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Tuesday, 25 November 2003
Page: 22735

Ms O'BYRNE (4:04 PM) —I feel better now. I was really worried about the Australian film industry, but the minister and the government are going to take care of it—just like they took care of Medicare. They took care of that and they will take care of the Australian film industry, so everything will be a lot better. But it is really sad that we cannot have a debate in this place, that we cannot defend Australian cultural identity and that we cannot talk about Australian content. We cannot even talk about trade negotiations without this government typically, traditionally and every single time saying: `They're dreadful anti-Americans. Aren't they awful? They don't like the Americans at all.' The fact is that we actually have a huge faith in the quality and substance of our film industry. Any allegation that we do not is simplistic, it is childish and it is exactly what that minister—who is not staying around for the rest of the debate, I notice—and this government do.

Frankly, we are currently on the precipice of an exciting new era in media production through the introduction and acceptance of our emerging digital technologies. It is a time when the Australian film, television and music industries should be looking forward to what can be achieved through these really exciting technologies; it is not a time when they should be avoiding the use of these technologies out of the fear that they might lose not only their own jobs but also the whole industry. Instead, as this government is set to sign a free trade agreement with the US that will effectively eliminate local content rules, these industries are fighting for their survival. Local content rules that since 1942 have ensured local programs on radio and since 1961 have encouraged the production of local television are in danger of becoming the major casualty in a fight that will see the hand pitted against the lamb. Local content rules have ensured the emergence and growth of the Australian film, television and music industries. These are rules that have given us the experience and the confidence to successfully showcase our unique Australian culture and diversity to the world.

At the recent AFI awards in Melbourne—which I believe the minister at the table, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, was fortunate enough to attend—local actors and film-makers, who have contributed a lot towards Australian cultural identity and pride, made a direct appeal to this government about the future of the Australian culture and its diversity through film. Actor Toni Collette, when accepting her award, said she wanted to see Australian culture remain intact. In fact she appealed to the Prime Minister when she said:

I just beg you ... to see straight and not jeopardise our cultural future.

David Wenham also urged the government to consider its position. He said:

I do hope that the Australian culture has been championed in the current negotiations with the US, so that our voices, our character and our unique stories continue to be heard ... for all generations to come.

The film industry, like the Australian television and music industry, fears that under the negotiations for a free trade deal between the United States and Australia that Australian voices, Australian stories and Australian culture will be drowned out by cheaper imported American programming and media.

An impending free trade agreement with the US has thrown the local film, television and music industries into crisis. Under the free trade agreement, the Motion Picture Association of America is demanding that Australians give up the right to regulate for local content within future media delivery systems which will become available as a result of digitalisation. It seems that this government is quite happy to sign a deal that will effectively eliminate representation of Australian culture and Australian diversity. The Howard government seems quite happy for there to be a final, full saturation of American culture as the dominant programming on Australian television, in the production of film and in music, and is showing its true colours on its commitment to supporting our local industries and artists.

How Australia's media will actually look in the next 10 years is anyone's guess. There are currently trials under way on the future of digital radio and, while the current regulatory system ensures it is impenetrable, there is much potential in digital television. The potential also for broadband Internet technology is unfathomable, and the introduction of 3G technology is ensuring that we are seeing new ways of using mobile phones. The fact that the government believes that, by proposing a standstill agreement on local content rules but allowing a free-for-all on all emerging technologies is, frankly, a joke. I cannot work out whether this ludicrous proposal of a standstill agreement is an insulting proposal or simply naive. It is either a direct dismissal of the Australian public's intelligence in recognising that media and technology are rapidly changing, or the government is still stuck in the 1950s and is so out of touch that it truly believes that Cop Shop is in its first run.

If the Howard government signs a free trade agreement with the United States that includes this concession, Australia will likely never see the emergence of another Kylie Minogue, Bert Newton or The Wiggles. It has been local content rules that have ensured that programs like Neighbours, Good Morning Australia and The Wiggles are made—despite the fact that it costs 10 times as much to produce a local program than it takes to import an American program.

Mr Sidebottom —Go The Wiggles!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Braddon is in a very perilous position.

Ms O'BYRNE —Instead of icons like Kylie, Bert or The Wiggles, do we really want an environment where we would only have the option of watching American personas like Ridge Forrester, David Letterman or Barney the Dinosaur? At the moment there are clear guidelines on how much Australian content must be on our televisions, in our advertising and on our radios. On Australian television the quota set out by the guidelines stipulates that there must be 55 per cent of Australian content between 6.00 a.m. and midday; yet these quotas in no way compare to the 98.5 per cent of US television broadcast on American TV or the 95.7 per cent of UK programs on British TV. The Australian content rules have been the backbone of the Australian media industries and have helped many Australians develop a sense of pride in who we are through seeing a diverse representation of our culture and our society.

Even without the standstill program, this government, through its lack of support for local content production, has already managed to allow a significant drop in the number of films produced. In 2002-03, 26 feature films and 54 TV dramas were produced in Australia, compared to 39 feature films and 49 TV dramas in 2001-02. Australian films, television and music are popular around the world, and the Australian public expect far greater support than this for their industries.

Whether we are watching Crocodile Dundee, Priscilla Queen of the Desert or The Boys, we are seeing Australian representations of Australian stories and hearing Australian voices. It has taken some time, but Australians have lost their cultural cringe—which the minister who spoke previously would love us to continue to have—and have developed a pride in their unique culture and diversity. There is a real danger of a further Americanisation of Australian culture under the FTA. If production of local television programs is ceased, I fear that Kath and Kim will be very much in danger of becoming Anna-Nicole and Peggy-Sue—and no more will things be `noice' and `unusuwal'; they will end up being fine and dandy.

Labor is not against a free trade agreement if it does not take away the right of an Australian government and the Australian public to make their own decisions and if it does not have adverse impacts on Australian industries. Labor will not support this government to allow another country to undermine the provision and regulation of essential social services to the Australian people. These demands are not unreasonable and they already exist within the free trade agreements Australia has with New Zealand and Singapore.

A free trade agreement with the United States should not detract from the multilateral trade negotiations undertaken via APEC and the World Trade Organisation. The government cannot afford to become distracted from these multilateral negotiations by bilateral negotiations. The WTO negotiations, which 148 countries are participating in, are seeking to reduce trade barriers and will have a far greater trade potential for Australia than any single free trade agreement. The demand by the US to eliminate the local content quotas in Australia's media industry does not meet either of these criteria.

We cannot allow the US or any other nation to bully us into relaxing the quotas that have been the backbone of the success of the Australian film, television and music industries. Labor will not stand by and allow the Howard government to attempt to destroy Australian culture. The Prime Minister believes he is a champion of Australian culture and is happy to support our sporting heroes. It is now time to show that commitment to all Australian culture and not support a deal that is not in our interest.

The free trade agreement with Singapore shows that it is possible to have bilateral agreements that do not trade off our culture. In that agreement, there was never any mention of the need to compromise any part of the Australian ethos—despite all the interpretations and intimations made by the minister. So why is it necessary to roll over when the United States suddenly makes such demands? Dick Letts, Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia, recently said:

The US agreement offers no positives for Australian culture. None. No-one, even in the government, has pointed to any. ... Losses in culture are to be accepted in exchange for gains in agriculture. That's unfair and unwise.

Of course, we all support our farmers. But ... Only we can grow Australian culture. If we don't do it, it won't exist. ... Unfortunately, at this point, it seems like it's only a question of whether the government rolls onto its side or its back. It should just stand up.

In response to this sentiment, the Minister for Trade dismisses the fears of actors, musicians, film-makers and producers in a statement that calls these concerns nothing but political scaremongering by Australians that oppose closer economic ties with the US.

The minister assures Australian actors, writers, directors, producers, movie-goers, television viewers and radio listeners that Australian culture is not under threat by the FTA. The minister believes that the US is clearly not seeking substantive changes in Australian laws, yet this assurance is in direct contrast with the demands being put on FTA negotiators who have reported that the US is pressuring Australia for cultural concessions. Members of the Music Council of Australia, the body negotiating on behalf of the music industry, have been told that it is clear from the negotiations that the Howard government is desperate to get access to the US for Australian agriculture but, because agriculture is already an open market, there can be no concessions in this area and, therefore, these concessions must come from another area.

The impact of the loss of cultural concessions under the FTA will not be immediate, because the US will concede on our current content rules under the standstill agreement. It is the future of Australian content that is in danger of disappearing. But this government and this Prime Minister do not have to worry about that because, by then, they will have long disappeared. Labor will not allow Australian culture to be traded in this manner. In the vernacular of the Prime Minister's very special new best friend, Crikey it's a crock, but you know, Mr Speaker, we'll save it if we can!