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Wednesday, 18 October 2006
Page: 165


Mr CIOBO (10:30 AM) —It is with a certain amount of irony that I heard the contribution from the member for Lingiari, who referred to the fact that he thought the government was ignoring the people of remote Australia with respect to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2006 that is before the House and calling upon the minister to make changes to communications policy to ensure that some of our remote broadcasters are in a position to have some certainty going forward before the switch-off of analog television. That took my mind back to the Australian Labor Party’s decision, when they were in government, to switch off the analog mobile phone network. One must really be, I suspect, a little sceptical and cynical of the Australian Labor Party when they stand up and preach for 20 minutes about the need for the government to do something, while in some way attempting to demonstrate that it has a touch of arrogance, when they in fact switched off the analog mobile phone network and converted it to digital, having taken the decision to disenfranchise through the use of mobile telephony many tens of thousands of remote Australians. Having that at the forefront of my mind leads me to be a little cynical about the true motivation of the member for Lingiari and to wonder whether or not he is engaged in a scare campaign, rather than being open and frank with the people of regional and remote areas such as those in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland.

I just wanted to put that on the record in the lead-up to this debate. I note some comments that have been made by the member for Lingiari—comments that I assume will be made by the member for Lowe—who takes a particular interest in the government’s position on broadcasting policy. I would also make some comments at this juncture to highlight my strong support for the government’s changes to broadcasting policy. Whilst there are certain aspects of them that I could take or leave—in particular the 4½ hours of local content requirement, for example—nonetheless, this new policy, which is being debated for a number of hours in the House and will move on for further debate in other places, will in fact see recognition at long last that the media landscape in this country has changed significantly since the original inception of media policy introduced by Paul Keating some 20-odd years ago.

I turn now to the legislation that is currently before the Main Committee, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2006. The question may well be asked: why is a member from the Gold Coast speaking about a piece of legislation that predominantly deals with remote Western Australia? My response would be that that is a very good question. Nonetheless, I take an interest in this bill because I am concerned to ensure that the policy framework that is put in place by this bill will have application to and will be rolled out across the Northern Territory, parts of remote Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. In that respect, I am certainly pleased that the framework that we are putting in place is one that I believe achieves an appropriate balance between some of the commercial considerations of providing additional broadcasting services to remote parts of Australia and the desire that people have to be able to access the kinds of facilities and broadcasting services that people in metropolitan Australia have. With that thought in mind, I am pleased to be able to make a contribution to this debate.

This particular bill allows for the implementation of the agreed model for the introduction of commercial digital television services in remote Western Australia, which is defined now as being all areas outside of Perth. It includes the joint provision by WIN and Prime of a third digital-only commercial television service under section 38B of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. It also, as I mentioned, is applicable to remote central and eastern licence areas.

Since the introduction of this bill, I am informed that both WIN and Prime have continued developing plans for the introduction of their digital television services in remote Western Australia—as I mentioned, that is all areas outside of Perth. I am informed that both broadcasters indicate that this planning is well advanced and, subject to the passage of this legislation this year, it is planned that the digital transmission of current television services in remote Western Australia in 2007 will commence at the beginning of that year, with the new third service starting shortly thereafter.

This particular bill ensures that we will delete item 3 of schedule 1 to the act. This in effect will enable ACMA to use its existing discretion under subsection 38B(27) of the BSA to set a revised date to commence the allocation process for the third commercial digital service in remote Western Australia. ACMA has indicated that this will be done within six months of the passage of this bill and it receiving royal assent, but it will be done in consultation, most importantly, with both WIN and Prime.

At the moment the BSA does not specify detailed measures for introducing digital television in remote areas. In recognition of the need to give appropriate considerations to the very special circumstances of these areas, ACMA is required to make a legislative instrument, referred to as a commercial television conversion scheme, to set out the terms of that conversion process. Passage of the bill will provide the framework for ACMA to develop the conversion scheme for Western Australia, allowing digital broadcasting to commence and the third commercial service to be provided.

Under section 38B of the BSA and its associated provisions, commercial broadcasters are allowed in regional licence areas with only two commercial licences to jointly—or, alternatively, for one broadcaster individually to—elect to provide a third digital-only service. Where they elect to undertake this in a joint fashion, they must provide each of the digital versions of their new analog services and the new joint service on a separate TV channel and provide high-definition television programs. The amendments contained in this bill will extend these provisions in a modified form to remote areas such that they will allow remote area licensees who have elected to provide jointly the third digital service to multichannel the three digital services on a single radio frequency channel with exemptions from any HDTV quotas that might be applied. Similarly, if a third service is provided by only one of the two licensees, that licensee will be able to multichannel the digital version of their analog service and the new service on a single digital channel.

To simplify these digital conversion arrangements in WA, it was necessary to ensure that all areas outside of Perth were technically classified as being remote. This model that is being adopted by the government for regional and remote WA does represent, as I mentioned, a balance between the public interest considerations and the special circumstances of remote area commercial television broadcasters. The fact is that these broadcasters do face significant cost pressures due to the very wide geographic area that they serve and the sparse population. Requiring delivery of HDTV to all viewers in this market would be a very significant cost to broadcasters. Viewers will also benefit from the new third digital service delivering a substantially increased range of information and entertainment.

This model will have application to those who are looking at operating in remote parts of the Northern Territory and Queensland—where I have a particular interest, of course. I am certainly pleased that ACMA has indicated, together with DCITA, that they are currently working with the two remote central and eastern Australian broadcasters—those being Imparja Television and Southern Cross Broadcasting—to develop a digital conversion model for remote central and eastern Australia. I am certain that, with the passage of this bill and further developments with respect to Western Australia, those parties operating in the Northern Territory, and Southern Cross Broadcasting, will be able to progress this matter further this year, including the consideration of providing a third digital service. Of course it is not possible at this stage to provide a firm date for completion of digital conversion arrangements, but it puts paid to the allegations the member for Lingiari raised that in some way this government was not responding to the needs of people in remote Australia. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The mere existence and introduction of this bill highlights that this government is extremely responsive and is taking significant policy steps forward to ensure that people in remote parts of Western Australia and, subsequently, Queensland, New South Wales and the Northern Territory will be able to have access to quality digital programming and a range of channels similar to those in metropolitan areas. Most importantly, this bill also recognises the very legitimate cost pressures that arise through the operation of a digital service in remote Australia. It recognises that the additional costs that flow from covering such a wide geographic area with such a small population should be appropriately taken into account when it comes to decision making as to the kinds of licences and the application of the licences for licensees operating in parts of remote Australia. I commend the bill to the House.