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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 137

Mr TUCKEY (7:08 PM) —I apologise to the House. I just thought that a matter of such grave importance and of major alteration to the means by which electronic media in Australia is regulated—

Mr TUCKEY —Yes. We thought that you might have wanted to come down. I thought that the spokesman for the Labor Party, the member for Perth, would have had more to say but he spoke for only 10 minutes. This is major legislation—legislation that I recollect was called for by the opposition who were highly critical of some aspects of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, the major regulator. This legislation amalgamates the Australian Broadcasting Authority and the Australian Communications Authority. They will become the Australian Communication and Media Authority, the ACMA, by 1 July 2005.

During the election campaign the government committed to ensuring that the merger of the ABA and the ACA to form the ACMA is completed efficiently and does not disrupt the ongoing performance of the key regulatory functions of the existing regulators. The Australian Communications and Media Authority Bill 2004 provides for the establishment of the ACMA on proclamation on 1 July 2005 or, if no proclamation has been made, by that day. Let us look at the history of this particular legislation and the need therefor. The ACMA will be responsible for regulating telecommunications, broadcasting, radio communications and online content. A combined regulator will be better placed to make coordinated responses on conversion issues. In the converging telecommunications and broadcasting environment the maintenance of two separate regulators, both dealing with similar or overlapping issues but focusing on different sectors of the communications industry, is neither practical nor effective.

New digital technologies allow previous distinct sectors to compete across increasingly convergent markets using a range of different delivery platforms. An issue such as regulating content which can be delivered on 3G mobile phones is a prime example of convergence. As the government has previously stated, it will be an administrative merger and will not be accompanied by changes to the existing regulatory spectrum and planning frameworks for telecommunications and broadcasting. The government is committed to ensuring that the merger is completed efficiently and does not disrupt the ongoing performance of the key regulatory functions of the existing regulators. The existing authorities have in place administrative arrangements to plan for the merger and are well advanced in planning for change. There will be no cost to industry as a result of the merger since there will be no change to the regulatory framework or regulatory functions. There will be no significant saving to government as a result of the merger because all of the regulatory and reporting functions of the ACMA will be the same as those which currently exist in the ACA and the ABA. Staff numbers will remain fairly constant since the new regulatory services to the public and to the industry will remain the same.

The issue that arises here is that nothing stands still and, of course, in the electronic media today we have this speed of change which is quite outstanding. On the government's initiative, we are more closely approaching the day when analog distribution of television, for instance, will cease and it will all be digital. I think people are gradually coming to terms with that. If I read the newspapers correctly, there have been quite massive sales of plasma and other state-of-the-art digital television equipment during recent times. This was a major contributor to the buoyancy of the retail sector over the Christmas period. The government looks to and welcomes the fact that Labor will support this policy but I think there are some fundamental differences with our policy. The government has indicated on numerous occasions, including during the election campaign, that there will be no immediate savings from this initiative. This is because all regulatory functions will be much the same. Labor has said on several occasions that this merger would result in savings of $70 million, presumably in an effort to fill its budgetary black hole. We say that there will be no savings because the job remains the same. Of course we are well aware that, when you have things like Medicare Gold, there are many other responsibilities that the government has to the community in this regard that were brushed aside to find money.

I am supportive of a role for government as a regulator. I think that is a significant responsibility of government, be it in competition or in what our media present to us. I think people expect that of us. I am less inclined to government being a physical provider of many services. I have never been able to work out, in the instance of having a private sector as a service provider in education and health, why government also need to be a physical provider of those services. I think we kid ourselves that we do it better and that, in fact, we would do much better to make sure that the money was available to guarantee equity of access and things of that nature, which can be done without setting ourselves up as a major manager in these areas of service. When it comes to the media, to competition policy and to standards and the quality of things that people eat and buy, I see a role for government. I think government is there to ensure fairness and quality, and all the other things that people expect and have to have confidence in government to deliver. So this new body will quite sensibly cover both of those arrangements, and I think that is important.

I also think that we have some great challenges as a parliament in looking at how the communications system will operate. I for one have been quite saddened by the loss of the individualisation of electronic media that existed when I first became the member for O'Connor. We had a television station in Geraldton, one in Albany and other services dotted around. Then of course we had progress and it all became GWN, a satellite distributor that covers all of rural Western Australia, and in a later period we got WIN television. They provide good services but they are barely localised. I have always wondered why in my electorate, the Kalgoorlie electorate in particular, and I guess the Forrest electorate—the big rural electorates surrounding Perth—when a third licence was considered we could not have had the opportunity of going back to a series of smaller services that were distinctly local. That is, local services which did not give us Neighbours and all that soap opera stuff. What is the latest—`Dissatisfied Wives'? I thought they might cover the local football match or the local cricket match.

Mr TannerDesperate Housewives; a good show.

Mr TUCKEY —I am not into them, personally. When I want trouble I can create it for myself. Coming back to the issue, I always thought there could be a TV station in small towns that covered the local weddings. I think people might be interested in that, if that were a choice. They would still of course have the opportunity to watch `Dissatisfied Wives' or The X Factor or, if you really want to get down to the lowest of things, Big Brother or something like that.

These are the things that government looks at from time to time as a regulator. We certainly have changed our attitudes over the years, and today we approve things on television that one would not have dreamed of years ago. I am open-minded about that, but there is always going to be a time when we expect of the media that they deliver a product to a standard that is acceptable to the Australian people. Therefore, I am totally supportive of this particular proposal. There is huge growth in radio and new entrants are coming on in the immediate future, and there will be a great battle for advertising revenue.

We are yet to see how the cabinet will eventually approach the idea of more deregulation throughout the entire media, between print and electronic media. That is an interesting challenge and, again, I think it is appropriate. I am not sure that it is going to change much. We worry a bit about media domination, but I have yet to see any huge influence by media proprietors on their journalists. They seem to be able to run things much as they wish. I think that that professor missed out, as quoted by the minister for education this morning, in complaining about school teachers not doing enough. I thought maybe they should educate a few journalists to have a broader view of how politics operate in Australia. But I do not think that pressure comes from media owners. Of course in this day and age a lot of the ownership is with the fund managers and, as a consequence, the role of government is to see that reasonable standards are maintained in terms of the quality of the product, not the opinions of the journalists who work there. Having made those points and having taken the opportunity to describe to the parliament again what the purpose of this legislation is, I will conclude my remarks.