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Thursday, 10 February 2005
Page: 19

Mr McGAURAN (Minister for Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs) (10:29 AM) —in reply—I wish to thank all who have contributed to this important debate on the Australian Communications and Media Authority Bill 2004. I especially thank the member for Hinkler for his thoughtful and at times wide-ranging contribution, which touched on the necessity for ACMA from here on. As he rightly pointed out, digital technologies are reshaping traditional telecommunications and broadcasting industry sectors by allowing new types of devices and services, which in turn create new market opportunities.

The hallmark of contributions by the member for Hinkler on this whole telecommunications and broadcasting sector—numerous contributions over many years—has been his emphasis on the need to move with the times. The sector is constantly changing, especially in a technological sense but also, at times, in the sense of social expectations of the community. What drives the member for Hinkler more than anything else is the need to ensure that the light hand of regulation serves the interests of consumers, especially in regard to affordability and access. I congratulate him for being a champion, especially of far-flung rural communities, in the consideration of the necessary reforms relating to communications regulations as they come to our attention.

Needless to say, all of the speakers in the debate have supported the formation of ACMA because of the impact of convergence on communications regulation. We in the government believe that a combined regulator will be better placed to make coordinated responses to these convergence issues. Predictable as it may be, in the debate there has been some criticism from the Labor Party, as is their wont, that the formation of ACMA will not be accompanied by a more substantive review of regulatory arrangements for communications and broadcasting. Convergence will not remove the ongoing need to achieve the distinct policy objectives the government has for our telecommunications and broadcasting sectors. For the foreseeable future, it is likely to be necessary to maintain these distinct regulatory regimes. As the member for Melbourne himself said, television and radio in their current form are not going to disappear overnight—or, I might venture to suggest, in the foreseeable future.

The government considers that an administrative merger is an important step in positioning the communications regulator for the future. The merger itself will prove challenging enough for the members and staff of the authority as the functions and operations of the two organisations are combined. Undertaking a major review of frameworks at the same time would risk significant disruption to the administration of the regulatory framework and to the industries being regulated. Consequently the government's approach is sensible and fair minded. However, we recognise that technological changes will continue to place pressure on those regulatory frameworks. The government will therefore continue to assess the need for reform of the wider communications regulatory environment.

I want to stress very strongly that, contrary to the suggestions of the member for Perth, much work is already taking place—for example, the digital television reviews that are being undertaken at the moment. ACMA will be better placed to implement any reforms to the regulatory framework arising from such inquiries and reviews than two separate regulators would be. There are obvious linkages between these reviews and other issues such as cross-media reform. The government will be considering these issues carefully during this year.

The establishment date for ACMA is 1 July this year or an earlier date set by proclamation. Much work has already been done to enable this time frame to be met. The agencies are well advanced in planning for the merger. It is important that ACMA is formed by the planned date. The uncertainty generated by any delay would be disruptive to both the regulators and the industry, and therefore to consumers.

Both the ACA and the ABA have a number of active appointments as a transitional arrangement prior to the establishment of ACMA. On passage of the legislation, ACMA members will be able to be appointed. In line with the administrative nature of this merger, the government has retained the appointment process currently followed by the ABA and ACA. Each member will therefore be appointed by the Governor-General on the recommendation of the government. The government will make announcements about appointments to ACMA at the appropriate time. The independence of ACMA will be maintained. The key factor in maintaining independence is the scope of the ministerial directions power. The directions power currently applying to the ABA and the ACA will be retained in respect of ACMA.

As the government has made clear on numerous occasions, the formation of ACMA is an administrative merger which will better position the communications regulator to respond to the pressures of convergence. The merger will not be the means for making changes to the regulatory frameworks for telecommunications, radio communications or broadcasting.

Details of the regulatory frameworks for the communications sector, including telecommunications carriers such as Telstra, are set out in other legislation such as the Telecommunications Act. The government has undertaken to examine the adequacy of the current regulatory regime prior to any possible future sale of Telstra. If regulatory changes are needed, the government will therefore deal with them as part of its consideration of the sale of Telstra and all the issues surrounding the sale, not through the administrative formation of ACMA.

In drawing to a conclusion, I again make the point previously highlighted by other speakers in the debate: it is becoming increasingly difficult for two separate regulators—one which is primarily focused on infrastructure and carriage issues, the other which focuses chiefly on content issues—to provide a holistic response to convergence. The establishment of ACMA forms an integral part of the government's commitment to respond to the rapidly changing communications sector with progressive communications policies which reflect evolving market conditions. It will enable a coordinated regulatory response to converging technologies and services. The new authority will be better placed to take a strategic view of wider convergence issues.

Finally, the establishment of ACMA will help Australia remain at the forefront of communications regulation. A single regulatory body will be best placed to provide for the needs of industry and consumers given the rapid evolution of technologies in the communications sector.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.