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Tuesday, 7 December 1999
Page: 12989

Mr McGAURAN (Arts and the Centenary of Federation) (9:28 PM) —I thank the honourable member for Calare for his contribution. As a good local member ought to, he took the opportunity to range far and wide on other communication aspects but still made the central point that the government's legislation is sound, and he has a long background in the television broadcasting industry. I sympathise that he now has to very quickly consider, in case there is a formal vote, the second reading amendment moved by the honourable member for Perth, and seconded by the member for Denison, which the government does not support and utterly rejects out of hand as an opposition stunt.

I am very disappointed. Just when you think you have this opposition up to the gate on responsible, constructive and worthwhile legislation they back away. We had earlier this evening the honourable member for Perth, very responsibly, supporting the government's Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill (No. 1) 1999 but now on Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill (No. 3) 1999 he and his colleagues revert to kind, which is just to pull stunts. There could be no other word for this amendment with which they have ambushed the government than to describe it as a stunt.

Mr Melham —Ambush!

Mr McGAURAN —An ambush. We have been in extensive, exhaustive time consuming discussions with the member for Perth over several days and there was no hint that this amendment would come forward to this bill. Under the amendment, clause 5 calls on the government to legislate to overturn the impact of the Blue Sky decision. I cannot believe the member for Perth had a hand in this amendment.

Mr Melham —It is the left.

Mr McGAURAN —Sure, he formally moved it, but it has the character and the touch of the member for Denison of the Labor Party left, as the member for Banks reminds me, all over it. There is no doubt at all that the shadow minister for communications has been led astray by the shadow minister for the arts. Any first-year law student knows that for the government to legislate to overturn the impact of the Blue Sky decision, so as to exclude New Zealand programs from the pay TV requirements, would be in breach of our international obligations to New Zealand under closer economic relations.

Opposition members interjecting

Mr McGAURAN —It says consistent with CER! Oh forgive me! In the rush, I did not get a chance to pick that up.

Mr Melham —You should take a literacy test.

Mr McGAURAN —The opposition has moved a complete sham of an amendment because they say: legislate to overturn the Blue Sky decision so long as it is consistent with CER. I would like them to produce any legal opinion from any qualified person—the member for Banks notwithstanding—to show that you can legislate to overturn Blue Sky and still be consistent with closer economic relations. That is not the government's understanding and it is certainly not the New Zealand government's understanding because they have indicated that they regard the exclusion of New Zealand programs from the requirement as a breach of the CER protocol and that any measure which jeopardises the free trade principles of CER would be regarded very seriously—and isn't that something of an understatement?—by New Zealand.

I would like to know from the shadow minister for communications whether or not the shadow minister for trade or the shadow minister for foreign affairs or, for that matter, the shadow cabinet has approved this nonsensical amendment which is inherently contradictory if it requires the government to overturn the impact of the Blue Sky decision but still remain within the protocol of the CER. There is no exemption for audiovisual services in the CER protocol and it is not feasible to renegotiate the protocol. Therefore, in order to honour our obligations to New Zealand, there is no alternative but to admit New Zealand programs into the pay TV requirement.

Project Blue Sky—the organisation of New Zealand producers that successfully challenged the free-to-air standard—has argued that there are legal grounds on which New Zealand programs should qualify under the existing pay TV requirement. Failure to amend the act as the government proposes could lead to another lengthy and costly legal battle. The impact of New Zealand programs on the pay TV requirement will be closely monitored and will be considered as part of the review of the requirement in three years time. We believe that the proposed amendment to section 160D, which limits its scope to the CER services protocol with New Zealand and which makes it clear that there are no flow-ons to other treaties, protects the level of Australian content under the amendment on free-to-air television so that foreign access to local content quotas under the section will be explicitly confined to New Zealand. That is the effect of the legislation. We are bound to CER but we can act in regard to other treaties.

The government does not resile from its commitment to CER. To ensure no adverse impact on the local production industry, we have a commitment to ongoing monitoring. Moreover, the former Labor government was responsible for the introduction of the Broadcasting Services Act which required that CER and other international treaties were complied with. I am advised that Bob Collins, then minister for communications, wrote to the then ABA Chairman, Brian Johns, in December 1992 asking that the ABA move quickly to amend its local content standard to include New Zealand programs. This flies in the face of a rather unusual comment by the shadow minister for the arts, the member for Denison, that what we have here is an unintended consequence of some negotiations that he was involved in. He never really expanded on his role in what he believes is a debacle and for which he must take a large amount of the responsibility. What we do know as a matter of record is that several years ago—in December 1992—the Labor government urged the ABA to amend its local content standard to include New Zealand programs.

Furthermore, the recently elected Labour Party—this will be of some interest to the honourable members opposite—has undertaken to introduce similar content regulations. As the CER is reciprocal, the Australian local film industry is set to benefit if the Labour New Zealand government goes ahead with its pre-election undertakings—and every sign is that they will. So here we have the member for Perth and the member for Denison wanting—impossibly, unrealistically and myopically—to cut New Zealand from accessing local content in Australia when it appears that there is the opportunity for us to have access to local content rules in New Zealand. If I may say so, it is a rather bizarre amendment moved by the two members.

I turn quickly to another issue that the member for Denison raised and addressed in his amendment under clause 2. This amendment can best be described as gobbledegook. As best you can understand it, it is so heavily qualified that it really calls on the government to give documentaries the same status as drama in requiring that pay TV's 10 per cent of expenditure be spent. So the legislation requires 10 per cent of expenditure to be on drama, if I understand the opposition—and I will accept being corrected, because forgive me if I do not understand that 60 or 70 word sentence which seems to fall back on itself in different places.

The simple fact is that the government is aware that the production industry is very concerned that the provision be extended to documentary. Senator Alston will therefore be asking the ABA, as a matter of priority, to consider the need to extend the requirement of 10 per cent of expenditure on drama to documentary, and to report back to him within 12 months. This is consistent with the Australian Film Commission and the Australian Film Finance Corporation's recent report on the state of the film industry, which I received as minister for the arts a fortnight ago. It recommended that the issue of extending the pay TV requirement to documentary channels be reviewed next year. The government acknowledged the importance of the documentary sector during the ministerial review in 1997. The government's announcement of a formal review of the requirement was intended to provide an opportunity to consider extending the requirement to documentary channels when the industry is further developed.

I will draw to a conclusion by complimenting the member for Hinkler on yet another fine contribution, for he raised the concern that many pay TV channels have not been complying with the requirement and that only four out of 16 channels met the obligation in the financial year 1997-98. I agree with the member that the bill allows flexibility for meeting the requirement depending on channel type and allows time for licensees and channels to adjust to the new rules through a 12-month period to make up any shortfall.

The government agrees that Australians have a strong demand for locally produced programs and that local content rules have contributed to Australia's world-class television production industry. The government not only acknowledges the special position of New Zealand but also recognises that we need to provide safeguards to prevent extension of access to local content quotas to other nations. I cannot stress that strongly enough. I welcome the member for Hinkler's recognition of the cultural role of local content regulation and that foreign access should be explicitly confined to New Zealand and not extended to other nations.

I thank all members who have contributed, but I have to say they have contributed with varying degrees of worthiness. The government fearlessly and vigorously rejects the opposition's amendment.

Amendment negatived.

Original question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.