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Tuesday, 12 May 1987
Page: 3002

Mr BEALE(5.13) —At the outset, I would like to say to the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy), who is at the table, that I appreciate his courtesy and assistance to me in recent days following my transfer on this side of the House to responsibility for communications. The Minister and I may not agree frequently on Government policies in this area, but there can be no disagreement that proper courtesies have been followed.

Mr Lloyd —He is a courteous man.

Mr BEALE —I also welcome the presence in the chamber of the honourable member for Murray, my National Party colleague, who is now the National Party's spokesman on communications, among other things. This cognate debate involves the Broadcasting (Ownership and Control) Bill 1987 and the Communications Legislation Amendment Bill 1987. Let me tell the House and the Government exactly where the Liberal Party stands on these measures. As far as the Broadcasting (Ownership and Control) Bill is concerned, if the Government will undertake to introduce new television licences in Sydney and Melbourne within the next two years and in the other major cities around Australia-that is, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart-within the next five years, we will not oppose the legislation.

Mr Saunderson —How many licences?

Mr BEALE —If the honourable member for Aston will be patient I will tell him in due course. If, on the other hand, the Government will not give these assurances in a form that is acceptable to us-I invite the Minister to respond in the appropriate way when he sums up the second reading debate-we will vote against the legislation. So that the Minister and the honourable member for Aston can understand our position, I move:

That all words after `That' be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

`the Bill be withdrawn and redrafted to provide for-

(1) the calling of applications for-

(a) at least one additional commercial television licence for each of Sydney and Melbourne, and

(b) at least one additional commercial television licence for each of Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Tasmania, and

(2) the issue of licences following applications-

(a) in the case of Sydney and Melbourne by 1 July 1989, and

(b) in the case of Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth and Tasmania by 1 July 1992'.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Mountford) —Is the amendment seconded?

Mr Smith —I second the amendment and reserve my right to speak.

Mr BEALE —I can assure the Minister that the position we are adopting is not a negotiating position. It is of crucial importance to us that we open up the Australian television market to more diversity and competition, that we give Australian television viewers more choice and that we allow a more competitive environment to exist. If, by means of additional licences, we cannot see that we will achieve these objectives, the legislation will be unacceptable to us. The clauses contained in the Communications Legislation Amendment Bill which impose a moratorium on the issuing of pay television licences for at least another four years are unacceptable. If the Minister will not give an assurance that he will not persist with those clauses, it is our intention to vote against that Bill at the second reading stage. Further, we may seek to amend those clauses to allow the Minister to bypass certain consultation processes so that proper discussion with interested parties can take place.

The two pieces of legislation before us today, together with the Government's regional television equalisation and aggregation legislation which was defeated recently in the Senate, form the three arms of the Government's current policy for the future of the television industry in Australia. With some candour I say that we do not approve of that direction. The abolition of the two-station rule and its replacement with the 75 per cent reach rule does afford some opportunity for further diversification of Australia's television industry. However, this can only occur satisfactorily if additional television licences are issued. We object strenuously to the means by which the Government's policies are communicated to the Australian people. The Government is not governing by legislation; it is governing by Press release.

The Minister's statement on 27 November 1986 that he would legislate in the way now made clear, opened the way to an extraordinary series of events in the media industry. The transactions whereby the ownership of the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd portion of the Channel 9 system, portion of the Channel 10 system, various newspapers and various radio stations changed hands electrified the share market and put a number of investors in a position where they would almost certainly be in breach of the law if it were not changed. This expectation of change and the possibility of capture of monopoly positions is clearly unhealthy, and that the Government's Press release triggered these events is a savage indictment on it.

It is simply not appropriate for a government to conduct its affairs in this fashion, and this Government stands admonished for its extraordinary lack of sensitivity in dealing in this way with matters of national concern. It is now clear that the Government's legislation seeks to entrench an oligopoly of television interests centred around Channel 7, Channel 9 and Channel 10 operating from Melbourne and Sydney, and furthermore to deliver to those channels control and eventually ownership of Australia's regional television. In addition, the Government, by its four-year moratorium on the issue of pay television licences, seeks to protect further the major participants from competition. It is well known that the Minister, despite any protestations that he may make to the contrary, did not share the Government's majority view on this matter. The Minister fought, apparently to the last ditch, to prevent an extension of the power of the major players by trying to replace the two-station rule not with the 75 per cent reach rule but with a 43 per cent reach rule.

The Government's regional television equalisation and aggregation legislation would have broken up the eastern seaboard of this country into four regional zones and aggregated the operators in three groups in each zone. These three groups would then have found themselves in a position where, in order to be competitive, they would have needed to align themselves with one of the three major networks. At the beginning this would, of course, be only for programs, although in some markets ownership changes are already taking place. However, inevitably the networks would have imposed increasing coercion on the regionals and finally absorbed them. The relevance of these events for regional television is clear. Programs with a regional flavour would diminish and local news stories would evaporate from the screen.

Further, the Government's proposed four-year moratorium on pay television would have allowed the networks to consolidate their interests without fear of short term competition. This is not the way we would have conducted matters in relation to television in Australia. We stand for more choice, more diversity and better programs for the viewing audience and that is why, unless the Government gives us the assurances to which I referred earlier, we intend to oppose this legislation.

Furthermore, our position has been clear for some time and the Government has now introduced this legislation in the knowledge of our opposition. On 30 January we advised that whilst at that time we were disposed to support the Government's proposal that any television network should have the right to reach 75 per cent of the viewing audience, we wanted to be certain that, firstly, its introduction did not unfairly disadvantage regional television stations, and that secondly, there should be a removal of existing barriers of entry to both television and radio. We believe that the Australian television audience should be entitled to see networks that operate throughout most of Australia if they choose to do so, in order that our national culture, heritage and characteristics can be communicated across the nation, but we believe in this only if there are no barriers to entry into the television media.

For years now we have heard a lot of mumbo-jumbo from the Department of Communications about whether it is possible to introduce new licences on to the existing spectrum. The evidence before the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation strongly suggests that there is room in the capital cities for at least one additional licence to be granted in the very high frequency band, and more than that in the ultra high frequency band. That is why we say to the Government that we will vote against this legislation unless it is prepared to grant at least one additional licence in Sydney and Melbourne within the next two years, and in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Tasmania within the next five years.

The Government's earlier announcement on prohibitions of cross-media ownership implied some draconian restrictions that would further entrench the powers of certain groups. In the event, however, now that we have at last sighted the legislation, those restrictions appear to be a toothless tiger. The Government has decided to legislate that a person with a prescribed interest in a commercial television licence could not also have within that area a monopoly radio station, and that is clearly absurd. The proliferation of radio in recent years, particularly in the frequency modulation spectrum, testifies to that. Furthermore, the prohibition on the holding of a newspaper 50 per cent of whose circulation is within the area of a television licence, is also fatuous given the general trend in recent years for the amalgamation of major newspaper interests around the Western world. It is obvious that these two measures are not really designed in any serious way to prohibit cross-media ownership but, rather, are a sop to the left wing factional group in the Australian Labor Party. We might have preferred to see any abuses that arose by virtue of cross-media ownership to be dealt with by the Trade Practices Commission, but we note that the specific clauses in this Bill do enable a clarification of the situation to take place and therefore, provided the Government accedes to our request for additional licences to be issued, we will not make the matter of cross-media ownership a reason to defeat this legislation.

The Communications Legislation Amendment Bill seeks to amend four Acts and, amongst other matters, to enable the Overseas Telecommunications Commission to engage in telecommunication activities in Australia other than to compete with Telecom Australia and to enable the Commission to provide domestic and international services for foreign countries. Conferring further power in the hands of government statutory authorities is always a matter for concern. We can see, for example, what happened recently in the case of Telecom. The monopoly that Telecom has on the supply and installation of the first phone is not only costly to the consumer-in many ways it is irrelevant to the consumer-but it may be illegal in that it may be in breach of the Trade Practices Act. Telecom's small business system, for example, as exemplified in the Commander switching service, has proved to be totally inadequate to the needs of small business in Australia, and accordingly, because of Telecom's monopoly in this area, more effective systems are precluded from competing with it.

Mr Saunderson —Imported ones?

Mr BEALE —Where does the honourable member think the Commander system comes from? The Telecom monopolies in commercial service areas, already admitted by the Chairman of Telecom to be uncompetitive, will be the subject of continuing attention by the Liberal Party in the months ahead. With that in mind we regard the conferring of additional power in the hands of the Overseas Telecommunications Commission with some scepticism but acknowledge some necessity for it to be provided with that power to be able to perform its duties and functions more effectively. However, I advise the Minister that we will continue to watch this situation with interest and concern.

The Communications Legislation Amendment Bill also seeks to place a four-year moratorium on the issuing of domestic pay television licences. As mentioned earlier, this move appears to be part of the Government's plan to protect the existing participants in the television industry from unnecessary and untimely competition. The most peculiar thing about this portion of the legislation is that it is not necessary at all. The Minister already has the power to issue licences or not to issue licences. What possible reason can he need, therefore, to place a legal moratorium on the issue of those licences? We are now about a year away from an election. In the unlikely event that the Government should be re-elected and in the much more unlikely event that the Minister should be the Minister for Communications over the following three years--

Mr Duffy —That is more unlikely.

Mr BEALE —I note the Minister's interjection that it is very unlikely that he will be the Minister. I leave honourable members to decide the basis on which they should interpret that interjection. In the unlikely event that the Minister will be the Minister for the following three years he will be in a position to determine whether he should issue those licences. It is only if the Government changes in a year's time that the proposed moratorium will be at risk and then only if the new coalition parties in government have control of the Senate. It seems clear that the Government is trying to protect itself and those people who would be protected from competition by these clauses from the probability of a change in government and to prevent the new coalition parties in government from issuing new pay television licences should they not have control of the Senate.

We do not accept the Government's explanation on this matter. We do not accept this portion of the Bill which further restricts entry to the market. Accordingly, if the Minister does not give us an assurance that he will withdraw the relevant clauses on the moratorium on the issue of pay television licences we intend to vote against the Communications Legislation Amendment Bill at the second reading.

This Bill also seeks to amend the Radiocommunications Act to allow the Minister to bypass certain consultation processes. The effect of these changes would be to remove the opportunity for persons to make representations to the Minister in respect of amendments to proposed standards, spectrum plans or frequency band plans. Assurance from the Minister as to the last minute changes he proposes to introduce as amendments tonight would be appreciated.

These changes are curious. They are curious because the Minister already has the power to bypass these processes if he concludes that the matter before him requires his urgent action or if he concludes that it is appropriate in the circumstances. They are curious because there do not appear to be any matters the Minister is currently considering which would require urgent decision. They are curious because the Minister has not really chosen to amplify his reason for these changes. If the Minister wishes to avoid public criticism of certain actions of his Department he should say so. It may very well be that the Minister may wish to avoid adverse public reaction to his radio frequency spectrum plan which has been coming for 3 1/2 years but which still has not yet arrived. That seems to be a rather flimsy excuse for the introduction of the relevant clauses.

In agreeing to debate these two pieces of legislation cognately here today, the Opposition has been well aware of their combined effect on the future of the television industry in Australia. These two pieces of legislation, together with the regional television equalisation and aggregation Bill, are the benchmarks for a firm entrenchment of an oligopoly in the television industry in Australia. They are the benchmarks for tight control of this industry and the guidelines for a reduction and perhaps elimination of programs for regional areas.

The Opposition does not see the future of the television industry in that way. What we wish to see is a more competitive, innovative and diverse range of services for Australian television viewers. We wish to see a market where there are no barriers to entry, where there are no prohibitions on regional programs, where there are no restrictions on the development of cable television and pay television, where there is a plethora of smaller stations giving specialised service to the Australian viewing public and finally, when that day comes, where there is a myriad of services arising from the use of satellites.

That is our vision of the future of television in Australia. The Government has no vision. We say to the Minister that if he will not issue new television licences in the capital cities of Australia and that if he will not withdraw the proposed moratorium on pay television we will vote against both these pieces of legislation in the House today. If the Minister will not accede to our requests, the defeat of this legislation is the only sensible way to draw to the Government's attention the concern of millions of Australians about the need to provide more diversity, more choice and more programs to the television viewing audiences around this great country of ours.