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Thursday, 10 February 2005
Page: 15

Mr NEVILLE (10:09 AM) —I am pleased to speak on the Australian Communications and Media Authority Bill 2004 and related bills, which herald a new era in communications regulation for the Commonwealth of Australia. In essence, these bills will amalgamate two existing entities, namely the Australian Communications Authority and the Australian Broadcasting Authority—the ACA and the ABA, as we have grown to know them—so that the government can better regulate and administer our rapidly evolving communications sector. I think we are all familiar with the workings of the ACA and the ABA and realise that between them their jurisdiction extends to regulating communications infrastructure and carriage services, broadcast content, spectrum issues, licensing decisions and media ownership matters. This is a huge scope.

The ACA focuses primarily on issues of telecommunications and spectrum management, the licensing of telecommunications carriers, the regulation of standards and codes of practice and the administration of the universal service arrangements. The ABA, on the other hand, was established in 1992 to administer analogue and digital broadcasting and the licensing of those broadcasters. The ABA also regulates radio, television and internet content and monitors compliance of media ownership rules enshrined in current legislation. The two authorities bear a huge range of responsibilities. In days gone by, that could be adequately handled by the two authorities, but in more recent times we have seen an overlapping. For example, it makes little sense to have two bodies allocating different areas of broadcasting spectrum, as is the case.

Until recent times the nature of communications technology and infrastructure meant we could clearly delineate between the responsibilities of the ABA and the ACA but, as I said, that line is now blurring. In the past, telecommunications technology such as telephone lines and mobile phones could only deliver voice communications, and television content could only be broadcast using analogue technology. But we face a radically different communications sector today, where our telephones can interact with computers to send audiovisual data, where a simple refrigerator can operate a personal computer, where the capabilities of home computers and the internet make them an instant source of information and communication from and to the world. Rather than having to rely solely on landline telephones and telexes, we can now email, text message, picture message and page on a regular basis with increasing frequency. We can even transmit pictures—something that is causing a great deal of concern on Australian beaches, for example. The never ending stream of communications is taking place 24 hours a day, seven days a week thanks to these new communications technologies which are wireless, decentralised and globalised. In short, new digital technologies are allowing previous distinct and separate sectors to merge and compete across increasingly convergent markets using a range of delivery technologies.

The Australian Communications Authority's recent research project Vision 20/20 also found that Australia's communications sector needed greater streamlining in order to keep up with development. The purpose of this study was to gauge the future form of the communications sector by looking at the convergence of radio communications, telecommunications, broadcasting and information communications technologies. The 20/20 report identified several major themes which will probably emerge in the communications sector over the coming years, with the overall trend—according to the ACA Acting Chairman, Mr Bob Horton—being one of growing complexity and convergence. The report also found that there is a growing need for more streamlined regulatory cooperation at a national and international level. This is particularly relevant to Australia's media and communications sector, given that we as a nation have shown a distinct willingness to adopt new technologies and to use them in our everyday lives.

I remember when the former head of the ABC David Hill addressed a meeting in Bundaberg not long before I got into parliament some 12 or 13 years ago. He pointed out that we were electronic junkies, and we are. We adopt these things, and we probably take them on in a higher proportion than any other nation on earth. It follows then that our regulatory bodies must be up to scratch to control that. It is also evidenced by some staggering statistics which reflect our love affair with these new technologies. Between 1995-96 and 2000-01 the Australian economy grew by an average of 3.9 per cent, which is quite a strong result, but the communications sector achieved a growth nearly three times that—an amazing 10.4 per cent over the same time frame. Following on from that, the Bureau of Statistics reports that the number of Australian households with access to a computer has increased from around three million to more than five million since 1998, an increase of 63 per cent. The number of households with access to the internet has grown from 1.1 million to four million since 1998, an astounding 268 per cent increase. So not only has the nature of our communications changed, and therefore the nature of regulation has changed, but the demand for access to them has increased exponentially. That puts an added demand on the regulators.

The increasing scope of internet usage and content has led to radical changes in our work environment and our methods of social interaction. On top of that, changes in technology have ever-widening implications for industry regulation. It is increasingly difficult to delineate between the responsibilities of the ABA and the ACA, to the point where it is no longer practical or effective to continue with two separate regulatory bodies dealing with similar issues. The creation of a single entity known as the Australian Communications and Media Authority will allow us to more easily regulate telecommunications, broadcasting, radio and internet industries without unnecessary duplication. We must be responsive to, if not proactive on, changing communications technologies and the Australian Communications and Media Authority Bill 2004 addresses that need. It is inevitable that the two entities, which have similar responsibilities for interlinking sectors, would need to merge operations in order to administer the sector effectively.

The associated Australian Communications and Media Authority (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2004 contains the necessary transitional provisions and consequential amendments. The eight minor tax bills which are attached to the bill reflect the creation of the ACMA and the revenue collection role it will assume upon the disbanding of the ACA and the ABA. The Australian Communications and Media Authority Bill 2004 amalgamates the responsibilities of the ACA and the ABA in terms of regulating our broadcasting and telecommunications sectors in all their forms under the ACMA. The ACMA's core duties will cover telecommunications and spectrum management and broadcasting and data content. It also brings the two authorities' associated duties—such as regulating spam, ensuring compliance with various sections of the Trade Practices Act, overseeing the ABC and SBS, regulating interactive gambling and collecting licence fees—together under one umbrella. The ACMA will also be responsible for collecting a range of taxes on behalf of the Commonwealth.

Moving away from the mechanics of the bill, I will now canvass some of the areas of the old bodies in the hope that we can look forward to greater focus and rigour in the new body. It would not come as a surprise to honourable members that I have been a fairly stringent critic of the ABA's performance. For example, the local area plans process has dragged on in some states for an inordinate length of time, forcing those who would willingly invest in the radio industry to put their plans on hold—sometimes for years at a time. In 2000-01 I chaired the parliamentary inquiry into regional radio and the subsequent report was titled Local voices: an inquiry into regional radio. The committee highlighted this particular failing of the ABA. The committee was also critical of impediments to emergency announcements caused by excessive networking. As the stories of emergency advice failures emerged, and even before the inquiry had reported, the ABA, in association with the Federation of Australian Radio Broadcasters and the ABC, initiated a code of practice. That is an extraordinary thing to happen in the course of an inquiry. That should not have been necessary if the ABA had been doing its job. To pre-empt the committee's report was an indication of the level of embarrassment that the key players must have felt.

During that particular inquiry we heard some extraordinary evidence—for example, radio stations that were on network having to be broken into at the local level to get emergency messages transmitted. On one occasion an emergency was reported to a hub radio station to be transmitted over its network and some fairly minor official at the radio station said, `Oh no, we don't do that sort of thing. Speak to your local SES.' That is an incredible situation. There have been other instances. For example, a town was experiencing a sudden thunderstorm and a fair degree of damage and, due to excessive networking, the hub station was broadcasting how beautiful it was in downtown so-and-so on that particular day. You might say, `That is just a glitch. You wouldn't hold them responsible for that,' but you would because, if there is a storm, if a petrol tanker overturns or something of that nature occurs, people have a right to know and know quickly. So we were very unhappy to hear that evidence. As I said, before the committee could even report, three of the major bodies involved—led by the ABA—put together a code of practice.

Another area that troubles me is the interpretation of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. You, Mr Deputy Speaker Jenkins, and some of your colleagues who have been in this parliament for a time would remember that bill. It had some admirable objectives. For example, one objective of the act states:

(b) to provide a regulatory environment that will facilitate the development of a broadcasting industry in Australia that is efficient, competitive and responsive to audience needs—

which, clearly in those emergency cases, it was not. Another one states:

(c) to encourage diversity in control of the more influential broadcasting services ...

We have seen excessive networking now, and if everyone is listening to the same program from that hub—in some instances, across four or more states—can you really say that is diversity? No, it is not. Let me cite another objective:

(g) to encourage providers of commercial and community broadcasting services to be responsive to the need for a fair and accurate coverage of matters of public interest and for an appropriate coverage of matters of local significance—

and I repeat: `and for an appropriate coverage of matters of local significance'. If you do not have a local news bulletin, if your news bulletins are being networked from a hub, you are not getting local news. For example, in the Rockhampton district, in the electorate of the member for Capricornia, to get on one particular radio station you have to ring a newsroom on the Gold Coast. As this networking phenomenon increases, the objectives of the act are being slowly undermined. Another objective states:

(h) to encourage the providers of broadcasting services to respect community standards in the provision of program material ...

People in some areas of Australia like country and western music; people in other areas do not. But if the whole thing is networked then you cannot separate out those different and competing interests.

I raise those points because what follows is this: there has been a phenomenon of radio stations coming into a town and buying up competitors. Bear in mind that our media laws at present allow a broadcaster to have two licences in a market. But what I suggest is an overuse, if not a misuse, of section 67 of the act is when, in short, that allows someone to hold a third licence on a temporary basis for one or two years at the ABA's discretion. I think that has just become a facilitatory mechanism now for people to own, control or manipulate three licences.

I saw this happen, for example, in Maryborough. One network bought the local station and its associated rock and roll station, thus owning three stations, and then sold what was at that time the most popular of the stations to the TAB. You might ask: what happened there? You then had networked programs and one station gone. So you had less diversity, less choice, less competition and less localism—which is totally in contravention of the objectives of the act. I strongly and bitterly oppose that. I think local radio should be a requirement of both networks and individual stations regardless, and I will not rest until I see that done.

Regional radio plays a very important part. A recent survey that I undertook for myself—I was not picking up anyone else's research—showed that regional commercial radio is the most popular format in my area, followed by one particular television station, followed by the ABC, followed by the local weekly newspaper, surprisingly, and then followed by the local daily newspaper. That was the hierarchy of information-seeking on political matters. So I think this new body will need to exercise rigour in protecting diversity, competition and localism.

Returning to the mechanics of the bill, the federal Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts will have the power to appoint associate members to carry out inquiries, investigations and hearings on behalf of the new ACMA, and the entity itself will have the power to establish separate divisions responsible for carrying out their particular functions. The merger will be virtually revenue neutral, as financial resources for the ACMA for 2005-06 and 2006-07 will be drawn from the forward estimates currently in place for the ABA and the ACA. Other ongoing costs in administering the respective telecommunications and radiocommunications regulations will come from fees and licences already in place and which will continue to apply.

The amalgamation of the ABA and the ACA is a logical and effective way for the Commonwealth to keep pace with the constant evolution of our communication technologies. Having said that, I will hold the new entity to higher and more rigorous standards than those exercised by the old ABA and the ACA. The Australian public expects—and this government demands—efficient communications service delivery in all its forms and strict content regulations for all media. I add to that my plea that diversity, competition and localism be protected in regional areas.