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Tuesday, 7 December 1999
Page: 12982


Mr NEVILLE (8:47 PM) —The Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill (No. 3) 1999 will ensure that more Australian programs are broadcast on pay television. In the spirit of tonight's contributions, I will not draw this out in a long dissertation, but there are two seminal issues that I want to address. This bill will ensure that more Australian programs are broadcast on pay television. It will do this by making the `Australian content' conditions—conditions which are currently contained in the Broadcasting Services Act—the subject of pay television licences, enforceable. Each pay TV drama service will be required to spend at least 10 per cent of its annual expenditure on new eligible drama programs.

There are voluntary conditions in place now, but for a number of years there has been an aura of non-compliance in the industry. Only four of the 16 pay TV drama channels met their obligations in the 1997-98 year. Also, there was an Australian content quota expenditure of only $8 million out of a total program expenditure of $100 million. Quite frankly, they should have been spending another $2 million to satisfy the 10 per cent requirement.

This bill addresses that problem. It recognises the distinction between channel providers such as Showtime, TV1, the Comedy Channel and so on, on the one hand, and pay TV licensees such as Foxtel, Optus and Austar, on the other. As the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association Executive Director, Debra Richards, said in the Australian last week, it is the channels that provide the programming or the packages of programs to the licensees that are ultimately responsible. Thus the bill recognises that it is the Australian based channel providers that are generally responsible for program expenditure rather than the licensees themselves.

As a result of this bill, Australian based channel providers as well as licensees will be required to report annually to the ABA on their expenditure figures. If they fail to provide compliance information, they will face sanctions. However, the government recognises that pay TV licensees and channel providers will need time to adjust to these measures. The bill allows for a 12-month period of grace for licensees to prepare for a shortfall in expenditure by providers. This can be made up, if they like, in the following year. The bill also has provisions for protecting the confidentiality of expenditure information provided to the ABA by the channel providers. Thus these arrangements allow sufficient flexibility for the obligations of channel providers and licensees to be met.

The bill also recognises the jurisdictional difficulties in obtaining expenditure information from overseas based or pass-through channels such as TNT. These operators package a channel through the licensees but do not actually do business in Australia. The measure of program expenditure in respect of these channels is basically what the licensee pays for the right to screen that particular channel in Australia. Thus the amendments serve to spread the obligation more evenly between the Australian and overseas channel providers on the one hand and licensees on the other. But the licensees remain ultimately responsible for ensuring that the conditions in this bill are met.

Possible sanctions that could apply if Australian content expenditure is not made include the suspension or cancellation of a licence. I expect Australian pay TV viewers to welcome these content requirements. Australians have shown in their free-to-air viewing habits that they like to watch Australian programs such as Sea Change, Blue Heelers, Water Rats and the like. These programs regularly rate in the Top 10, according to the Nielsen ratings. The Assistant Director of Programming at Foxtel, Ross Crowley, was recently quoted as saying that his network would definitely be interested in an Australian produced four- or five-part mini series. The CEO of TV1, Marie Jacobson, also said recently, `An Australian profile series for TV1 would really lift it.'

The bill's content requirements should create a boost in local film production which is currently going through hard times. New Australian programs on pay TV stations could create employment opportunities for local actors, who are proving they are amongst the best in the world. Actors who now have international prominence—Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman and Guy Pearce, to name a few—all worked in Australian drama before making it to the big time.

Aside from the content requirement, this bill recognises the special relationship existing between Australia and New Zealand and accords national treatment to New Zealand programs. This is consistent with the approach adopted in the Australian content standard for free-to-air commercial television and, as the shadow minister said, it is also consistent with CER—though he does not agree with it.

I have an extremely strong view on the matter that I have expressed to the Australian entertainment industry. I have not been slinking around; I have said it quite openly. There are great trade benefits in an agreement that breaks down the artificial and protective barriers between Australia and New Zealand. We can hardly expect the free entry of Australian products to New Zealand and New Zealand products to Australia, then suddenly become very precious over New Zealand drama. More to the point, it is a matter that was tested in the courts—even in the High Court—and it was found that New Zealand film does count as Australian content. The Australian drama and film industry should not feel intimidated by the fact that New Zealand drama is recognised under the CER agreement. If we are a truly competitive nation, we can meet the best standards and in fact, as we have amply demonstrated over recent years, we can do it better than most countries in the world.

When the industry came to see one of the committees on which I sit, they put the proposition to us that there was a great cultural divide between Australia and New Zealand. I do not think that holds much water. We live in the same part of the world, we share the same language with almost the same accents and we subscribe to the same form of government. Some 400,000 of their citizens reside in this country. We play the same codes of sport such as rugby league, rugby union, cricket, netball and basketball against each other, and so it goes on. The great proponents of literature, drama and acting have moved freely across the Tasman. We also share a common bond in blood which we celebrate every year on Anzac Day. Our two flags, but for the star of federation and the little pointer star, are almost identical. For the industry then to turn around and try to say there is a huge cultural divide between Australia and New Zealand is absolute arrant nonsense. It did not enhance their case, in my opinion.

What real impact do we seriously think 3½ million or four million New Zealanders and a country that has had its fair share of economic difficulties will have on the Australian film industry? If they do turn out product that is good and we want to see it and it comes from our part of the world, why shouldn't it be shown on Australian television and be treated like product of our own and, vice versa, our product be shown in their country?

As I said before, I always find it galling when we complain about the treatment we receive from the United States in the various fora of the world where, as the big country, they change the rules by saying, `That doesn't suit us, we're going to impose a tariff or a quota,' or, `We're going to keep something out.' What are we going to do? Are we going to take this agreement—which we signed off on some years ago with great trumpets and waving of flags but which, when it did not suit us, we then tested in our courts right up to the High Court—and say, `We lost that battle, so now we'll change it legislatively'? That is exactly the thing that both sides of the House in this very week in this parliament have chastised the United States for doing. Are we proposing to do it with something like the arts—a field where there are such great synergies and similarities between the two countries?

Having said all that, I am not suggesting that this bill should be carte blanche for every country that has some similarity or agreement with Australia to get their film and video in by the back door. I am not suggesting that at all. In fact, the bill explicitly confines the scope of international agreements to New Zealand in the spirit of CER, making it clear that there are no flow-ons under the amended section to treaties with other nations. It also maintains the cultural policy objectives of content regulation.

In summary, overall this bill is a demonstration of the positive steps being taken by the government to improve the Australian entertainment industry by ensuring more Australian content. It also makes sure that the content that we share with New Zealand is not diluted in any way.