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Tuesday, 7 December 1999
Page: 12984

Mr KERR (8:59 PM) —The shadow minister for communications has set out very eloquently the terms upon which the opposition supports the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill (No. 3) 1999 . Our support is not grudging. Our support is consistent with the cooperative and constructive attitude to the communications industry that the shadow minister has demonstrated in this and in other legislation. But nor are the reservations we are expressing trivial; they are important. It is fundamental to Australia and to the way in which we see ourselves that we give strong support to our local content industries. The first principle of our commitment that we express in the amendment that has been moved is that we wish this parliament to reaffirm the objective of obtaining the highest possible local content standards, both for free-to-air and subscription television.

Unfortunately, this legislation does not do that, although it is certainly an improvement on the existing arrangements. I will go to the existing arrangements. In 1995-96, expenditure on local content by the 11 predominantly drama channels was 7.1 per cent of total expenditure. In the next year, 1996-97, where figures are available, total program expenditure by the then 15 predominantly drama channels was $64,581,955. Of that, spending on new Australian drama totalled a mere $3,242,754 or 5.02 per cent of the total. It is quite plain that, even in those areas intended to be covered by the ABA subscription provisions, the objective of reaching 10 per cent local content by voluntary arrangement was simply unachievable. This legislation, as far as drama is concerned, makes 10 per cent mandatory. That is important. It is certainly not what one might call the highest possible local content standard—and there will be an opportunity later on for us to address what would be the objective of a Labor government in relation to those standards—but it is a significantly better step than a voluntary arrangement. There are large areas in Australia that have substantial local industry opportunities where the government has not seen fit to move. Neither have SPAA or ASTRA found common ground.

The most contentious of the areas, and one which we believe should rapidly become mandatory, is documentary programming on predominantly documentary oriented subscription television channels. That is an area where we have strengths, and there is no reason why we should not expect those who are profiting from the delivery of the service—material being produced on pay TV—to assist in the strength of content production in Australia, the employment it provides and the fact that we can see reflected through the material that is shown on those services our own Australian culture. There is no reason why we cannot expect them to take on some responsibility.

I want to turn briefly to the Blue Sky issue. The Blue Sky issue arose out of the negotiations that occurred between Australia and New Zealand in the CER agreement. I have some background in this matter as I was a member of the then House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs—on which both parties were represented—which travelled to New Zealand to settle the terms of arrangements for the CER. The discussions that were held at that time focused predominantly on areas of material trade—fixed objects and the like, production and goods—and on what services would be excluded. At no stage did either party advert to or assent to the proposition that cultural industries would be caught up in the intention of the CER arrangements. It was an entirely unintended consequence not adverted to in the negotiations and not part of any diplomatic or parliamentary exchange in relation to the making of that agreement. Adventitiously, of course, when those who wished to put to air material in Australia were provided with legal advice that there might be a loophole, thereby minimising costs they would otherwise have to incur with new production by being able to buy programs like Xena: Warrior Princess or whatever, some of them naturally chose to do so, and that was the subject of litigation.

But there is absolutely no reason why we should not go back to New Zealand—which has recently had a change of government, much for the better—and settle this issue on terms acceptable to both countries. It is clearly a matter of as much concern to those involved in content production industries in New Zealand, in the sense that they do not like seeing Australian programs being regarded or screened as New Zealand content, as it is to Australian content producers that New Zealand material can be brought in under those terms. If we cannot reach agreement—and I do not believe there has been any proper or serious effort from this government on that front—it remains the opposition's position that we do have an obligation to address this through the parliamentary process. I do not accept in any way that that denigrates our relationship with New Zealand.

The truth is that we have Australian content rules for two reasons: industry development and, equally importantly, culture. We have those rules to provide Australians with material which is produced and written by Australians, acted by Australian actors and which gives us a sense of being Australians. That material is seen through our television channels, which is where many of us receive the predominant amount of our cultural material. Certainly it is true that we have strong arts companies, theatres, ballet companies and the like, but we have to be realistic and say that, in terms of hours spent, the large majority of our community find the television set a very interesting and stimulating way to receive material and they want to see something of their own culture on it. When they see New Zealand material they are not seeing their own culture. There is not yet a confederation between Australia and New Zealand. We did not choose to federate in that way in 1901. Next year we will not be celebrating the centenary of a federation which includes that country. As Australians, we want to have the opportunity to see Australian culture on television.

This government has not effectively grappled with some other issues of Australian content. Those issues are complex. For example, the co-production arrangements that allow programs that are being produced in this country, such as Beastmaster, to be designated as Australian content are not a little unproblematic. They are significant issues. Essentially, whilst such programs are being produced in this country, their intended market is the United States. They are being produced with lead characters from other countries and with the characters speaking with American accents. Whilst they currently conform with Australian content rules, we may need to look at some way in which we can restrict or deal with the amount of such material that can be accommodated in that way.

I would like to make some points about copyright. In relation to all these issues, essentially we are working within a framework which was built by the former Labor government. It is fair to say that the foundations for the substantial agenda on this issue coming through this parliament now were laid by the seminal work done during the Keating government, driven by the policies announced by the former Prime Minister on Australia's cultural industries. We introduced the Copyright Convergence Committee to look at how to ensure that the new digital agenda was incorporated into the provision of copyright payment systems; how to ensure that pay TV and the online delivery of services was done in a coherent and integrated way; how to provide for moral rights; and how to expand the copyright agenda through performers rights and collecting societies. All those sorts of things were absolutely essential to the way in which we saw Australia being able to generate employment and get a real sense of national pride from what we do.

It should never be forgotten that the arts in Australia are a huge employer of Australians. It should never be forgotten that they generate hundreds of millions of dollars for the economy. It should also never be forgotten that we are amongst the largest exporters of English-language materials, both music and other, of any nation. So we have an opportunity to build from a strong base in this country if we get the legislative and copyright frameworks correct.

During the time of the Keating government, when we worked through the initiatives announced in Creative Nation, I had the opportunity to be the Minister for Justice. As part of my allocation of portfolio responsibilities, I had responsibility for copyright law. This government has not introduced a single measure in the area of the digital agenda legislation or in these broadcasting services amendment bills that does not flow directly from the seminal work which was done then. All I can say is that too much time has passed. There have been a lot of delays. While we were well ahead of the game during the Keating government, we have certainly slowed down and are running with the pack.

There is a continuing agenda that this parliament needs to address. It is a continuing agenda that the Labor Party will address. We are committed to a policy framework which will see Australian cultural industries become strong and able to play a role in not only the economic value that they provide to the community but also ensuring that, when we watch television in Australia, whether it be on free-to-air or cable television, we are not just watching something produced in other countries, for other audiences and acquired for the cheapest possible price. It needs to be recognised that those who are given the benefit of a legal framework which allows them to take commercial advantage of the spectrum have a responsibility to the larger Australian community to make certain that the economic, cultural and aspirational needs of Australians are not overlooked.

I am very pleased to second the second reading amendment moved by the shadow minister for communications. I join with him in the call to the government to work towards a quick agreement on broadening the base of provisions that will allow for better and more adequate Australian content provision rules for this new and growing industry. Obviously, some issues should take priority. Amongst those are enforceable Australian content standards in documentary programming. I hope that by the end of this parliament a settlement can be reached on that matter.