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Monday, 1 June 1998
Page: 4303

Mr HARDGRAVE (4:51 PM) —I am delighted to hear particularly the Deputy Manager of Opposition Business, the member for Watson (Mr Leo McLeay), offer support for the digital television bill, because I have a grave concern that in fact in the other place opposition senators may choose, in their usual style, to delay the process of that bill. I think that in itself, if it were to occur, would bring about the exact opposite outcome to what the member for Watson is aiming for in his fine motion before the House today. So I would urge the member for Watson to use what I understand to be his considerable power within the opposition to ensure that there is smooth, steady and timely passage of that legislation when it reaches the other place. One thing is for certain: there needs to be a level of certainty so that all those operators of television, both the ABC and SBS, along with their commercial counterparts, can get on with the job of actually ordering the equipment and can get on with the business of providing digital television here in Australia.

With that, as has been outlined by the member for Port Adelaide (Mr Sawford), there is a requirement to upgrade the amount of captioning that is contained in Australian television programs, and that is a good thing. That only 15 per cent of programs across the networks are currently captioned is a great shame and a great disgrace. Less than half of prime time programming is captioned. It has taken the initiative of one of the commercial networks, if I could highlight the Seven Network and its efforts since 1977, to show the lead to the others. Seven, in the year 1996-97 increased its captioning from 38 to 53 per cent, while unfortunately the Ten Network's captioning commitment reduced to below 30 per cent. That probably had as much to do with the viability of that network at the time as anything else.

It is important to highlight in this debate today the efforts of Channel Seven and, in particular, the efforts of Channel Seven Brisbane. John McFerran, who is the national manager of the Austext organisation within Seven, has had 40 years experience in the television industry. McFerran has worked very closely with everybody from the Queensland Deaf School right the way through to, in more recent years, the Australian Captioning Centre with a view to expanding the amount of caption material available to those who are hearing impaired or profoundly deaf.

Mr Neville —Without compulsion.

Mr HARDGRAVE —There has been no compulsion, as the member for Hinkler has quite rightly highlighted. Whilst those opposite will often suggest that the almighty dollar is the prime motivation of commercial operations in Australia—and high profits, I think the member for Port Adelaide said—it is more than admirable that the Seven Network, for one, has turned its profits back into its Austext operation. I was going to say `experiment' because I think it was when it started in 1977. Here we are in 1998 and over half of the Seven Network's programs in prime time are captioned as a result of Austext. It has been an incremental increase over a long period of time. That Austext service, providing people have access to or own a television with a teletext facility, is accessible to about 96 per cent of the Australian population through the Seven and affiliated networks. So that signal is there.

I must submit, as secretary of the government's backbench policy committee—the member for Hinkler is our magnificent chairman—that the matter of closed captioning has not escaped members of the government. We have some concern that in the digital TV regime Seven is allowed to continue—and is, in fact, encouraged to continue—its great work in the area of closed captioning, so that those in our community who are deaf or hard of hearing are able to access information not just as a result of closed captioning but also through the Austext service.

So there is probably a need for government to play a role in providing some legislative parameter. I think that is a reasonable and fair thing. A lot of that is addressed in the bill that is before the House. It is fair to set some targets. It is a matter that the government has not lost sight of.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins) —Order! The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned, and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting. The member will have leave to continue speaking for 30 seconds when the debate is resumed.