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Thursday, 14 September 2006
Page: 72

Senator STEPHENS (2:12 PM) —My question is to Senator Coonan, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts. I refer to the government’s proposal to require regional radio stations to produce a local content plan that sets out how they will provide local news and information if they become part of a cross-media group. Can the minister confirm that this idea is similar to the local presence plan that the government imposed on Telstra? Isn’t it the case that Telstra’s local presence plan has allowed the company to announce the sacking of up to 12,000 workers and the removal of 5,000 payphones? Given this experience, why should anyone in regional centres like Orange, Dubbo or Albury believe that their local news service will not be gutted if their radio station gets swallowed up in a merger? What guarantees can the minister give that this will not happen?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —I thank Senator Stephens for the question. I commence my answer by saying that she is quite wrong—there is actually a difference between a local presence plan for a major telecommunications company and a local presence plan for regional radio stations. But, moving right along, the important thing to understand about regional protection is that it will protect regional content and diversity for consumers because it is a key component of the media package that was introduced into parliament earlier today. There are a number of measures, for Senator Stephens’s information, contained in the framework that will ensure that regional consumers do not miss out on the benefits of media reform. To best achieve protection of local content levels, the government will legislate to maintain minimum content levels for regional commercial television in regional Queensland, regional New South Wales and regional Victoria. It will also be extended to Tasmania, and the government is examining similar requirements in respect of South Australia and Western Australia.

In addition—particularly in relation to radio, which Senator Stephens asked about—where regional commercial radio licensees change ownership or become part of a cross-media group, they will be required to meet minimum local content levels, including local news and weather bulletins, local community service announcements and emergency warnings. They will be required to maintain at least the existing level of local presence, including staff levels, studios and other production facilities, and to submit local content plans to the Australian Communications Media Authority, which will specify how licensees will meet their local licence conditions, for consideration and for approval.

Local content obligations may also be imposed where the format of the service is narrowed or when the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts directs ACMA to consider imposing local content requirements. Local content requirements and the need to protect consumers and to ensure diversity in rural and regional Australia have been a key part of the government’s development of the media package. They ensure that those in rural and regional areas will be able to maintain a level of live and local content and that there is an important journalistic presence in respect of news and broader local content. The balance in enabling radio stations to take part in the media package while maintaining local diversity has been an important part of how this package has been developed. I consider that it is critical that a live and local presence be maintained. On the same point, it is very critical to ensure that there is not a special and overburdening layer of regulation just on rural and regional radio and television. It is important that there is not a two-tier system of regulation for media. In addition, it is extremely important that those who consider mergers in these areas do so knowing well in advance what will be required to maintain a live and local presence so we can approach these reforms with media companies with certainty and with consumers being certain of how they will be able to access live and local services.

Senator STEPHENS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for her answer. It probably would have been helpful had she been able to describe what the levels of minimum service represent in real terms. It gives me a real concern about local presence plans and the local content plan. Surely, as many of her National Party colleagues suggested, media moguls will be able to drive a truck through the local content plan, just as Telstra has been able to do with the local presence plan. Does this not mean that the minister cannot give any guarantees really that local news and radio services in the bush will not be cut? After failing to live up to its commitment on Telstra in relation to regional services, is there any reason why anyone should trust the minister to protect regional media services?

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) —That is a bit rich coming from Senator Stephens, who is a member of a party that does not even have a policy on rural and regional Australia either in telecommunications or in media. The shadow minister goes missing and they have to trot out a 20-year policy to try to give themselves a bit of oxygen on this issue.

Senator Chris Evans —Mr President, I rise on a point of order as to relevance. A supplementary question is not an opportunity for the minister to launch an attack. She was asked about a serious concern about radio services in the bush under her plans. I think the Senate deserves an answer to that question.

The PRESIDENT —The senator has been answering that question, particularly in the main balance of the answer, and she has 32 seconds to complete her answer.

Senator COONAN —I am afraid 32 seconds does not give me enough time to wind up some sensible assessment of the absolute policy paucity of the Labor Party in relation to telecommunications and media policy. They are an absolute disgrace, reliant on poor old Mr Keating. Let him retire. Let him go somewhere where he does not have to trot out on media. Try to develop your own position on these things.