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Tuesday, 17 October 2006
Page: 85

Mr HAYES (6:40 PM) —The government attempts to sell these laws as reform. I have to say that they are nothing of the sort. Reform is the last thing that the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006 and the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 should be described as. These bills before us today reduce media diversity, competition and choice. They simply cannot be described as good public policy.

It is often said that variety is the spice of life. I have to say in that case that, if these bills are passed in the House, life will become considerably less spicy with the passage of these bills. These bills will reduce media diversity. Diversity, quite frankly, is essential for the proper functioning of Australian democracy.

When considering the impact of the provisions of these bills, I considered the changes that have taken place in the delivery of media in the decades since the introduction of Australia’s cross-media laws. Since that time, certainly the internet has gone from strength to strength and mobile phones can now receive television programs. Who knows where technology is going to take us next? Also, I think we should have some regard for the speed at which innovation and ideas are now coming to the market and being adopted.

The development of alternative platforms since the days when there was only television, radio and print begs the question: has diversity increased? While many would argue that it has, I certainly do not believe that the addition of new platforms in itself amounts to diversity. Sure, the means by which you consume the media—the platform on which it is delivered—has certainly changed. The diversity increase simply has not occurred just because you can now watch Neighbours on your TV or your mobile phone, or you can access it over the net on your computer. The fact is that the program remains the same—it is only the delivery mechanism that has changed.

The member for Prospect referred to the ACCC’s chairman, Graeme Samuel, who addressed the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. I too would like to quote Graeme Samuel in this regard. He said:

We think the internet is simply a distribution channel. It has not shown any significant signs at this point in time of providing a greater diversity of credible information and news and commentary.

This is further borne out when considering the share of news and advertising on our websites. The top four sites in Australia account for 84 per cent of news and information hits. Fairfax receives about one-third, News Ltd receives just under one-quarter, the ABC receives about 14 per cent and PBL receives nearly 13 per cent of the hits. So the suggestion that the internet provides diversity simply does not stack up. While this may change through time, the question must be asked: will the provisions of these bills effectively create too high a barrier to entry for prospective new media entrants into the Australian media market? Will those entrants actually be curtailed forever? I hope that members opposite bear this in mind when they vote on these bills.

I consider it very fortunate that in the communities of the Liverpool and Macarthur areas we are served by a number of media outlets. In addition to the newspaper, radio and television stations that serve the greater Sydney and suburban areas, the electorate of Werriwa is served by the Macarthur Chronicle, the Campbelltown-Macarthur Advertiser, the Liverpool City Champion, the Liverpool Leader and the Southwest Rural Advertiser, together with radio stations C91.3, 2MCR and 2GLF. These are important sources of local news for communities in the Liverpool and Macarthur areas. It is my view that they do an excellent job of providing high-quality local content. All these media outlets have a very strong and longstanding commitment to their readerships and listenerships. They have become more than the local paper or radio station. They are active in their sponsorship of local charities and local sporting activities. They make sure that local events are certainly given the highest priority as they are reported to the local community.

I raise the case of these local media outlets because I am concerned for their future following the passage of these bills. Much like the prospects of the larger media organisations, it is difficult to predict with any accuracy what might happen over the next few years. But I am concerned that there is a real danger that the newsrooms for local papers, such as these throughout the metropolitan area of Sydney and possibly some throughout New South Wales—or anywhere else for that matter—will go through a process of mergers simply to cut costs. Newsroom mergers have two main implications: the loss of jobs and the loss of local reporting. I have to say, I am concerned about both. I am concerned that there is a possibility that in suburban areas the consolidation of outlets could conceivably result in what once was an excellent local newspaper or local radio station being systematically downgraded until it becomes nothing more than a masthead or station name with little local content at all. These bills could result in, for instance, the Campbelltown-Macarthur Advertiser having nothing more than a front page covering local issues, with the rest of the paper being mass-produced material consisting primarily of advertising. I do not like that sort of possibility, and I am sure that when it comes to this issue local readerships and listenerships would also be similarly disgusted with a downgrade of our media services and support, if that were ever to occur.

The passage of these bills through the Senate has resulted in much speculation about the advent of mergers and takeovers in the media sector and the prospect of anticompetitive behaviour. I have spoken about these aspects on many occasions in this place, but speculation was rife in the media over the weekend about what might happen, who might buy what and so forth. Only today, Mr Deputy Speaker Haase, as you no doubt appreciate from your own reading of the papers, there is speculation about one significant media player and the prospects of the sale of its particular media interests.

At this stage, no-one can reasonably predict the exact outcome in terms of ownership of Australian media assets. However, it is clear that these changes will result in the greater concentration of media ownership both in metropolitan and in regional areas. Australia already has a relatively concentrated media market, certainly by international comparisons. With the passage of these bills it is only set to get worse. In Sydney and Melbourne, the number of owners could, quite frankly, halve and in many parts of regional Australia they could fall by one-third. As I outlined earlier, central to the operation of a fully-functioning democracy is a free and diverse media. These bills are a body blow to diversity and, as such, they are a body blow to Australian democracy.

Australia has had a sound set of media ownership laws for many years now. Australia has not been alone in this. When you look at many other democracies, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Korea and the Netherlands, you see that all have cross-media ownership laws. The removal of these laws will mean that the Australian public, and Australian democracy for that matter, will become dependent on the protection of the ACCC. Speaking personally, I have little faith in this approach to the protection of media diversity. I have little faith in the abuse of market power that will not occur in the media markets, and I do not think the ACCC has the appropriate level of power to prevent this from occurring. We have all just seen, not all that long ago, that the federal government would not allow the ACCC to have additional powers for policing or, at least, conducting an advanced state of monitoring of petrol prices, particularly when petrol prices are rocketing. We have also seen that the changes for small businesses included in the Dawson bill have not found their way into the powers of the ACCC. One wonders whether this government will ever give the ACCC the powers that it might require in the future to protect the Australian economy from abuses of market power and to protect our democracy, particularly as it will now stand under the terms of these proposed laws and as the vanguard of protecting diversity.

Put simply, the ACCC should not be the organisation tasked with protecting Australian democracy. We would not be relying on it for the future if these laws had not been proposed—because, presumably, they will be passed—by this government. Quite frankly, this media ownership bill is an active display of this government very forcefully abrogating its responsibility with respect to media ownership. Senator Fielding described these changes as moving to a ‘different system of regulation’. I agree it is a different system but, far from being a good system, it could only be described as a fundamentally bad approach.

One of the greatest concerns that residents of my electorate have when it comes to the changes to media laws—in addition to their concern about real local content which I spoke about a little earlier—is the antisiphoning list. Ever since the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts announced her intention to prune the antisiphoning list and introduce the ‘use it or lose it’ regime for free-to-air television, a great number of constituents have contacted me to express their concern over the potential loss of major sporting events from free-to-air television. They are concerned that the minister’s pruning of the list may mean that they will be forced to subscribe to pay television in order to continue to watch their football team or cricket team, or any iconic sporting event.

The minister has yet to provide the details of her plan, and I have to say that does ring alarm bells. When members of this government refuse to give details, you have got to be wary, because this is not the first time they have brought down legislation without the full detail in it, basically saying, ‘Trust us; we will deliver.’ In the past, that has not proven to be the case with many of the other pieces of legislation that have come before us in this place. When we are told that the details will be worked out later, we do have something to fear.

On behalf of the constituents who have contacted me and my office—and, by the way, those who have not but are concerned about the prospect of a wholesale transfer of sporting events to pay television—I would like to indicate to the minister that it is absolutely essential that the ‘use it or lose it’ mechanism does not become the backdoor means of slashing the antisiphoning list. As I have indicated, many people in my electorate, and no doubt across the country, do not have a desire to subscribe to pay television or cannot afford it. They basically rely on the antisiphoning list to be able to continue to watch a range of major sporting events.

Senator Fielding said in his contribution to the Senate debate on these bills last week:

More and more families are not reading newspapers and cannot afford them.

While many of the views that he expressed seem entirely at odds with his eventual support of these bills, his point about the affordability of media and entertainment should not be lost: if Australians cannot read newspapers because they cannot afford them, then what hope do they have of being able to afford pay TV to view their preferred sporting events?

To date, the minister has refused to give a guarantee that her plan will not see Australian families having to pay hundreds of dollars a year to watch sporting events that are currently televised on free-to-air TV. I call on the minister to give such a guarantee and to make sure the ‘use it or lose it’ approach to the antisiphoning list will protect the rights of Australians to see major sporting events on free-to-air television. I also call on the minister to make any changes to the regulations subject to disallowance by the parliament. I do not want to see a situation emerge where the antisiphoning list is slashed, possibly back to nothing, with no recourse for the public.

While the negative implications of the changes to the cross-media ownership laws are significant, there are some positive elements, particularly in relation to digital television. I was a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications, Information Technology and the Arts that was involved in the inquiry into digital television in Australia, during which we considered the means available to encourage the take-up of digital television. Digital TV transmission began in Australia in 2001 and, despite 95 per cent of households now being able to access digital services, depending on their geographic location, the take-up has been extraordinarily slow. The provisions of this bill change the current switch-off date for the analog television system to between 2010 and 2012.

In addition, I welcome the provisions of the bill that free up the genre restrictions on the ABC and the SBS multichannels, something the committee also recommended. But it is a disappointment, to me at least, that in the medium term restrictions will remain on televising sport on the antisiphoning list unless it has already been shown on the main ABC or SBS channel, or is being shown simultaneously on the main channels.

The bill has other aspects that are positive for consumers, but it also reflects some compromises designed to appease powerful commercial interests. I am not convinced that the provisions of this bill will dramatically lift the take-up of digital television before commercial broadcasters are able to commence standard definition multichannelling somewhere in the vicinity of 2009.

National Party members seriously believe that they have protected regional media by selling out for a few minutes of local news content. They were also under the mistaken impression that they had protected regional Australia from the ravages of the sale of Telstra and, similarly, that they had gained great concessions on industrial relations. All have proved to be worth nought. Why then should anyone believe that what they have achieved here is any different? If National Party members value diversity, local content and regional media outlets then they should do what their conscience dictates on this; they should join with Labor members and oppose this bill.

I believe in diversity and a vibrant media. I do not believe that the minister should be able to use the review of the antisiphoning list to exclude people from watching major sporting events on television, and I am concerned about the future of suburban media outlets and the role that they play in our local communities. The content of these bills is a threat to Australia’s democracy and culture. I agree that media laws cannot remain static, particularly if technology continues to advance at its current pace. While media laws, like any other laws, need to evolve, I do not believe that the time has come that the Australian media is diverse enough to justify the provisions we have before us. For those reasons, I oppose the bill.