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Tuesday, 7 December 1999
Page: 12987

Mr ANDREN (9:15 PM) —Having waited some time for the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1999 to make it through the House, I am pleased that we have finally reached that point. I am pleased too that the government has introduced some sound legislation in terms of broadcasting services, despite the problems that lie in the future with the digital agenda next year. I am also pleased that the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill (No. 3) 1999 will be passed this session. I support the bill, especially with regard to its schedule relating to enforceable Australian content licence conditions for pay TV.

Firstly, allow me to draw attention to the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1999 . In the Minister for the Arts and the Centenary of Federation's second reading speech on the bill, he professed:

The new retransmission regime—

presented in this bill—

will fulfil a previous coalition election promise to give broadcasters control over their own signal, consistent with the general approach adopted by the Copyright Convergence Group, CCG, in its 1994 report Highways to Change: Copyright in the New Communications Environment .

It is disappointing that overcoming the anomaly in the current retransmission rules—which allow pay TV operators to transmit free-to-air broadcasting services without consent or compensation—will be delayed, due to the most recent amendments to the bill. But at least they are still on the agenda down the track. I agreed with the minister when he said:

Free-to-air broadcasters and pay TV operators should have a clear mutual interest in agreeing to reasonable terms for future retransmissions, which will also benefit many viewers who receive improved reception of free-to-air services through such retransmission arrangements.

However, it is disappointing that we will have to wait even longer for this to occur, due to the government's decision to delay this implementation. The section of this bill allowing provision for black spot areas to access free-to-air signals outside the broadcasters' licence area when they cannot access local signals is absolutely essential. I am grateful the government did not bow under the pressure of FACTS in this area. Otherwise, the Telstra funded TV fund would have had the dollars in place to go some way to solving black spot problems but the unamended Broadcasting Act would not have legally allowed those people access to the signal that they can get via satellite. I think the government is well due for thanks for making sure that some crazy anomaly of `Got the funds for the equipment, but the law will not allow you to use it,' has not eventuated.

I am sure many people in regional and rural Australia, who have been patiently waiting for this amendment bill to be passed, would thank the government for not forgetting that, due to lack of infrastructure and problems with bureaucracy, they will not be able to access TV unless this part of the amendment bill is in fact passed into law. This situation has been a problem in some black spot areas for 40 years. Now that the technology is available for these people to access free-to-air TV programming, I am pleased the legal channels provided in the bill will pave the way to enable those people to use that technology.

The communities I am aware of which have experienced this problem for some time around and within my electorate include Portland; areas of Lithgow, especially the Hartley Valley area, which is in the western shadow of the Great Dividing Range and very close to Sydney, very close to the major population centres of the central west, but in terms of television reception may as well be back of Bourke; areas like Peel, just north of Bathurst; Tarana, between Bathurst and Lithgow; and then, outside the electorate, places like Mudgee. The list goes on, and it covers areas right across the country. Many members have expressed this same concern in their contributions to the debate tonight. We need to get this legislation through immediately. These people have waited far too long to be able to receive basic television services.

On the TV fund, which is entwined with the black spot issue, I understand that the first stakeholder meeting was held more than a week ago. I also understand that if the government wants to look at solving the black spot problem in the long term they have to look beyond subsidising individual households with satellite equipment and get area transmitters in place where possible. This would be ideal in a place like the Hartley Valley, rapidly growing as it is as a satellite suburb of Western Sydney. In the next five to six years, areas like that could not only prove to be an economic boon to Lithgow but take the overflow over the mountains from the burgeoning western suburbs.

Having come from the city, these people expect the same level of communications services that they enjoyed in Sydney. They just cannot believe that, having crossed the sandstone curtain, they may as well be 1,000 or 2,000 miles from Sydney, such are their problems with television reception and the installation of infrastructure by Telstra. There is a legion of stories that come into my office about the inability of Telstra to provide this infrastructure. I hear that even now, in recent days, they cannot even provide a mobile phone, unless a doctors certificate is presented. That is the extent to which the community service obligation of Telstra has reached in at least in a couple of cases in my electorate.

My office was in touch with one of the people who attended the recent stakeholder meeting. He expressed some concern that there was no thorough consideration of the idea of putting in small localised translators to help solve the problem in the longer term for many communities. Although it is fine to assist individuals by subsidising the cost of satellite equipment—and it is essential in some instances that this be done—in many instances it just scratches the surface of the problem.

What happens when the funding runs out? When new residents arrive, they will have to put up with the bill themselves, unsubsidised, for the equipment they require to access television, which most of us take for granted in the areas we live in. I understand that in remote areas community translators will not be the solution and satellite is the way to go. But if the investment can be made where possible on a community level, where the entire community would be able to access local content TV, it should be done that way.

I look forward to the report being compiled by Professor John Chudleigh of Orange Agricultural College pulling together the strands of the recent regional summit. Communications is emerging as the issue in the regions. It is looking highly likely that we have to find a way of delivering satellite services in a hurry, that we just cannot rely on terrestrial means to deliver the sort of hook-up that is urgently required to deliver a level playing field in communications.

Again, the kinds of communities that have been suffering from this insufficiency are like Peel in my electorate. It is only 15 kilometres from the post office at Bathurst but is unable to access local area signals due to the hilly terrain and is undoubtedly a black spot next to a major population centre. This community has found itself in the position where it can access ABC, SBS, Imparja and Seven Central via satellite but has not been legally allowed to access the commercial content channels due to the regulation in the broadcasting act. Local stations have had no problem with self-help entities accessing signals outside of their local licence area when it is clear that they cannot access the local signal.

If the government is committed to networking the nation and allowing all Australians, no matter where they live, to have access to basic communications including television—I will not attempt to document the Telstra difficulties out there—we need to see some action straightaway. We need to get this into the Senate and passed in this session, which I presume is what is happening and will happen quicker if I wind up, I suppose! I share the member for Braddon's sentiments when he expressed his electorate's views on the severe problems regional areas are facing with telecommunications, from TV reception to mobile phone coverage in his grievance speech yesterday.

I am sure I do not have to remind the Deputy Prime Minister that, in the context of the regional summit, it was agreed that all Australians have a right to basic communications and services no matter where they live. I have Mudgee residents contacting my office seeking help with this problem—they cannot access a signal from Prime Television at Orange. Although I am pleased we are finally getting this legislation passed, this necessary change is well overdue.

I am also pleased with the anti-hoarding provisions of the bill which enable the minister for communications to make a disallowable instrument listing events to which the regime will apply—an anti-hoarding list, if you like. It fairly outlines a `must offer' regime to free-to-air broadcasters who have acquired the rights to show certain events but are unwilling or unable to show them live to the general public.

The Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill (No. 3) 1999 is essential and I commend the passing of sections 1 and 2 by the House, with urgency to the Senate. The three essential items contained in that bill include enforceable Australian content licence conditions for pay TV, limiting the scope of international agreements applying to ABA functions, and establishing a licence regime for international broadcasting services transmitted from our country. All of these items are worth while, logical and essential and I am pleased to support the bill.

Although I share a certain level of disappointment that the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1999 could not have been passed in its original form—I am also disappointed at the extreme length of time it has taken to get any of it passed—I support this legislation. I do so for the benefit of those people living in regional black spot areas who have been relying on this bill to access TV and will now, finally, be able to access it through their only feasible option at present, via satellite. The second reading amendments from the opposition which seem to me to represent the sort of regime of localism that we certainly require in our television, the sort of protection—

Mr McGauran —Are you sure?

Mr ANDREN —Well, I want to examine them in more detail. Are we going to a vote on this, by the way?

Madam DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. J.A. Crosio) —Yes.

Mr ANDREN —Okay. I will examine them in detail in the lobby before I make my decision clear. I doubt that that will be happening in other back bench positions. As we get towards debating digital television, the local regional television industry is anxious for the government to announce its intentions on infrastructure funding. I am very happy to support their claims for assistance in this area but I issue a warning to regional television that it needs to show more commitment to true localism. It should not degenerate into a situation where generic news type items are prepared in Wollongong for distribution through the whole network, more and more watering down their localism and still pleading their local legitimacy.

Unless I see more signs of localism—without the closure of offices, like the Ten Network has suggested to fund its digital commitment, and the sending out of news programs for local markets from the other side of the continent, which could also happen in regional television, particularly in the area of local news—I will certainly review what support I am prepared to publicly offer for their cause, given that they have a vital role to play in disseminating the sort of information that those communities, many of them isolated, expect and deserve. I commend this bill to the House.