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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 140


Mr TANNER (7:20 PM) —The opposition support the merger of the ACA and the ABA into a single body and did so prior to the election, so we broadly support the legislation before the House. It reflects a pattern that is occurring in other parts of the world—for example, the creation of Ofcom in the United Kingdom as a single regulator spanning an even broader remit, including telecommunications and various other things that are not necessarily going to be within the ACMA remit. It certainly spans the bulk of what is going to be within the ACMA remit as part of the legislation that is before the House.

There is an underlying issue I wish to address that I think has caused some concern in sections of the broadcasting industry and which will ultimately have to be addressed. It has been put to one side as a result of this legislation being put to the House, but nonetheless it is something that we have to think about for the future—that is, the open contestability of spectrum. At the moment we operate spectrum in this country on the basis that particular sections of spectrum are set aside for certain purposes, in this case for radio and television broadcasting. So, in effect, that spectrum is quarantined from broader market forces, and the prospect of other players—such as people in telecommunications, mobile telephony and wireless internet—being able to potentially outbid broadcasters for that spectrum does not arise.

The resistance to the merger of the ABA and the ACA that has been in the industry for some considerable time was ultimately sourced in this concern—that, by merging the regulators, you would end up with an effective merger of the way that spectrum is dealt with and ultimately an open market for spectrum use. Broadly, I have some sympathy with that view, but I think it will be some time before our society is ready for that—indeed, some time before the various sectors are ready for that. I believe that we should continue to support the notion of a separate role for broadcasting in our society—and, in particular, for radio and television broadcasting as we have known them—and I believe that spectrum should continue to be set aside for those purposes.

It is extremely important that all Australians be able to continue to have access to services that are delivered to them for free, effectively—although they pay indirectly through advertising—through radio and television. It is very important that we continue to guarantee that those services will be able to be provided and that we ensure that those industries can grow and diversify, that there is more competition and there are more services and different products. Ultimately there will be genuine convergence and what we today know as television, in particular, will cease to exist in the form that we currently know it because of technological change. But that is much overhyped and will be some distance away. For the foreseeable future, we as a society need to maintain a separate regulatory arrangement for broadcasting to ensure that spectrum will be there.

It is important that we have a genuinely expert nonpolitical regulator. One of the things that I would urge upon the government, once this legislation is passed and once the boss of the new organisation is appointed, is that we do not see any more David Flints—that we do not see any more political stooges who are there to run their own political agendas—and that we do not have an organisation that is unduly soft in the application of its regulatory and administrative roles. We need an organisation that will clamp down on miscreants and actually enforce the rules. In some respects, I felt that the former Australian Communications Authority was a bit soft in its administration of consumer protection provisions in telecommunications, for example. There are a number of lessons that we can learn from what has occurred in the recent past to ensure that the new authority has integrity, strength and impartiality and that it is genuinely an expert based authority making decisions in accordance with the legislation and the wishes of the parliament, on the basis of the merits of the issues and not on the basis of political bias—as was the case with Professor Flint—or on the basis of any other extraneous matters.

This legislation does point to the early stages of a wave of quite revolutionary change that is going to hit broadcasting in this country, and we are seeing only the very early stages of it. The transition to digital has been painfully slow in this country. It is really not gathering serious momentum and there are some major new decisions that the government will have to face up to at some point. There are questions about whether there should be further competition in television broadcasting and whether multichannelling should be allowed. There are questions about whether we should allow, in what is supposedly a high-tech industry, the kind of competition and open entry to the marketplace that is now taken for granted in virtually all other industries or whether we should continue to stick with an antiquated regulatory framework that reflects a bygone world.

If you think about it, we have seen very little change in television for 25 years. The last major change in Australian television, in true impact, was the entry of SBS—and I acknowledge the presence in the parliament today of the member for Kooyong, who had a significant role in the creation of SBS. That was the last major development in Australian television—25 years ago or thereabouts. It is a sector that has not changed very much since that time, yet the technology has changed enormously and is going to change even further. I believe that, unless the technological change wave that is starting to gather momentum is adapted to by television as we know it, it will ultimately disappear. There are really major challenges emerging for the broadcasting sector—for radio as well as television—and, yes, they are entitled to a continued place in the broadcasting spectrum. They are entitled to a continuing role in our society, but they are not entitled to undue protection from competition or from the implications of technological change.

So whether it is the transition to digital in radio, the prospect of satellite radio, the question of additional licences in television or the question of multichannelling, there is no question about where I stand on these issues: I am in favour of reform, I am in favour of progress, I am in favour of allowing technological change and market forces to give better products, more choice, more diversity and more jobs for Australian consumers and for Australian society. There are some difficult micro issues to be dealt with, but it is about time the government started to front up to those issues instead of ducking and weaving, which it has done for a number of years. It is about time the government started to front up to those issues and to institute a serious reform agenda in Australian broadcasting.

There are lots of things that we could do. There is significant change occurring in other jurisdictions. If you look at what is happening with digital television in Britain, for example, you will see the impact of pursuing a progressive mechanism for introducing digital TV there, whereas it has been a dismal failure thus far in Australia, in spite of all the hype that has been put forward. We have got to take these issues and move with them and move with technological change and allow the broadcasting sector to flourish, to genuinely innovate and to build on and improve what it delivers for Australia. Some of that has happened in radio. More competition has led to more activity, more jobs, more revenue and much greater diversity of product for Australian consumers—and much more choice in radio. I believe that we need to follow that pattern in television as well and then we will have a better sector and a better society.

Debate interrupted.