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Thursday, 13 May 2010
Page: 3581

Mr TRUSS (Leader of the Nationals) (5:01 PM) —Television is very important to all Australians, particularly for those who live in regional communities. They want to have satisfactory signal and a choice of programs. They want to be able to see the programs that they want to see. They want to be connected with their local community. They expect that to happen efficiently, seamlessly and reliably. The close down of the analog television network is causing a great deal of apprehension in regional Australia. There are many communities that are not sure whether they will have television reception at all after this closure has been effected. And they have reason to be concerned about the way in which this government is handling the changeover.

Labor has a dismal record when it comes to communication services in regional Australia. They have a record of closing networks down without any regard for the people outside the capital cities who are adversely affected. Remember when the Hawke-Keating government closed the analog phone network and replaced it with GSM? There were tens of thousands of country people left with poor mobile phone coverage. Indeed, the GSM network failed to meet the expectations of and promises made by the Labor government. When the coalition was elected, the CDMA network was opened up, largely at the prompting of one of my predecessors, Tim Fischer. The CDMA network filled some of the gaps and it did in fact provide a much better coverage in regional Australia. But Labor had left regional Australians with a seriously defective mobile phone coverage.

Six months after the election of the Rudd government, they closed the CDMA network, so it has gone now as well. Again, we have an inferior signal in many parts of regional Australia. I do not live in a remote part of Australia. My electorate is all east of the Great Dividing Range. Yet there are many parts of my electorate where it is impossible to get mobile phone coverage. Even in my home, I struggle to get good coverage on many occasions. And it is because the new signal is inferior in many regards, particularly in the distances that it is able to cover, and so regional Australians are left without the kind of mobile phone network that they should have.

Then we get to broadband and the extension of broadband facilities at high speeds to all Australians. Prior to the last election, Labor said that it would deliver fibre to the node to 98 per cent of Australians at a cost of $4.7 billion and that it would start by Christmas of 2008. Then in April 2009, it changed the promise. Only 90 per cent of Australians would be covered by the high-speed broadband network and the cost had blown out to $43 billion. Two million Australians were to be excised from the promise and every town with fewer than a thousand people was excised from the promise that Labor had made before the last election.

Putting aside the dishonesty of the broken promise, the reality was that once again Labor had demonstrated that it did not consider high-speed broadband for regional Australians to be important. If you lived in a little town, you were going to miss out. You would get a second-class service. So people are seriously concerned about Labor’s track record when it comes to communications.

They also axed the Communications Fund. This fund had been set aside especially to deliver new technology to regional Australia and to fill in some of the black spots that occur when new technology is rolled out. That money was put aside. At the time it was put aside, it was put aside in sacred trust so that regional Australians could have some confidence that they would share in new technology developments in communications. But in fact that fund has been raided by the government to try and prop up its broadband scheme. Regional Australians have got nothing.

Indeed, since Labor was elected, there has not been a single cent of government money provided to fill in black spots in the mobile phone network. That is shameful. Obviously Labor members living in their city electorates and cabinet ministers—all of whom come from city electorates—have probably got pretty good mobile phone reception. But there are many small communities that do not. The black spots program was filling in those gaps—gaps that were not economical for the major telecommunications companies to service but which are important if you believe in equality of service and a capacity to cover the whole of the nation.

It used to annoy me to see Telstra ads boasting about how you could go from one end of the country to the other and stay totally connected to Telstra mobile phones. I could not go more than two or three kilometres from my own home before running out of reception. This government thinks that that is acceptable and it is not prepared to spend any money at all on filling in those gaps. This was a program that the previous government had funded faithfully over a period of time and it had made a big difference. It certainly filled in the worst of the black spots, but there are many more that still need to be filled in.

Labor is now coming to us with the news that they are going to close down analogue television and covert to digital. Is it any wonder that people in regional Australia are suspicious and concerned about whether, once again, they are going to be allowed to fall through the cracks? This bill proposes to authorise the establishment of a satellite service to cover some of those gaps. But unfortunately the government has been unable to explain to any of us how it is going to work, when it will be available and under what terms and conditions it will be made available to consumers of television in Australia.

I want to use the time I have in this speech to ask some questions that I hope the minister will respond to when he sums up the legislation. Sadly, the minister is not here but I notice that there are some of his advisers here. I am asking these questions in good faith because I have been unable to get to a stage where I can get answers to the questions. I will get to them a little later in my remarks.

I guess the core of the problem is that even under the old analogue network there were some parts of the country that could not be covered by television signals. There were 698 self-help and black-spot transmitters put in place to fill in some of those locations which were not covered by the primary transmitters. That delivered television to lots of small communities—they were not all in the country; some of them were in the cities, because there were black spots also in the cities. But the government has said that it is only going to upgrade, or arrange for upgrading for, 87 of those 698. The upgrades are going to be funded by the television stations themselves. That leaves 600 communities left in the lurch. There is some suggestion that other transmitters may cover some of those areas but we cannot have a great deal of confidence that that coverage will be complete.

Why isn’t the government converting all 698 transmitters? Why isn’t it? The 87 are costing $18 million, we are told. The government is allocating $40 million a year to this new satellite service. For that money you could have converted the whole 698 and, over a few years, put in another 698 if there were areas where reception was inferior. Why will we have a satellite service that will have significant implications for regional areas, particularly with the loss of localism in their programming?

The digital signal has different characteristics to analogue. It has a shorter range, generally. It performs quite poorly in wet weather and in some other weather conditions. That will be a particular issue in northern Queensland and at times of cyclones and weather disturbance when television reception can be particularly important. The digital signal cuts out dramatically. Most of us have already had to experience the situation of watching a digital television program which pixelates all over the place or simply shows a ‘no signal’ sign. Indeed, I have noticed it happen in Canberra over the last couple of days, so it happens in lots of places. This is a fundamental issue with the digital signal.

What about those people who are on the edges of the signal and are going to miss out altogether? Unfortunately, in August 2008 the government suspended its digital TV black spots checking program in non-metropolitan areas. So there is now no-one going around finding the spots where the digital television reception will not be available. How do we know which areas are going to be blacked out and which ones are not? Senator Conroy was asked this question in senate estimates, and his answer, to his great shame, was, ‘They’ll wake up in the morning and find they have a blank screen.’ So Senator Conroy’s test as to whether people are going to get digital television reception is that they will wake up in the morning and have a blank screen. Frankly, that is not good enough. It is not good enough for the cities and it is not good enough for the country. I do not think the government can rest on such a very flimsy approach to checking what areas will get television reception and what areas will not.

For country people, television is particularly important. They do not have a daily newspaper delivered to their doors. They are lucky if they get a weekly newspaper. They do not have a club to visit down the road if they want to enjoy some entertainment. They cannot go to a football game in a giant taxpayer funded stadium. They do not have a video shop down the road that they can simply walk along to if their television blacks out. They depend on this for a great deal of their family entertainment and information.

So any situation that results in significant numbers of families—or for that matter, one family—having the television reception which they have enjoyed for 10, 20 or 30 years suddenly not available, is unacceptable. It is quite clear that the government has not taken this concern seriously. It is quite obvious that there has not been adequate planning for this conversion, and there does not seem to be a willingness even to understand the difficulties that are going to arise. For instance, the government does not know how many households are going to require the new satellite service.

On 5 January, in a press release, the minister said that there were 247,000 households that would require this satellite service, but on budget night it was reduced to 130,000 households. Does that mean they got it wrong in the first place or is this new satellite service now going to be different from the one that was announced on 5 January? I suspect it is, because the language that is in the press release on budget night is very different from the language that was in the earlier press announcements. For instance, the original advice was that there were to be three satellite services: one covering south-east Australia—New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania; one covering Queensland and the Northern Territory; and one covering Western Australia. There were also to be three regional news services provided through a dedicated news channel. Is that still the situation, or has the Western Australian satellite been dropped out altogether? There is no reference to Western Australia any more, and in fact there is a suggestion that Western Australians are only going to receive a signal in the usual way from their regional channels.

When is the satellite going to be available? When is the transmission going to start to occur? What will be the source of the eastern states’ programs? This is a question that I hope the minister might be able to respond to. Will we still have three separate satellite footprints or are we now only going to have two? In some instances is it only going to be one footprint? There was a statement in the press release on budget night that high definition services will now be provided by a combined transmission covering the northern and southern zones. Is there now only going to be one service for high definition and only two services for standard definition? Has the situation changed, and is that the reason that the number of households that are going to benefit from this service has dropped, almost by half?

I am particularly concerned about the source of the programming for the satellite service for south-eastern Australia. Is it going to come from Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart or Adelaide? Are people who live in South Australia going to have listen to New South Wales state news, watch Stateline from New South Wales and watch the Rugby League during peak viewing times? Are they going to have to listen to New South Wales weather reports, or Melbourne weather reports? I gather they are all going to get the same one. We have been told that the service for South Australians—and you will be interested in this, Mr Deputy Speaker Ramsey—will be based on Sydney time. That of itself seems to me to be an inconvenience that ought to be avoided. I ask in particular: where is the signal going to come from and how many viewers are not going to be able to watch programs of interest to their state?

It seems that the high-definition service is all going to come from a single satellite—in other words, even people in the Northern Territory and Queensland will get the Sydney programs. Bear in mind that, at the present time, Queenslanders who want to watch ABC high-definition news get the Sydney news—not Brisbane news but Sydney news. The ABC has not bothered to provide any high-definition programming sourced from Queensland, so Queenslanders only get Sydney programming. Is that what country people have to look forward to in the future? The government has acknowledged that there is an issue with regional news services, and everyone wants to get their own local news service.

I have some more questions about this dedicated news channel. Will all local news services be available on the channel? Some areas have more than one regional news—will they all be available? Will people be able to get the news services from other towns? Will they get the local advertising and the local special programs as well, or just the news? And what about Western Australians—have they been left out of this local news service altogether? I think those are perfectly reasonable questions for us to ask.

I have also mentioned the issue of when the satellite service will be operational. It is only 48 days away from the closure of analog television in Mildura. Mildura viewers will have to have satellites and set-top boxes installed and operating by 30 June, but I have been informed recently that the set-top boxes are only going to be arriving from China on 14 June. So the people of Mildura are only going to have from 14 June to 30 June to find out whether they need a set-top box and, if they do, to get it installed. Do we know whether the set-top boxes are even going to work? Apparently it was only quite recently that decisions were made about the technology. I have heard that regional channels still do not quite know how they are going to get their news signal to the satellite and how that is going to be funded and organised.

It is quite clear that the government does not understand what is actually going on. I call on the minister tonight to give a commitment that the government will not turn off the analog television signals in Mildura or, for that matter, anywhere else in Australia until there is adequate coverage for all existing viewers. You cannot treat country people with such disdain as to simply close down their television signal without any option. To close down the analog signal in Mildura on 30 June is no longer realistic. People have had no opportunity to install set-top boxes, and they are not going to get that opportunity until just a few days before their signal is turned off. That is simply not good enough.

The reality is that television services are important to communities and we want to know how they will work. I do not think it is satisfactory for there to be just a single high-definition service for the whole of Australia. I do not think it is satisfactory that regional communities will have Sydney advertisements and Sydney programs transmitted to them. If someone is interested in buying a Holden, they do not want to know about the Holden dealer in Sydney; they want to know about the one in their own town. People want to know about the services that are available in their state and, in particular, their regional community. It seems that localism will be one of the casualties of this new satellite service.

I accept that there may be some people—although the government has, again, not made it clear—that will get services for the first time as a result of this service. I am not sure whether people in city areas, in high-rise buildings et cetera, that have trouble with the digital signal are going to be able to access the satellite or whether only those communities that are on black spot transmitters that are not going to be upgraded. It would be far better if they upgraded the black spot transmitters.

This must be the first time a Labor government has done something first in the country and left the cities till later. Labor usually gives the good things to the cities first. This is one thing that they are delivering in the country, and for that reason I doubt it is a good thing. I think there are going to be serious problems, and the government has not owned up to them. I look forward to the minister’s response to the questions I have asked. I hope that there will be a seamless transition, but I am not at this stage confident, and that is why I support the amendment moved by the opposition. We call on the government to ensure that no one loses their signal over this changeover. (Time expired)