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Thursday, 13 February 2003
Page: 11809

Mr McGAURAN (Minister for Science) (11:56 AM) —I thank the member for Moncrieff and the member for Hinkler for their constructive and impressive contributions to this debate on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 3) 2002. The member for Moncrieff has made something of a splash in the federal parliament since being elected over 12 months ago now. It is very gratifying to see that he is prepared to tackle complex but vitally important areas of government administration, with wide economic, social and cultural implications, such as telecommunications. The member for Hinkler is experienced in this field and has devoted a great deal of his 12 years of service to the federal parliament in immersing himself in the finer details of telecommunications and communications policy on behalf of his rural constituents. As a result he has had a major influence on government policy in the area of telecommunications and has therefore been a major voice on behalf of rural Australians. I again thank those members for what they have contributed to the preparation of the bill before the House and for their commentary on it. Their worthwhile contributions to the debate stand in stark contrast to those made by members of the Labor Party.

The member for Melbourne has something of a problem. He cannot lay a glove on Senator Alston, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, on any aspect of telecommunications and communications policy. He was today reduced to demeaning himself and the opposition by making mere personal attacks on the minister for communications and the Prime Minister.

Mr Neville —For 25 out of 30 minutes.

Mr McGAURAN —For 25 out of 30 minutes he raved on this particular issue and left only five minutes in which to make some passing reference to the legislation, which is of great importance. This is a highly technical, newly emerging technology which will revolutionise much of the daily and commercial life of our community. But he could not resist the temptation. He cannot score points in a policy sense—and that is a testament in itself to Senator Alston and the government's sensible, balanced decisions on a range of communications subjects and issues. It is also a reflection of his own frustration that he has been unable to make inroads on Senator Alston's administration of communications policy.

What it boils down to is simply this: Senator Alston and the Prime Minister, after much consideration and discussion between themselves and within their own offices, accepted on a temporary basis the loan of the special new TVs. They declared them—in Senator Alston's case, to the Clerk of the Senate and to the Prime Minister under the Prime Minister's code of practice; and, in the Prime Minister's case, to the Clerk of the House as the Registrar of Members' Interests. It was all above board and there was nothing hidden, nothing kept private or secretive. That is the first thing; they fulfilled their public and parliamentary obligations.

The second thing is that in this parliament we are discussing extraordinarily important legislation dealing with digital television, which is still in its infancy. Senator Alston and the Prime Minister are the two primary influencers and shapers of public policy in this area. Of course they have to experience first-hand the possibilities, limits, ranges and the like associated with television and communications of this kind; it stands to reason. Nothing could underline that point more than the fact that we are debating today revolutionary television communications throughout Australia with huge economic implications—for the consumer first and foremost, but also for industry itself. The member for Melbourne's personalised attacks are not worthy of him or the opposition, nor are they worthy in light of the public policy importance of this bill.

There has been some claim that the take-up of digital television in Australia and throughout the world is slower than predicted by commentators. I do not find that surprising because it will take time for high definition technology, like other emerging technologies, to grab the interest or imagination of the public—leaving aside the very high cost to average men and women in Australia of taking up the technology in the first place. But it has to be said that interest in HD technology is building, as are sales of digital TV equipment. We know there is an expanding level of interest in HD in the United States—most prime time productions are filmed and released in HD, and cable companies are broadcasting an increasing amount of HD content, particularly sport, drama and movies. HDTV is being pursued in Canada, Japan and Korea. There is also growing interest in the United Kingdom and Europe. In Australia, I am advised, one broadcaster is already providing 20 hours per week of HD content and another intends to broadcast HD content 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The basic policy principles underlying the digital television conversion framework are clear. They are: a conversion from analog to digital television with the minimum of disruption to viewers; stability and certainty for the television industry; the introduction of a range of new services; and a range of options for viewers in terms of equipment, capability and price, including lower cost entry products. The government will continue to monitor both local and international progress in take-up of digital television, including scope to improve outcomes for consumers. It is entirely appropriate for the government to monitor developments and respond, where appropriate, to an evolving commercial landscape. We are looking, always, for improvements to policy in the interests of the general public. This bill makes sensible amendments to the legislative framework for the introduction of digital television, but it supports the basic policy principles that I have outlined. It does not move away from them; it reinforces and builds on them and expands their reach.

Finally, therefore, I would say again—unlike the member for Melbourne, his colleagues and the Australian Labor Party—that digital television offers benefits to Australia, if properly managed. Digital services have commenced in metropolitan state capitals and a number of regional areas. The government remains committed to ensuring the transition from analog to digital broadcasting is as smooth as possible for viewers—they are our primary concern. This bill will continue that overall approach of ensuring a steady transition. I commend it to the House.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Wilkie)—The original question was that this bill be now read a second time. To this the honourable member for Melbourne has moved as an amendment that all words after `That' be omitted with a view to substituting other words. The question now is that the words proposed to be omitted stand part of the question.

Question agreed to.

Original question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.