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Tuesday, 7 December 1999
Page: 12978


Mr STEPHEN SMITH (8:28 PM) —I rise to indicate the opposition's position in respect of the Broadcasting Ser vices Amendment Bill (No. 3) 1999 . A draft copy of this bill was provided to my office on Thursday evening of last week. The Minister for the Arts and the Centenary of Federation, who is at the table, presented the bill to the House 22 hours ago at about 10 o'clock last night. When the draft bill was provided to my office, it was with a request from the government that the opposition urgently consider the details contained in the bill with a view to facilitating passage of the bill through the House and the Senate in the course of this week to enable the legislation to be adopted by the parliament this year.

The opposition was happy to use its best endeavours to comply with this request, largely because schedule 1 of the bill contains provisions which make mandatory the satisfaction of local content requirements for subscription television. Since the provision of the draft bill to my office on Thursday, this matter has been the subject of conversations between my office and the minister's office, between me and the minister and between relevant industry players—in particular, the subscription television or pay TV industry and the local production content industry or the formal representative association, SPAA, the Screen Producers Association of Australia.

Whilst it is the case that late notice has been given of the detail, those interested in this area of public policy—and the opposition itself—have been aware of the particular policy issues that the bill encompasses for some time. In the order in which they appear in the bill, schedule 1 of the bill deals with the requirement that the current voluntary 10 per cent local content contribution of subscription television become mandatory. That has been the subject of consideration by the industry—both the subscription television industry and the local Australian production industry—for some time and has been the subject of various reviews by the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts and the Australian Broadcasting Authority.

Schedule 2 of the bill deals with some of the implications of what is known famously as the High Court's Blue Sky decision, where the High Court required that the provisions of the Australia-New Zealand CER agreement be taken into account as far as the ABA's local content provisions are concerned. Schedule 3 of the bill contains provisions which originated as a good idea at the time for the previous Labor government and which have now emerged, in the provisions of this bill, as a suggestion that the Minister for Foreign Affairs be introduced into a regime for licensing broadcasters who propose to broadcast overseas from Australia, such broadcasting originating in Australia.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts released a press statement to that effect some five or six months ago. So whilst there has been some brevity of time available to the opposition to consider the detail of these provisions, the substantive policy provisions and proposals are quite clear and, in a sense, quite stark. If I can deal with the schedules of the bill in reverse order, schedule 3 of the bill contains provisions which would authorise the Minister for Foreign Affairs to be the ultimate arbiter, without judicial or public review, to determine whether international broadcasting ought to be available from Australia, with the test being `in the public interest'.

As I indicated to the minister for communications yesterday, in the view of the opposition, this matter is worthy of substantive, serious and considered deliberation rather than being attached to a bill on Christmas Eve. My suggestion to the minister was that, if the government proposed to pursue schedule 3, that might cause some consternation on the part of the opposition, and it might be a good idea if we excise schedule 3 from the bill and consider that in an orderly fashion in the course of next year. To his credit, the minister for communications has acceded to that request, and the government has circulated an amendment which would delete schedule 3 from the bill. The opposition will consider what I assume will be the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill (No. 4) 1999 or the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2000 in substantive terms in an orderly fashion in the course of next year.

There are significant issues here which go both to substantive communications policy and to substantive foreign affairs policy. On the one hand, whilst you might regard the power which is proposed to be invested in the Minister for Foreign Affairs as a power invested in the public interest, you might also take the view that it gives an almost unbridled power for the Minister for Foreign Affairs to become the minister for overseas censorship. These issues ought to be given some proper and orderly consideration. I am pleased that the minister for communications, on behalf of the government, has indicated that the government will not propose to proceed with schedule 3 as part of this bill. My undertaking to him has been that we will consider this in the usual way at the first opportunity next year if he introduces a bill to that effect.

The remainder of the bill—schedule 1 and schedule 2—goes to broadcasting content. Schedule 1 of the bill makes mandatory and enforceable by way of statute the current voluntary provision that the pay TV or the subscription TV industry achieve 10 per cent local content in drama production channels. When the pay TV industry was born in Australia, these provisions were made voluntary rather than enforceable, with the obvious public policy implementation difficulty. It is clearly the case that public policy ought to require the same local content contribution of the subscription television industry as it does of the free to air industry.

Life is never that simple, and the pay TV industry is more complicated than free to air, with the provision of a number of channels, particularly those channels which feed content in directly from overseas. So it has taken some time for the pay TV industry, in consultation with the Australian local content production industry, to come to an agreement as to the way in which this ought to be effected. In what is the most desirable way for these matters to be produced, industry has now jointly come to the government and to the opposition saying, `We have now reached agreement on a way in which we believe these measures can be effectively implemented, and we ask the government and the parliament to effect these by way of statute.' The request of the opposition by ASTRA, the subscription television professional association, and by SPAA, the Screen Producers Association of Australia, has been to not stand in the way of giving effect to these provisions as soon as possible.

In terms of public policy, I think that is the correct approach. As I have indicated, we will do our bit to facilitate the passage of this bill through the House and subsequently through the Senate to ensure these provisions become mandatory sooner rather than later. The effect of the provisions was sensibly and appropriately outlined in the course of the minister's second reading speech, which he delivered last night. The opposition supports schedule 1 of the bill. As is always the case, when you deal with local content there is always a view that the local content requirements or provisions ought to be greater rather than lesser and that they ought to be effected sooner rather than later. Just as we are now considering and supporting a proposition to make mandatory the 10 per cent drama requirement of local content for subscription television, equally there is a strong view on behalf of the Australian local content production industry that a comparable provision ought to apply to documentary subscription channels.

That view has the in-principle support of the opposition and we would prefer to see that implemented sooner rather than later. Equally, we would prefer to see that effected by way of an agreement between the subscription television industry and the content production industry sooner rather than later. We would urge the industry to effect that and we would urge the government to introduce legislation to give statutory effect to such an agreement. Our strong view about local content and our strong view that the same provisions which the parliament will shortly apply to drama ought to apply to documentaries are reflected by our second reading amendment, which I will formally move and which my colleague the member for Denison and the shadow minister for the arts will speak to in robust terms. In many respects, the content provisions are of as much interest to the constituency of the minister for the arts as they are to my constituency as shadow minister for communications.

Schedule 2 of the bill has the effect of dealing in a narrow way with the implications of the High Court decision in the Blue Sky case. The effect of the High Court decision in the Blue Sky case was to say that, as a consequence of an international agreement between Australia and New Zealand, New Zealand content had to be treated as Australian content for the purposes of the ABA local content rules. The effect of the government's amendment is to restrict the consequences of the Blue Sky decision to the New Zealand agreement and exclude the possibility that such consequences might occur as a result of an international agreement that Australia has entered into, or may enter into, with Zimbabwe, South Africa, Indonesia or Guatemala and so on. In terms of the narrow application of the government's amendment, that provision is supported by the opposition.

Since the Blue Sky decision, however, it has been the strong view of the opposition—led by the honourable member for Denison, the shadow minister for arts, in conjunction with the honourable member for Canberra, the shadow minister for industry, Bob McMullan, who is also a former minister for the arts and, from memory, was the minister for the arts when this High Court decision was delivered—that the appropriate public policy view for Australia was to seek, consistently with our international obligations and the domestic application of our laws, to effectively overturn the Blue Sky decision as far as New Zealand content is concerned. The second reading amendment, circulated in my name, indicates that, while the opposition supports the early passage of the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill (No. 3) 1999 —it will give enforceable statutory effect to the current voluntary requirement on level of Australian content for subscription TV on drama-oriented channels and establish, through the provisions in schedule 2 of the bill, the principle of an Australian content standard—we would like the House to reaffirm its commitment, which is the opposition's commitment, to the highest possible local content standards for both free to air and subscription television.

It is a matter of urgency. We believe that the subscription television industry and the Australian broadcast content industry should agree on similarly enforceable provisions for documentary channels and we call on the government to give statutory effect to any such agreement. We note the consequence for the bill of the High Court's decision on Blue Sky, but we call on the government to legislate to overturn the impact of the Blue Sky decision in terms of its precise and direct effect on Australian and New Zealand content. The provisions of the second reading amendment, which I will formally move at the conclusion of my remarks and which will be seconded by the honourable member for Denison, reflect the strong attachment that the opposition has to the notion that Australian local content production for broadcasting matters is a very important part of our cultural character and cultural diversity and something which we have a very strong attachment and commitment to.

I just note in passing that, in the course of the minister's second reading speech last night about the content matters, he said:

The government recognises the importance of the documentary genre in developing and reflecting a sense of Australian identity, character and cultural diversity, and believes that the extension of the requirement to documentary channels warrants further consideration.

I welcome those general remarks and I also welcome the government's indication that the extension of these provisions to documentary channels `warrants further consideration'. We will of course go much further, as the honourable member for Denison will make clear. The minister went on to say:

The government is also aware of some industry concerns in relation to the treatment of development expenses under the bill. Therefore, the government will be asking the ABA to consider both of these issues and report back to the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Alston, within 12 months.

In respect of the industry concerns relating to the treatment of development expenses, the minister would be aware—because he is its recipient—of a letter dated 1 December 1999, jointly signed by the Executive director of ASTRA, the Australian Subscription Televi sion and Radio Association, the industry's professional association, and the Executive Director of SPAA, the Screen Producers Association of Australia. It is effectively an agreement between those two relevant associations in respect of the way in which development funding ought to be taken into account by the ABA in so far as a calculation of the 10 per cent matter is concerned. I indicate for the record that the opposition have no difficulty with the way in which the two associations have indicated their view of the way in which the development funding ought to be contemplated.

Public policy in terms of legislation is a matter for the exercise of the discretion of the ABA in its usual way. The ABA, I am sure, without fearing that they might be being directed in any way either by the parliament or the government, would take into account that the minister, on behalf of the minister for communications, has indicated the government's sympathy for the notion jointly shared by the two industry associations of the way in which development expenses ought to be calculated and the view of the opposition that the matters as outlined jointly between the associations properly reflect an appropriate way in which these matters ought to be contemplated.

On behalf of the opposition, I indicate our support for the provisions of the bill and for their speedy passage on the basis of ensuring a statutory enforceable requirement for local content. I am happy to indicate our support for the amendment circulated in the government's name for the deletion of the overseas broadcasting provisions of these bills. I look forward to the contribution of my colleague the shadow minister for arts, the member for Denison, in respect of the way in which these provisions impact upon his constituency in the arts industry and community. I now will move formally the second reading amendment circulated in my name in respect of these matters. I move:

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

"whilst supporting the early passage of the bill because it will give statutory effect to requirements for higher levels of Australian content in drama programs, the House:

(1) notes that even though the impact of the High Court's decision concerning Australian content in the "Blue Sky" case will be limited to the Australia New Zealand CER agreement, the implications of the decision remain of great concern and demand further action in the interests of the Australian industry;

(2) calls on the Government to introduce measures to ensure higher levels of Australian content in other program areas, including documentary programs".


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley) —Is the amendment seconded?


Mr Kerr —I second the amendment.