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Monday, 16 October 2006
Page: 106

Mr HUNT (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage) (7:47 PM) —I present the explanatory memorandum to this bill and I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

The communications environment, in Australia and across the world, is experiencing a period of rapid and accelerating change. New platforms are emerging, along with new forms of content and greater levels of interactivity. Media content is now available in multiple forms, on-demand, and to fixed or mobile receivers, providing Australians with an unprecedented level of choice and control in their media usage. Despite this proliferation of services and platforms, the need to ensure the diversity of media ownership remains fundamental. Ensuring a variety of content, particularly in regional communities with less access to a diverse range of media than in metropolitan areas, is a key priority for the government. The parliament has long regarded these objectives as critical, and they are at the heart of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 (the BSA). The government, in committing to reform Australia’s media ownership laws at the 2004 election, indicated that it would do so while protecting media diversity. This bill, along with measures in the other media reform bills, gives effect to that commitment.

The regulatory framework in relation to the ownership and control of Australian media assets was developed in the mid-1980s. It focuses on regulating separately television, radio and newspapers—which at that time were essentially the only mass media. The framework imposes restrictions that impede commercial flexibility and access to capital for infrastructure and content investment. These restrictions hinder the ability of Australian media organisations to succeed in the new media environment. Most of all, by locking media companies into one platform, and by locking foreign investors out of our two most profitable media, they are fundamentally anticompetitive.

This bill seeks to remove these restrictions while still providing the protection the regulatory framework was intended to provide—the protection of media diversity.

The bill will remove the current foreign ownership and control restrictions in the BSA. However, foreign ownership of Australian media assets will continue to be regulated by the Foreign Acquisitions and Takeovers Act 1975 and Australia’s foreign investment policy (FIP).

The bill will also relax Australia’s outdated cross-media rules so that cross-media mergers can take place, but only where sufficient diversity of media groups remains following the merger, and only where mergers are limited to two out of the three regulated media of commercial radio, commercial television and associated newspapers. At least five separate media groups will be required to remain after any merger activity in mainland state capitals, and four groups in all other areas. The areas concerned will be based on commercial radio licence areas.

The Trade Practices Act 1974 will continue to apply to proposed media mergers and acquisitions. Any such proposals will be subject to a test for the effect on competition, which is administered by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

The media ownership rules will be administered by the media regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA). A person who undertakes a transaction that breaches the BSA will be guilty of an offence, and may be ordered by ACMA to divest licences or newspapers to return to compliance with the BSA. To ensure compliance with the minimum number of separate media groups rule, ACMA will maintain a Register of Controlled Media Groups identifying the ownership and control of media groups in each licence area that comply with the BSA. As part of an extensive range of enforcement options, ACMA will also be able to seek injunctions to prevent transactions that would breach the BSA and to direct parties to take action to address such breaches.

In a media environment where mergers are permitted, it is likely that media companies will be required at some point to provide news coverage of matters relating to cross-held entities. The bill imposes a general obligation on media outlets to disclose cross-media relationships in such circumstances.

The government recognises there is a level of public concern about declining levels of local and regional news and information programs on both television and radio, and this bill contains significant measures to address those concerns. In 2003 ACMA imposed licence conditions on regional television broadcasters, requiring the broadcast of minimum levels of programming of local significance. The bill amends the BSA to require ACMA to impose such conditions in aggregated television licence areas in eastern Australia, in effect formalising the existing conditions, which will remain in place. Additionally, the requirement will be extended to Tasmanian licensees. ACMA is currently considering whether similar arrangements should be extended to licensees in South Australia and Western Australia.

The bill also requires ACMA to impose licence conditions on regional radio broadcasters to provide a minimum of 4½ hours of local content every business day. This requirement will be subject to a review by 30 June 2007 and may be altered by the minister by disallowable instrument. Local content licence conditions and local content plans will be implemented to provide protection for local content on radio in regional areas. The bill provides that where a commercial radio licence is transferred, is subject to a change in control or otherwise becomes part of a merged media group, the licensee will be required to maintain levels of local presence and to meet specified local content licence conditions. These conditions will establish minimum standards for local news, community service announcements and emergency warnings, as well as minimum service standards for other types of local content, if specified by the minister by legislative instrument.

Licensees will be required to demonstrate in a local content plan how they will meet the local content licence conditions and what resources they will have in place to achieve the requirements.

This will ensure that, regardless of any mergers that may take place, regional audiences can be assured that they will continue to receive relevant, local news and information from the commercial broadcasters in their area. Of course, this will be in addition to the myriad other media services available around Australia from ABC television, radio and online; SBS television, radio and online; community television and radio; subscription television; plus the ever-expanding range of online services available over the internet and the new digital services that will emerge as a result of the government’s media reform package.

This bill provides for the timely reform of the outdated regulatory framework governing the ownership and control of Australian media organisations. It is part of a wide-ranging and significant legislative reform package that will ensure that Australian media organisations, as well as the Australian public, are well positioned to meet the challenges and exploit the opportunities presented by the digital communications revolution we are currently witnessing.

I commend the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Helen Coonan. I commend her staff. I commend the work of the department. And I commend the bill to the House.

Debate (on motion by Mr Stephen Smith) adjourned.