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Thursday, 29 May 1997
Page: 3990


Senator COONAN —My question is to the Minister for Communications and the Arts, Senator Alston. The minister would be aware that more than 100 community radio stations are unable to get a full-time licence and, as a result, are having enormous difficulty maintaining community support and continuing to operate. What immediate steps are being taken to ensure community broadcasters are given the opportunity to broadcast full-time?


Senator Campbell —Madam President, I rise on a point of order. Do you accept what was a highly qualified withdrawal of an unparliamentary remark by Senator Sherry? If he wants to make the allegation of misleading parliament, that is a serious offence. He should move a motion of censure if he wants to do that. Otherwise, he should withdraw unconditionally.


The PRESIDENT —I took it that he had withdrawn the main accusation unconditionally. The other one is an accusation he made throughout his question.


Senator Campbell —I would seek that he withdraw that as well. That is a conditional withdrawal from our point of view, and I would seek an unconditional withdrawal.


The PRESIDENT —Will you withdraw unconditionally, Senator Sherry?


Senator Sherry —I withdraw that Senator Kemp lied to the Senate.


Senator ALSTON —This is a very important question from Senator Coonan, because this government, unlike its predecessor, has a commitment not only to supporting the community broadcasting sector but also to expanding it. We have already delivered on our election commitment, which was to provide an additional $3 million over three years to expand the community broadcasting sector. It had languished under Labor, it had been going backwards in percentage terms, and we came to the party.

What is much more serious about Labor's default in this whole area is that they cruelly led the community sector on into believing that new licences would be granted. The licence area processing plan, which was put in place as far back as 1992, was designed to ensure that there would be new broadcasting licences throughout all licence areas in Australia by June of last year.

That simply has not happened. We are now looking at a 3½ year slippage in that licence area planning process. That is an absolute disgrace. It is something we are not prepared to accept for any greater length of time. We are therefore prepared to amend the Broadcasting Services Act to allow the majority of aspirant community broadcasters to have the capacity to commence full-time broadcasting.

In other words, up until such time as the planning process is completed they will able to broadcast on a full-time basis—not this silly nonsense of periodic temporary test transmissions for a maximum of 90 days per year, an approach which has been in place now for something like 20 years and which has caused enormous frustration, start-up and turn off, with people going out of business not being able to be sure when they could ever convert to full-time. We are determined to stop that and to provide a level of viability for many community aspirant groups that simply has not been there to the present time. I am very confident that that will lead to a significant increase in the diversity and range of broadcasting and media services in the community sector.

But over and above that, we are also prepared to make a decision in relation to the sixth television channel. As senators would know, that matter has been the subject of inquiry by me and my department now for some months. We have taken advice from the ABA. We expect to be in a position to make a decision on that fairly soon. But again, it is important to ensure—


Senator Robert Ray —You might even be able to get the cricket on it.


Senator ALSTON —I am sure you can make representations if you are missing out. What we will do in that area is to allow for an extension of 12 months to allay the concerns of current licence holders who are seeking renewal after 30 June 1997 pending the making of that decision. In other words, it will enable the four existing operators and four others who already have licences but have not commenced broadcasting to continue for a guaranteed period of time. If a final decision is made in favour of community access it may, of course, take some time to put it into place. That will give them a transition path. Conversely, if a decision is made to leave the channel vacant then they will have plenty of time to embark on the necessary wind-down arrangements.

So these measures are designed to ensure that there is greater diversity in new media services. We have digital radio and television just around the corner. But in the short-term it is very important that there are new licences in the commercial area for analog services. That will occur when we are able to catch up with the licence planning process. In the meantime we will ensure that those community aspirants who have been missing out to date on permanent arrangements will start to have them. We are busy transforming the sector. We are not prepared to put it in mothballs as you did.