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Tuesday, 12 May 1987
Page: 3018

Mr LAMB(8.20) —The Broadcasting (Ownership and Control) Bill is essentially about repealing the 30-year-old two-station rule and replacing it with a package. That package combines, first, a 75 per cent reach rule, and second, limits on cross-media ownership where television, radio and newspapers may or may not come under common ownership. The repeal recognises the existing imbalance between metropolitan and regional television. It beats me why people thought that the two-station rule recognised the differences between regional and metropolitan television. There is no way that anyone can compare two small regional stations with two television stations, say, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne. One reaches a couple of a per cent of the audience and the other two combined reach some 43 per cent. In no way could we compare regional and metropolitan television under the two-station rule. What has been brought about by that two-station rule has been exacerbated by the regional structure.

The third part of this package of television Bills is, of course, the equalisation legislation, which was recently defeated in the Senate, and which was to bring about aggregation and groups of a more economic size of regional television. But there is no doubt that the two-station rule had to go. It is amazing that the Opposition did not recognise the deficiencies of that rule as against the industry, and for some 21 years allowed the industry to stagnate, and it has no policy here today. Its contribution in this Parliament has been merely a reaction to the Government's proposals-we have had quite a few reactions-but there has not been a unified reaction. One of the spin-offs I suppose, or the disadvantages of splitting the coalition is that one hand does not know what the other hand is doing. So we get the sort of thing that we have been getting here, such as the Macphee line, that is that of the honourable member for Goldstein, who has been reported as putting one line, and then we get the Beale line, that of the honourable member for Deakin, who moved the amendment to the motion here today, and then we get the line of the honourable member for Murray (Mr Lloyd), giving the line of the National Party of Australia, and finally the honourable member for Bass (Mr Smith) who has just sat down and who gave us a mixture of the lot. He is as confused as the others are. I guess there could be more than those three strands of Opposition reaction. But the question remains that if the two-station rule is removed what can be put in its place? We need a formula which will increase market sizes and increase the economies of scale and so support the Australian television industry and local content and yet remain competitive enough to prevent an over concentration of media in the hands of a few.

The Government has decided that 75 per cent of the national audience is to be the upper limit. This will bring about desirable structural changes and encourage, as we have already seen, new ownership, the industry will diversify and there will be a turnover of old wood which will encourage investment in the industry. That investment will be encouraged because now people will have mass markets. Advertisers will flock in because they will have greater reach and they will get more advertising penetration for their dollar. The different television organisations will be able to enjoy greater economies and will be able to buy more programs locally and to feed them through more outlets.

So the Government's policy will encourage investment in the industry and will enhance program competition. The minimum number of new players-if we can call them that-with the three channels will be four, but I guess it is probably more likely to be six, eight or 10 players. Obviously we have to reject the policy of the honourable member for Deakin who wants no limits. He wants an open market and for the number of players to be controlled purely by market forces. He says that this will bring a greater multitude of television organisations, but I remind him that there is no limit and ultimately we could get to the point where all the media is owned by one organisation. That is the logical end to takeovers and increased concentration, to the point where there is only one owner. There is no safeguard to the public if we have an open market policy, so we have to reject that approach. I will return to the Beale policy later.

We could have the Australian Democrats' suggested limit of 35 per cent, but we have to ask ourselves whether this would be acceptable. It would definitely favour those who already have a 43 per cent coverage in Melbourne and Sydney, unless of course we break that up. If we grandfather it we will then have this unequal market of 43 per cent and the others will only be allowed to reach the disadvantaged percentage of 35 per cent. I guess what they would do if they were dinkum would be to require those with 43 per cent to divest, but that is just not on. We might get up to about nine players, but there would then be no economies of scale and it certainly would not encourage investment in the industry, so we have to reject the Democrats 35 per cent as well.

Then we come to the Macphee line, that of the honourable member for Goldstein. He has argued on many an occasion that it should be 43 per cent. Therefore there would be a minimum of seven players, but more likely a dozen or so. That is far more realistic than 35 per cent. It would support a television industry and there would be far less concentration of the media, which concerns the public today. Frankly I find that percentage very attractive. It is one which I would not find too hard to support. The honourable member for Bass said that tonight is the time for being honest. In fact I was actually one of those who moved in our Caucus for 43 per cent. I am not ashamed of that, but I recognise that it does not have the support of this Parliament, either in the Senate or in this chamber. It was certainly rejected by the Liberal Party and the dries over there want this open market policy where there are no limits.

I heard the honourable member for Bass quote a long passage from the Treasurer when he was 33 years of age. I want to remind him, without quoting, of their bible, the Wealth of Nations, written by Adam Smith some 200 years ago, when he talked about market forces and their desirability. This is the Opposition's credo, the linchpin of its policy. He warned that we can never rely upon market forces to protect the public interest, because the only interest that operates in a market is self-interest and that is the profit motive. If there were not a public benefit or interest it would be fine, but here we have the possibility, without controls and limits, of having a concentration of ownership that would confront the very substance of democracy, and that is a wide variety of opinion and news sources and information. We need that if we are to support democracy in this country, so that people can be educated, can take different views and carry on sophisticated debates and are able to exercise their vote actively at the polls. That leaves us with the only economically, politically and industrially feasible proposal of 75 per cent.

The other stream put by the honourable member for Murray is that the National Party of Australia is quite happy with the 75 per cent, but it does not want the cross-media controls. The honourable member for Murray argued strongly that we were somehow objecting to regional newspapers, but really once we have a small regional market it is even more important to protect the democratic principles of diversity by making sure that a newspaper's concentration or monopoly is not shared by the regional stations. In other words it is essential that it be divorced from common ownership.

So at best we have from the honourable member for Deakin conditional support for our proposal, and that is that we introduce one extra television channel across Australia. This is a staggering proposal. As the honourable member for Bass said, he did not understand the technical implications of trying to find on the spectrum space for another channel. I understand there is no space in Sydney or Melbourne and it is very unlikely that there will be space elsewhere because of the crowding out of the VHF band. We will definitely have to move to the UHF band for expansion, and of course that means a different inquiry and new proposals from the Government. But more importantly, this proposal is slapped down in front of us without any consultation with the industry. There is no discussion on or analysis of the effect it would have on economic returns. Even now revenue in the industry is soft. The proposal strikes at the Australian content provision, which requires restriction of competition and ignores, as I said, the frequency problems. It is an unrealistic proposal. That is not even considering what it would do to upset those in the market who have acquired television stations lately. It ignores the high prices paid for those stations.

I have no sympathy for those who went out and ignored the existing legislation, the two-station rule. I have no sympathy for those who went out and bartered and argued for new television stations on the basis of a Press release, and of the proposed legislation which has no guarantee of going through. They will not be very happy if suddenly they find that the prices they paid have been halved overnight by this stupid proposal.

The public has every right to be concerned and to raise the question of whether there are dangers in television being concentrated in the hands of as few as four organisations. Given the recent decision by Channel 7 under Fairfax to sack workers and to go to networking, I have no doubt the television professionals are also worried. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people who come to me and say: `No more are we going to watch Channel 7. We are disgusted by the decisions that have been made by the new management to take away local content. We have lost VFL football, World of Sport, Day by Day'. The list goes on and on. It is no wonder that the ratings of Channel 7 have gone through the floor. Recently its news service, formerly one of the most watched programs on television, was outrated by none other than Inspector Gadget on Channel 2. My children are very pleased with that, but I doubt whether the management of the new Fairfax Channel 7 shares that pleasure.

There is a lot more I could say, but I have undertaken to limit my speech to 10 minutes. This legislative package provides the basis of the first real reform of ownership and control of the broadcast media in 20 years. Its essential plank, which makes it acceptable to honourable members on this side of the House who are concerned with democracy and the concentration of ownership, is the cross-media rules, which I would have liked to go into in more detail. The legislation is essential to the removal of barriers to effective competition, while still providing a modicum of protection against the over-concentration of ownership. I commend the Bills to the House.