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Tuesday, 12 May 1987
Page: 3024

Mr SHARP(8.54) —I say from the outset that the National Party of Australia opposes the legislation before us. We have a clear, precise, coherent, reasonable and sensible attitude in relation to the ownership and control provisions before us. We also have a precise, clear, reasonable and intelligent approach to the Communications Legislation Amendment Bill, being considered this evening as a cognate debate. I ask members opposite not to misinterpret our position. For the most part, the Government's own expert, the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy), had the same attitude as we have when he first started to debate the matter some months ago. Our position represents the middle ground. There is an opportunity for extra television services to be provided to regional Australia and for this whole mess, which the Government has brought upon the media interests of Australia, to be sorted out. In addition to our amendments to the ownership and control provisions being debated tonight, we will be moving an amendment to the motion for the second reading in relation to the Communications Legislation Amendment Bill.

No one in his right mind could honestly be proud or pleased about the situation in which Australia finds itself in relation to media ownership.

Mr McGauran —No way.

Mr SHARP —There is no way in the world. The situation is that government is being conducted by Press release. What other countries allow this sort of situation to occur? The Third World countries have that sort of system of government; the countries that are run by half-baked dictators. No sensible democracy-loving country in the world can allow government by Press release, yet that is what this Government is allowing. That is what is happening because of the confusion and mayhem generated by this Government.

Mr McGauran —Yes, Duffy.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Leo McLeay) —Order! I warn the honourable member for Gippsland.

Mr SHARP —The Government has behaved reprehensively over this issue. What it has done smacks of arrogance and is fraught with danger. I believe the wrath of the media owners of Australia will be heaped on the Government as a result of the chaos and mayhem it has caused them. In the process, the Government has left itself in a position whereby claims can be made of patronage being distributed as a result of the way in which the Government has run its communications portfolio.

At present, all major television networks in Australia are theoretically breaking the law. In no circumstances should a government allow that to happen, yet it is happening at present. If such a situation applied to any other company, organisation or individual, the law would come down with its full weight, but while this Government is running the show things are different. For that reason, there have been claims that patronage has been distributed. I hope that that is not the case, because every democracy-loving Australian would be very disappointed to see that happen.

No wonder the opportunity exists for claims of patronage to be made, because the legislation before the Parliament is the most significant change to media ownership that the country has ever seen. It is important to realise that the legislation will deliver into the hands of a small group of people tremendous power and potentially massive profits. The honourable member for Charlton (Mr Robert Brown) said in this debate that this legislation is all about power and profits. That is why it is so terribly important for us to ensure that we do the right thing; that is why it is so important for the Government not to allow confusion and mayhem to reign by allowing government by Press release.

I say `power' because, by giving the 75 per cent reach rule a straight passage in this House, we would be allowing the networks to be able to impose their opinions through the most influential means available to mankind-the television networks that reach three out of every four Australians. Potentially, that situation could be very dangerous. It is potentially undemocratic, and we should be very concerned about it, and the National Party is concerned about it. I say that the legislation delivers profit, since it means that virtually now new players will be able to afford to enter the game because the legislation basically ensures a monopoly for the major networks. We must guard ourselves against that to ensure that there is no suspicion or claim of patronage.

The National Party of Australia is opposed to the legislation. We believe that it presents a real threat to our democratic process, that it installs a monopoly that makes entry by anyone else virtually impossible and that it could lead to a loss of jobs throughout the television industry, in both the metropolitan and regional areas. There is no clearer example of that than what has happened with HSV7 in Melbourne during the past few weeks. The programming decisions are now being made in Sydney and the local content has been withdrawn from the station in Melbourne. I am sure that the quality of programming in that station will fall. If this legislation goes through the House, I believe that local content, not only in HSV7 but in every other television station, will be reduced or, possibly, even wiped out. I believe that that will be the end of regional television as we know it today. It will become virtually nothing more than relay stations for the networks, and fairly poorly paid ones at that.

At this stage, it is important to mention that other legislation is going through this Parliament relating to the communications industry-I refer to the equalisation legislation. If we couple that with this Broadcasting (Ownership and Control) Bill, there will be a complete routing of regional television throughout Australia. If equalisation takes place, if the 75 per cent reach rule is passed and if the aggregation path is followed, each regional television station will be given virtually no choice other than to take up one of the network programs. It will have no choice but to accept whatever charges the networks impose.

When the programming costs go to the regional television stations, they will have to cut their costs in one way or another because they must have a viable business. In which area can they cut their costs? They cannot do so by reducing programming charges because they are dictated to them by the networks. They cannot cut their transmission costs. The only way to cut costs to remain viable is to remove the local content and, therefore, local employment. That is what the National Party fears is likely as a result of this legislation.

Whatever happens, out will go local content, and what will be the first to suffer? Will it be local television news, local current affairs, local children's programs or, perhaps, local sport such as football, cricket, tennis, swimming or whatever sport is popularly played in that region? All of that concerns the National Party. We want to ensure that regional television viewers have more choice, more services and more dials on their television sets to turn. We are anxious for that to happen. We are also anxious to ensure that local programs remain local programs on regional television. We want that because, as regional television people will tell us, local content is the best part of the regional television service; it is the most popular and most highly-watched part. I gave the clear example of HSV7 in Melbourne, and that is the way that the remainder of Australia will behave if this legislation is passed. The current audience rating for HSV7 is a shade over zero per cent-why? It is because the local content has been removed and local employment opportunities threatened. The National Party intends to protect that local content and those local jobs.

There are two Bills before us today, but before moving to the second Bill we are debating cognately, I wish to say that we support some aspects of the Broadcasting (Ownership and Control) Bill. Firstly, we support the lifting of the two-station rule, which we believe to be inequitable. It is most unfair for the regions. Two regional television stations could reach, perhaps, 8 per cent of the audience of Australia, yet that will be compared on the same basis with two metropolitan stations that could reach 43 per cent of the audience. Therefore, we support the lifting of that inequitable rule.

We do not support the cross-media ownership requirements. If we have a 43 per cent audience reach-that is the National Party's wish-there will be no need for cross-media ownership requirements. They are unnecessary, bureaucratic, and will impose further regulation on business and society. For those reasons, we will move amendments to delete that component from the Bill.

The National Party will support the provisions in the Communications Legislation Amendment Bill relating to Australia Post because they are sensible and businesslike. We will oppose part of the Overseas Telecommunications Commission changes. We are opposed to the extension of the OTC's powers to operate in our domestic market in competition with private enterprise operators. However, we do not oppose the extension of its ability to compete in foreign countries. By allowing OTC to compete domestically, despite whatever assurances are given in the legislation the opportunity for it to cross-subsidise its profits from its monopoly areas to the private competition areas will be very real, and something that is fraught with danger. That is why the National Party will oppose that component of the legislation.

We will also oppose the pay television four-year moratorium because it is a most curious inclusion. The Minister for Communications, as we know, does not need that moratorium written into the legislation; his office already has the power to grant pay television licences or not, as he so chooses. Yet, somehow, this provision has been included. I think that the reason for that is that the Government wishes to tie the hands of any future government so that no pay television can be introduced for the next four years. We will not stand for that; we believe that pay television is a real option for the remote areas of Australia that do not enjoy commercial television services. We will oppose anything that might get in the way of the remote areas obtaining commercial television services.

We will also oppose the administrative changes made to the Radiocommunications Act because we feel that to bypass the proper consultative process is not good. The Minister, once again, has the power to declare as urgent any changes to the standards, spectrum plan or the frequency band plan, so why is legislation required? There is no reason for it. To deny the radio and television operators of Australia the opportunity for proper consultation would not be good, and we will oppose that provision. Overall, the National Party will not support the Government's legislation. We would prefer a 43 per cent audience reach--

Mr Tim Fischer —As the Minister actually wanted.

Mr SHARP —As the honourable member for Farrer said, that was the Minister's original position. We believe that the cross-media ownership requirements should be deleted. We believe that the one in all in equalisation rule is unfair and undemocratic. We will propose a change to two in all in, which would allow the operators within each approved area the right to determine, by a majority decision, whether to go down either the multi-channel service path or the aggregation path. That will ensure that they are not bullied and that democracy takes place.

The National Party believes that the Special Broadcasting Service signal via satellite should be uncoded so that people in the remote areas of Australia who currently have no choice of television services can at least watch the SBS station for which they pay through their taxes. It seems grossly unfair that people who pay for the service and who have no choice in television services are denied the opportunity to watch the SBS. The National Party stands for better television services in regional areas. We want to maintain localism and local jobs through regional television. Most importantly of all, we want to ensure that democracy is not put at risk by handing to a few people the tremendous power and influence that this legislation will give them.