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Thursday, 19 March 1987
Page: 1188

Mr SNOW(8.44) —We are debating the Radio Licence Fees Amendment Bill, the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill (No. 2) and the Broadcasting Amendment Bill (No. 2). I welcome the co-operation of the Opposition in this debate for the passage of these Bills, but once again we see some evidence of contrasts within the coalition. I doubt whether the leadership of the Liberal Party of Australia shares the views of its spokesman on communications. He seems to want more regulation of the broadcasting industries and his leaders seem to want less. Earlier today we saw evidence of differences within the Party when the honourable member for Petrie (Mr Hodges) differed markedly from the Liberal spokesman on health on the wisdom of safety nets for prescriptions for the chronically ill. Tonight we see a real contrast in the policies on media ownership.

The honourable member for Goldstein (Mr Macphee) is worried about the types of owners in television and radio, yet his leader thinks that television and radio ownership should be open slather-anyone should be allowed to own them. What has happened seems reasonable enough to me. New owners have come into television and there is more likely to be a diversity of presentation. I say to those who think that media ownership has become too concentrated that they ought to look at the broad spectrum of ownership now operating particularly in the television industry. I believe it will lead to that diversity.

I am very concerned about the proposed changes scheduled for certain television stations. For instance, WIN television in New South Wales is required to change to UHF transmission. I have written to the chairperson to the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation stating a number of concerns that I have. I would like to see an independent person or committee established to look at a number of points in relation to conversion to UHF. I am concerned whether the requirement will have a predicted outcome, whether that outcome will be fair to viewers, some of whom will lose their reception, and whether that outcome is unreasonable at a time when the Government has, through aggregation, decided to broaden the available television programs.

I have tried to discuss and explain the policies to local people. I accept that the move is an attempt in theory to correct the mistakes made with television started. However, it has become more and more evident to me that the changes may create more problems than they will solve. I suggest that an independent person or committee should look at whether transfer to UHF should be abandoned for all channels other than new channels. For instance, WIN television should be permitted to use VHF channel 3 from Knights Hill and thus service all of the people who now receive it. I have been advised that there are approximately 100 FM bands, of which 20 are in the VHF area. There are plenty of radio stations-and they come to see me-in capital cities and country areas which want more FM bands. There is a very urgent need on the South Coast of New South Wales for an Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio service. At least 20,000 people on the South Coast of New South Wales have little or no access to ABC radio, and it will probably have to be provided on FM bands.

If it is true that there are approximately 100 FM bands of which 20 are in the VHF area, that leaves plenty of bands for FM for the time being. I understand that band 4, in the middle of the bands, will need to be taken from WIN television in Wollongong. Band 3 will not interfere with band 3 Newcastle because the 5A band exists comfortably in both areas. We should look at the possibility of WIN using channel 3 VHF. I also suggest that any independent inquiry should consider whether band 5A could be retained for Wollongong ABC. It is already used in Newcastle and apparently is not part of the band 2 clearance. It may well be that band 5A is coincidental with the WIN change.

I also suggest that any independent inquiry ought to look at whether channel 12 will be available. I understand that that channel may no longer be required by the Department of Defence after 10 or 11 years. I guess that after that time any increased demand from FM over and above the existing proportion could involve a transfer of channels such as band 3 to VHF 12 at that time. I also understand that band 9A may be available at some time from civil aviation but that this would conflict with Sydney channels and thus not be available. It may well be unreasonable to expect so many people to lose television services which they now receive when we are thinking about giving other people more services.

It seems that we ought to be wary about relying on our own Australian experience to date with UHF-which is not a very long one-and that we ought to look closely at the experience on other countries. There are UHF problems, with curvature, hills, buildings and even trees. Shade spots are often unpredictable until the signals start coming out. I welcome the policy of the Government and the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) to ensure that there are concurrent signals from VHF and UHF for a time. But, if it takes time to work out, surely Channel 12 should be available, and a lot of the worry, turmoil, investment and hard work may have been pointless. I also understand that there could be a higher cost to industry with UHF with more transmitters being required. I am concerned that low income earners, particularly on small rural farms, may suffer because they will be the least likely to pay for new masts or set alterations or, in some cases, for a new transmission service from the remote area service. It may be that, because of the high cost to government of additional transmitters for the ABC, we also ought to consider that possible need.

I certainly understand that many new channels will need to go to UHF. My concern is that viewers do not suffer from the change, because many of those who now receive VHF in remote areas will no longer receive it. Also, because it will no longer be economically viable to supply UHF to some of those communities-in fact, many communities of less than a few hundred-we ought to consider how long it will take us to transfer to UHF and how long it will take to find out how successful it is. I earnestly hope that, as a Government, we do consider a closer look at the effect of the change and the necessity for existing channels to change from VHF to UHF.

As I said, I welcome the legislation, which takes some important actions on penalties, information gathering powers and other matters. The Government has proposed a penalty for non-payment of licence fees of 20 per cent per annum, because it considers it to be a much more appropriate and reasonable penalty than the suspension or revocation of the licence, which seems completely out of proportion to the offence. In fact, that penalty has never been invoked. On information gathering powers, which I will mention briefly, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal will be empowered to seek information from licensees for the purpose of licence fees assessment as well as for the purpose of assessing the financial information which must be supplied to the Tribunal under the Act. The proposed information gathering power is severable from other licence fee amendments and will be a complementary power rather than one which is immediately required.

The most important loophole in the Broadcasting and Televisions Act concerning the inability of the ABT to obtain information from licensees for licence fee collection purposes has been remedied in the equalisation Bill. It is interesting that the Federal Court of Australia decided in Amalgamated Televisions Services Pty Ltd v. The Australian Broadcasting Tribunal that there is no legislation which empowers the Minister or his agent to obtain information specifically for the purposes of the licence fees Acts. Powers to require production of financial information in the Broadcasting Act are, for the purposes of the Act only, although historically the information has also been used to calculate licence fees. In any event, the Broadcasting Act powers do not include the power to obtain information about relevant revenue received by a person other than a licensee, such as a related company, or the power to inspect records. To overcome the problem that no one has the necessary power to collect information for licence fee purposes or to inspect records, Cabinet has agreed to seek to amend the Broadcasting Act to provide information gathering powers for the Minister or a person or body acting on his behalf, which should be specifically tied to the licence fees legislation. I am pleased to support the three Bills.