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Thursday, 25 March 1999
Page: 3337

Senator CROSSIN (6:52 PM) —For AFL football fans, this day, Thursday 25 March, is an auspicious one, marking the start of an eagerly awaited 1999 home and away AFL footy season. At the outset, I should declare some personal interest in tonight's debate—I have to admit to being an avid Essendon fan. It is not as bad as being a Carlton fan, I guess. It just so happens that the mighty Bombers are playing their first game of the season tonight against Carlton. Many residents of my electorate of the Northern Territory are fanatical followers of Australian football. AFL plays a very important part in their lives, as indeed it does for a lot of Australians, especially Victorians.

As you may know, over the years the Territory has produced some outstanding AFL footballers, people like Maurice Rioli—now a Territory Labor MLA, Michael Long, Andrew McLeod, Robbie AhMat and Mark West, just to name a few. However, the issue that I want to speak about tonight is that the residents of the majority of remote Territory communities—whose residents, I should add, are predominantly Aboriginal—will be missing out on watching broadcasts of the AFL games. They have already missed out on watching the excitement of the preseason Ansett Cup competition. Football is big in the Territory's Aboriginal communities. Young Aboriginal kids love to play and love to watch.

Football is a big community event. If you visit any of the Territory's remote communities, you will always see young Aboriginal kids playing football, emulating their AFL heroes, wearing their jumpers. I am thinking of such Top End communities as Barunga, Daguragu, Pine Creek, Milingimbi, Yirrkala and Mataranka; and Central Australian communities such as Areyonga, Yuendumu, Santa Teresa, Willowra, Nyirrpi, Hermannsburg, Wallace Rockhole, Mutitjulu and Docker River—and the list goes on. These are remote communities, mad keen on AFL football and now unable to watch the Channel 7 footy broadcasts. I should also point out that many communities in the area of South Australia stretching from Moomba to Ceduna, which also receive Imparja broadcasts, may miss out on AFL broadcasts.

Next week I intend to table a petition signed by over 400 Territorians living in remote locations, who are upset that they cannot access AFL broadcasts in their communities. How did this happen, and why am I on my feet in the Senate to talk about this? On 23 December last year, the Australian Broadcasting Authority extended the broadcast areas of the Aboriginal owned Imparja Television, which broadcasts out of Alice Springs, and the Telecasters owned television station, then a Channel 10 affiliate, which broadcasts out of Townsville. The extension of their broadcasting licences allows Channel 7 Central and Imparja to broadcast into each other's broadcast areas. This move gave viewers access, theoretically anyway, to two commercial channels.

At the same time, Telecasters decided to become an affiliate of Channel 7 Network from 1 February this year, giving them full access to Seven Network programming, including the AFL. As a result, Imparja, which had broadcast AFL games to remote communities via satellite for the past 10 or so years, lost the right to show AFL games—meaning that those communities that only get Imparja can no longer automatically watch the AFL broadcasts.

As a result of all this, these remote communities have three alternatives. They can keep Imparja, and go without Channel 7 Central and the football; they can choose to give up Imparja—with its local news, Aboriginal programs and other programming—and switch over to Channel 7 Central; or they can purchase the additional decoder and apply to the Australian Broadcasting Authority for a licence that would allow them to access and retransmit the additional commercial channel. However, if they decide to proceed with the latter—which is the most preferable because it gives them access to all TV channels—and buy the equipment, they need to find anywhere between $8,000 and $30,000, depending on whether they are a self-help or BRACS community, and depending on what transponders and transmission equipment they need.

For many remote communities, many of which are impoverished and barely managing with the local government funding they receive, that sort of money is simply out of the reach of most of them. Channel 7 Central has said it will install the necessary retransmission equipment, but only in communities larger than 2,000 people. However, this excludes the Territory's remote communities, which vary in size from about 400 to 1,000 people. I believe that the Territory's remote communities are entitled to access the AFL on the same terms as other Australians do. I firmly believe that a universal service obligation should be introduced for Australia's broadcasting services to ensure that all Australians have access to a range of broadcasting services—including broadcasts of what is, after all, Australia's national game, AFL. As was pointed out in the report on Communications with Australia's External Territories, which was tabled in the Senate this week:

Broadcasting services are not just a commercial matter. They influence both cultural identity and the Australian people's sense of national integration. For this reason it is in Australia's long term interest to ensure that all Australians receive a variety of Australian broadcast services through clear and reliable signals.

Last week, in what can only be described as a very cynical move aimed at softening up the Senate for the debate on the further sale of Telstra, the federal government announced it would allocate funds to improve broadcasting services to remote and regional communities.

The government said this move would give BRACS, the Broadcasting in Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme, and `self-help' communities in remote areas of Australia access to a second commercial channel and hence access to AFL football broadcasts. Self-help communities are those communities which decided not to install individual decoder dishes but instead bought a community transmitter. The funding would help them buy additional transmitters and a satellite decoder by providing for 75 per cent of the cost of the purchase. But, and here's the catch, these funds would come from the further sale of Telstra, which the government had hoped the Senate would pass this week.

However, we saw what happened with the government's Telstra bill this week. At the last moment, after a few hours of debate, the government pulled the bill from the Senate for an `indefinite' period of time. I am glad the bill has been pulled because I do not believe the sale of Telstra will benefit my constituents in the Northern Territory. It would simply lead to a reduction in the quality of telecommunication services. I also do not believe that the provision of adequate broadcasting services to Australians living in remote communities should be dependent on the further sale of Telstra. Instead, the federal government should ensure access to broadcasting services is provided to all Australians as a right, independent of Telstra's future.

The federal government has made a mess of the aggregation process involving Imparja and Channel 7 Central. It should have ensured that viewers would be able to maintain the existing viewing, especially programs such as AFL broadcasts, or rugby league, in the case of Northern Queensland viewers. The least the federal government can do now, in the short term, is immediately ensure that Imparja is given the right to broadcast AFL games for the 1999 year or until all remote communities are able to access the additional commercial channel.

Senator Alston should immediately call the AFL, Channel 7 Central and Imparja together to find a short-term solution so that those residents of remote communities can access those AFL broadcasts. The most obvious solution to the problem in the short term is for Channel 7 Central to allow a program swap, which would meet the needs of both stations' viewers in the short term. I also point out that Senator Ian Macdonald, the minister for territories, speaking on ABC radio last week misled Territorians by saying that Channel 7 and Imparja had agreed to a temporary program swap. When the stations were asked about this program swap, they knew nothing about it. It makes you wonder if this government knows what is actually happening in remote and regional Australia. Imagine the outcry if Australians living in Melbourne or Sydney suddenly found they couldn't access the AFL or the cricket.

It is simply not good enough for the federal government to ignore the problem or to promise that all the problems will be solved by the privatisation of Telstra. The government is being irresponsible in getting the hopes up of those residents of remote communities and using them as political footballs in this outrageous debate. I call on the government to act immediately to ensure that residents of remote communities have adequate broadcasting services and that all Territorians can access their footy.