is recognised for his wide ranging debate. He must not confuse it with a wild ranging debate. I ask him to remain silent.

Mr DUFFY —The honourable member for Deakin raised this question. There was a lot of criticism tonight on the issue of governing by a Press release, something which we have been accused of. I will not go back and canvass that matter because I would be doing what I have been suggesting honourable members should not be doing, and going back to the Broadcasting (Ownership and Control) Bill. In our view, pay television does not provide an immediate or practical alternative to equalisation for regional Australia. It is not an alternative to extra free to air television services. The moratorium will provide a breathing space to further assess changes in the communications environment. Developments in this area are moving very quickly. One area to consider is fibre-optics and their possible impact. Another matter we have to consider is the possible impact of pay television on the film and television industry.

As I indicated, the pay television moratorium is an important policy decision. We consider that it ought to be endorsed by legislation by this Parliament. If the Opposition decides that it will not do that, so be it. But we are bringing to the House tonight what we consider to be a major policy decision. We are not prepared just to announce a moratorium. The industry across the board needs some certainty on this issue. This is a major policy decision. If the decision to have a moratorium on pay television for four years were just announced tomorrow by a Press statement it would be reasonable for the honourable member for Deakin and the cockatoo over there to complain about governing by Press release. Nevertheless, we have decided on this matter that it is desirable to have this sort of major policy decision endorsed by the Parliament and it is also desirable to have it reflected in legislation. It is before the House on that basis. If honourable members opposite do not agree with it they are entitled to vote against it. But that is the basis on which we consider that we need a legislative base for that decision. On that basis, the amendment moved to the second reading motion by the honourable member for Gilmore is not acceptable to the Government.

Amendment negatived.

Original question put:

That the Bill be now read a second time.