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Tuesday, 18 October 1983
Page: 1870

Mr O'NEIL(9.28) —I thought that the speech of the honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd) was very constructive. As a matter of fact he said very much what I wanted to say in connection with the Radiocommunications Bill and cognate Bills. I thank him for that. The fact that the legislation replaces the Wireless Telegraphy Act of 1905 gives some idea of how urgently the new legislation is needed. The framework of the old Act had become incapable of being stretched any further to try to accommodate all the changes that were taking place. Probably no field of technological advance has had such a direct influence on our way of life as that of electronics. Probably no other field had been the subject of so much rapid change.

Year by year it has become easier and generally cheaper for anybody at all to make use of all the radio waves for two-way communication. It is so much taken for granted that even thieves and vandals are on record as having organised their break-ins with the use of walkie talkies. What many users of radio communications at the unskilled level fail to realise is that the radio frequency spectrum which carries their signals is not unlimited in its capacity. Although there is still ample scope for further orderly use of the air waves with equipment of sound quality, it is relatively easy to cause disruption with irresponsible use of sub-standard equipment.

Dealing with interference is one of the weaknesses of the present Act. It has no way of dealing with interference from devices other than radios, which might be anything from electric tools to radio frequency heaters or even microwave ovens. Radio frequency heaters, for instance, now used extensively in industry wherever an indirect heat source is needed, have been responsible for blotting out television programs over whole suburbs. This has been the subject of numerous complaints from within my electorate, in particular from Whyalla, Port Augusta, Port Pirie and Port Lincoln. I have had numerous complaints from these areas over a long period.

I think it is relevant to add to some of the points which the honourable member for Murray made. Four points which I think are relevant, taking into consideration the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1905 compared with this particular legislation, are these: In the 1905 legislation there was no control of interference, whereas in this legislation interference will be controlled; in the 1905 legislation there was no control of Australian satellites, whereas within this legislation we will have control of Australian satellites; in particular in relation to my electorate, where previously there was no arbiter for interference disputes, I am pleased to see that in this legislation conciliation processes will be provided, and, whereas in the previous legislation powers of enforcement were limited, very correctly we now have provision for inspectors. I think this is very constructive.

This Bill also contains provision for enforcing standards in many categories of equipment to reduce the chances of interference which, as I say, is very positive indeed. This will have the effect of protecting unwary buyers of unlicensable electronic gear such as sub-standard transmitters. The onus to prevent such sales will, under this legislation, fall on the supplier. Standards will be extended to non-radio equipment capable of generating interference. They will also cover receiving sets, in particular those in the sensitive high fidelity bracket, which may be unduly vulnerable to interference from transmitters because of a lack of a normal amount of built-in protection against it. The drawing up of standards to cover all classes of equipment likely to affect the radio frequency spectrum will be a huge undertaking and will, except perhaps in cases of extreme urgency, mean publication of intention, an invitation to public comment. I believe this to be an extremely positive step.

One notable feature of the new legislation is its extremely broad scope by comparison with its predecessor. The old Act does not bind the Crown. This one will. Electric power lines, railway signal devices and traffic control impediments, are all capable of creating radio interference. The most spectacular departure from the past is, of course, the Aussat Pty Ltd domestic satellite, due for launching in a couple of years. Naturally, the present Act has no category for it. The new one will licence satellites, although other regulations will be brought in to cover the broadcast uses of Aussat. Satellites will, in future years, become major users of the radio frequency spectrum and there will be a need to pay particular attention to large receive-only stations used by them for dissemination of programs. In such cases where certain types of receivers require special departmental attention, they will share the licensing obligation of transmitters but there will be no question of requiring licences for normal household radio or television receivers.

Some features of this Bill may appear stringent at first, such as the right to impose a fine of up to $2,000 for possession and intent to use an unauthorised transmitter, or the right for government inspectors to search, if decided necessary, without a warrant. However, it must be brought home to all who have any reason to use radio transmitters in particular that they have a great potential for harm if improperly used. They can trigger off electrically detonated explosions and they can impede communications with aircraft, shipping or emergency services. Apart from this, messages transmitted can also be used to cause harm. The prescribed $10,000 fine, which may be $50,000 in the case of a company, is conservative in the light of some of the possible hazards that could be created or caused. Likewise, the power to search without warrant in an extreme case may be vitally necessary for Commonwealth or Territory police to save lives. The power to do so is unlikely to be taken lightly because it is subject to justification after the event. Another contingency power is given to the Governor-General to declare a period of emergency of up to three months, during which time extra controls are applicable to transmitters during a threat to national security or to the defence of Australia. The object of this would be to protect vital communications during a time of emergency. It is very important to note that there is no time when it is more necessary for communications to be 100 per cent efficient than during an emergency, either local or national.

Probably the aspect of radio communications that most concerns members of the public in their everyday lives is the interference with domestic radio or television reception. This matter has often been unsatisfactorily resolved in the past even though the cause of the interference has been clear enough. The power given to the Minister for Communications in this Bill to refer such disputes to a conciliator who may call a compulsory conference of the parties and recommend a solution should be a vast improvement on the legal proceedings that have occasionally been found necessary in the past. There is probably no other country where radio communications have been accepted for so long as a normal and necessary part of life in places where general conditions are fairly rugged and sometimes even primitive. I refer to the outstanding contributions to lives of people in the outback made by such historic Australian institutions as the Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia and the School of the Air.

I conclude my remarks by saying that I trust that this legislation will not only bring about the tightening-up of responsible radio communications legislation but also be put to use in areas where at present there is no adequate television or radio coverage, particularly in my electorate of Grey. The people in these remote areas have been extremely patient for a very long time. To say the least, they certainly deserve better. It gives me great pleasure to commend this legislation to the House.