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Thursday, 19 March 1987
Page: 1200

Mr DUFFY (Minister for Communications)(9.54) —in reply-Firstly, I would like to make the point that honourable members were fairly wide-ranging in the debate tonight but the Opposition is in accord with the provisions of the Radio Licence Fees Amendment Bill, the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill (No. 2) and the Broadcasting Amendment Bill (No. 2) which are the subject of a cognate debate. I would like to thank those honourable members who have taken part in the debate. The Opposition members were the honourable member for Goldstein (Mr Macphee) who, of course, is the shadow spokesman for communications, the honourable member for Fadden (Mr Donald Cameron) and the honourable member for Warringah (Mr MacKellar). My colleagues on this side of the House were the honourable member for Eden-Monaro (Mr Snow), the honourable member for Stirling (Mr Ronald Edwards) and the honourable member for Isaacs (Mr Charles). I would like to respond to the matters raised by some of the speakers, particularly the matters raised by the honourable member for Goldstein but I will deal with those matters last because he ranged very widely across the whole area of broadcasting.

Mr Beale —Spectrum.

Mr DUFFY —As the honourable member for Deakin has interjected, across the whole spectrum. I thank him for his technical expertise and for correcting me in that regard. However, let me deal with a couple of the matters that were raised. The honourable member for Eden-Monaro put forward views in relation to VHF and UHF. I have discussed those matters with him at some length in the past. He is a person who puts the point of view of his constituents very strongly and in that sense, he put that view again tonight. He has written to the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation on those matters. I do not agree with the views that he has put forward but the matter is still under consideration and the Senate Committee report next week will have something to say about that.

The honourable member for Eden-Monaro also touched upon the legislation which is before us tonight, which was merciful, because it was a little difficult really to see what we were on about. Just briefly, I ought to attempt to summarise these Bills. The Broadcasting Amendments Bill is part of a package of measures to introduce greater certainty and more efficient administration in the assessment and collection of radio and television licence fees. In particular, the Bill helps to ensure full and prompt recovery of fees owing to the Commonwealth. The amendments to the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill will be of great value in the collection area as the improvements to the provisions for assessment and collection of licence fees contained in the Bill and others in the package are a common sense administrative improvement rather than any dramatic change in policy direction. That is why I think the Opposition agrees with them, as I indicated earlier. The measures in the radio Licence Fees Amendment Bill again provide greater certainty in the assessment and collection of radio licence fees which will be difficult to circumvent.

The honourable member for Warringah made a comment regarding the problems of his constituents on the North Shore of Sydney in relation to television reception. As he said, I am well aware of that. It is a long running saga that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation talked about tonight and it is often said that it is something that has gone on as long as Blue Hills. That matter has and it is a difficult matter. As the honourable member indicated, at the moment there are very strenuous attempts to bring that matter to resolution. He also mentioned the question of taxing mechanisms in these licence fees. As that is one of the things that we have at the moment in the political debate I find it an extraordinary proposition from members on the other side of the House. It is one of those matters where again they want to cut government expenditure. I find it extraordinary to have any suggestions from honourable members opposite that they would not be collecting licence fees in this area in the same way as they did in the past and we have done in government. I do not really know whether the honourable member for Warringah was attempting to make that point strongly, but it is obviously quite ridiculous.

The honourable member for Fadden talked about the crisis in radio planning in Australia. He dealt with the ABC and public radio and then moved into the area of commercial licences and particularly the problems with AM and FM. The honourable member talked about the Department-as did those Opposite from time to time and sometimes those on this side of the House-as if it had created this problem. In defence of `the Department', as the honourable member refers to the Department of Communications, a little bit of history ought to be spelled out on the problem that we have in this area. In 1960 the Huxley committee was established to review the use of the radio frequency spectrum by various radio communications services. That committee concluded that there would be no VHF, FM radio services in Australia-a quite extraordinary conclusion, but that was it. It decided to introduce several new channels for tele- vision, including channels 3, 4 and 5. These channels overlapped the area of frequency used internationally for FM radio services. As a result regional television services-both ABC and commercial-frequently employed channels 3, 4 or 5.

In 1973-74, following considerable public pressure, the Government of the day, a Labor government, set up an independent inquiry into this matter and the decision was taken to adopt FM radio in Australia. It is worth reminding those opposite that it was not until May 1984 that this Government, with me as Minister, publicly announced that the clearance of channels 3, 4 and 5-known as the band 2 clearance-would proceed. I find it a little galling to hear honourable members opposite complaining about the delay or inaction in the clearance of band 2 when they acted on a determination of a committee which said that there would be no FM radio at all in this country. One wonders what they did about this matter between 1975 and 1983. I suggest that they did precisely nothing, because in that period there was a paralysis in this whole area of broadcasting. The clearance of band 2 will proceed as expeditiously as possible. It ill behoves those opposite to criticise this Government on that issue.

The honourable member for Stirling and the honourable member for Isaacs spoke about ratings. It was interesting that they both said that that was a matter for the industry-which it is. The points they made are regularly by many people, and I think that their views would be shared by large areas of the public. Another matter that the honourable member for Stirling mentioned was that of parliamentary broadcasts. He seems to have the view that people out there are not riveted to parliamentary broadcasts and that a parliamentary broadcast is not the first thing that they want to tune in to for the day. He particularly takes the view that they do not want it at breakfast time in Western Australia. That is a quaint view which I do not know how many of the honourable member's colleagues share. If tomorrow were broadcast day in the House of Representatives I wonder whether there would be the same enthusiasm on the part of some honourable members to have the cricket broadcast as there appears to be tonight-particularly by Western Australians, of course. With the injury to Dean Jones, I suppose that they will have a little more enthusiasm than they would have had if Victoria had been fielding a full side.

I would now like to deal in some detail with the matters raised by the honourable member for Goldstein. As I said earlier, he ranged very widely, and I would like to take up a few points. On the question of the letter which was sent by Aussat Pty Ltd to Remote Commercial Television Services licence holders-the first issue-those licences were issued by the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal to QSTV and SSE in September 1986. I am advised that Aussat has for some time been negotiating with the licensees to enter into contracts. That is all they have been asked to do. As far as the letter from Aussat is concerned, it is understandable that Aussat wants its contracts for those 30-watt transponders clarified. The honourable member for Goldstein referred to Press articles saying that the licensees are holding off until the results of the Senate Select Committee into Television Equalisation are known. In my view, these considerations have no bearing on the framework within which the RCTS service was conceived. The concept of equalisation surely is not new. It was probed by the Tribunal during those hearings.

The Senate Select Committee's decision on equalisation is not intended to affect the concept of RCTS. Those services will be a welcome addition to Australia, and are eagerly awaited by those in the remote and under-served parts of Australia. I think it is about time that the licence holders for those remote commercial tele- vision services made up their minds as to where they are going. If they do not want to provide the service I ask them here and now, as I have asked them time and time again at a meeting last year and again in correspondence as well as in correspondence from Aussat, to make up their minds one way or the other.

The honourable member for Goldstein also raised the issue of non-media companies buying into the media. It was in some ways a rather odd matter to raise. He saw the possibility of such interests being likely to be used to bargain with governments for more favourable policies in return for more favourable media treatment.

Mr Charles —Free shopping in Southlands.

Mr DUFFY —Yes. Assuming that the honourable member for Goldstein really believes that this is a problem, I will deal with a couple of those points. When it is analysed, we see that it is really a matter not for government but for the Broadcasting Tribunal. That tribunal has the power to inquire into whether a licensee is a fit and proper person. It may suspend or revoke a licence as a result of its inquiries. Clearly, such actions as those suggested by the honourable member would, in my view, reflect on a licensee's fitness and propriety. The honourable member for Goldstein did not suggest that anything like that had happened, but he indicated that it could. I think that the powers of the Tribunal are sufficient to handle the sort of situation. The Tribunal takes those powers seriously. Very recently, it made a decision in order to ensure that licensees observed the standards of conduct required by the relevant Act. That covers the matter raised by the honourable member.

The honourable member for Goldstein also referred to localism in Melbourne television programming and to related employment matters. He was referring to the decision by John Fairfax and Sons Ltd to program more out of Sydney to Melbourne. The example of that which has been used quite a lot in the Press in the last few days was the decision to axe World of Sport. As I have said before about regional television, there are powers in relation to programming which again are vested in the Broadcasting Tribunal, including comprehensiveness of the licensee service. That is looked at at licence renewal time and can be looked at at other times in the public interest because the ABT has the power to look at the adequate and comprehensive nature of programming and to consider employment as well as programming.

The same thing applies to regional television as applies to metropolitan television. If a situation develops in Melbourne in which it is decided that there will be a relay from Sydney and one of the Melbourne stations has the wit to pick up that point and have Melbourne production, if we have ever seen market forces work they will be likely to work in those circumstances. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. When we look at the productions that are done locally we see that they rate very well. Whether some people might not think they are terribly good at a highly sophisticated level is really irrelevant because many of the programs are very good and even those that some say are not so good rate well. I think that that problem to which the honourable member for Goldstein adverted in his thoughtful contribution-his contributions are always thoughtful-is not one that will not be sorted out in the market-place. If people consider that Melbourne can be a relay from Sydney they might have a bit of a shock coming because people might vote with their hands by turning off that particular station. Only time will tell about that matter, but I am not as concerned about it as the honourable member for Goldstein suggested he was tonight.

The other matter which the honourable member continually raises is the end of the two-station rule. He talked about people being in breach of the law and then dealt with the six months grace period. It ought to be pointed out that when a person has a prescribed interest in three or more commercial licences-this is known colloquially as the two-station rule-a six month grace period, or longer with ABT approval, is allowed for a person to divest. What might happen in the future is something we will have to deal with if and when it happens, but at the moment people are not in breach of the law, as was suggested by the honourable member for Goldstein. However, he did refer to the six month grace period.

One of the unfortunate aspects of the contribution of the honourable member for Goldstein probably is that the views stated by him tonight do not reflect the views of the Opposition. As shadow spokesman on communications his position is obviously an extremely difficult one. The communications policy has been written and has been lying around this place for a long while. Everyone knows what it is, but it does not go anywhere. At the moment the policy is being gone over with a fine toothcomb by the dries in order to squeeze some of the moisture out of it. I think that is a pity from the point of view of a sensible debate on future communication policy for this country. The matters raised by the honourable member for Goldstein are always matters which one has to give serious consideration to, but unfortunately they certainly do not reflect the views of the Opposition.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.