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Tuesday, 8 May 2007
Page: 49

Mr HARDGRAVE (5:35 PM) —I am delighted to speak on this amendment. It is the first time I have spoken on media related subjects for a handful of years or more, because of my responsibilities in the executive of government, but I bring to this subject a passion, which I declare to the House, when it comes to radio, particularly commercial radio. It was my first love. It was my first job when I left MacGregor State High School in 1977.

We had run a school radio station, 4MG, which first started out in 1974. That school radio station ran for over 20 years with other students getting bitten by the bug which is radio, the most exciting of all media. Radio is, without a doubt, the most personal media and the most instantaneous media. It is the media which others, such as television, try to copy. Perhaps Sky News do the best job of that by being instant and live and in running things, because they have great ex-radio journalists like Roy Jamieson as producers. I simply make the point—and my declaration has been made—because it was only the member for Fadden who was there on 24 November 1974, at the opening of 4MG at MacGregor high school, as an ex-commercial radio announcer, ex-commercial radio presenter—the first face on Channel 0, now Channel 10, in Brisbane. The member for Fadden and I are the two people in this chamber who actually know something about commercial radio. So you can imagine how I felt listening and watching as the member for Grayndler rightly said that technology is driving the change, and wanting to participate in this debate.

Let me salute Senator Helen Coonan, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, because she has a job that I probably once coveted. I concede publicly, as I have conceded to her, that the legislative and legal framework associated with communications these days means that I will yield to her as a legal eagle. But if the Prime Minister wants to ring me one day I would be happy to take the call!

The key thing about commercial radio is viability. The member for Grayndler had a contorted—I was so sad for him—14 minutes of sheer pain. Three minutes into his contribution he moved his second reading amendment to try and get content. He was, in a discussion about digital radio, a bit like one of those old valve sets. One of his valves definitely needed a bit of a polish, because there was no oomph in it, no interest in it. As he rightly said, technology is driving it, but he demanded that government somehow or other presuppose what technology is going to be like and pick winners. The member for Grayndler, if he had been in this place in the seventies, would have been moving amendments demanding that Beta be the format of choice and that VHS be banished. Even though Beta was technically better, the marketplace went for VHS. The two things that are driving it are the technology and also the market, and viability is at the heart of this.

It is no point at all that—out of some aspiration, as the member for Grayndler suggested—rural and regional Australia are missing out on something. There is no point at all in imposing digital radio on, particularly, commercial and community operators in those parts of Australia when there is uncertainty about exactly what format is going to work. There is no point in destroying the viability of those radio stations by them forking out money to chase the technology rabbit down one hole when it is going to pop up out of another one. The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2007 and cognate bill establish a framework by which digital radio can roll out over a period of time that works for the commercial radio industry.

Perhaps my only objection to the legislation is that we restrict the possibilities of what digital radio could deliver. There is a convergence of technology taking place today where you can click on the web and watch moving pictures—albeit at a slower rate than perhaps some would like, but it is getting faster every day. The complete nonsense that Telstra flogs about broadband speeds being too slow in Australia has to be put to rest. I welcome the group of nine telcos’ contribution to that debate today. The point I make is that online convergence of moving pictures and sound at digital quality will damage the radio industry if we are not careful. Australia rightly has a very strong and proud history when it comes to the use of radio as a means of communication, entertainment and information.

One of the great complaints I have is that over too many generations of both sides of politics radio has been the lab rat of media experiments. Radio was subjected to more foreign ownership than any other point in the media dial. We could have people from all parts of the world owning all parts of the radio network around Australia. As they were chasing the viability of their sector, they amalgamated a lot of licences together, and that is why we have hubs in Albury, the Gold Coast and Townsville which are sending news all through the Sunshine Coast and so forth. It is not necessarily live and local radio these days as much as we would like. I think one of the things the government could look at is a licensing regime that makes licence fees cheaper for live and local radio stations and more expensive if you simply want to hub out of one place and beam, whether it is digital or analog signals, out of a transmission tower for which you have purchased a licence. That subject is perhaps for another day.

Equally, we need to make sure that we do not damage the enormous capacity radio has to reinvent itself, to change itself and to provide for itself a home in this convergence of technology. TV stations are under a similar amount of pressure. Newspapers are now sending out film crews with their journalists. I had the Courier-Mail come my office a couple of months ago, and there was a News Ltd crew for streaming video online. My only question is: why can’t radio do that if they want to also provide that sort of service? This legislation restricts them. It specifies certain things that we should at this point in time be doing with digital radio.

Nevertheless, this legislation does not lock into place the best guess of government, which is probably more likely than not to be the least likely to know where technology is going to go. No offence to any of the hardworking public servants in the Department of Communications, IT and the Arts, but in the end they are going to take their advice from people like Des DeCean of Austereo. I declare that Des is somebody I worked with—it seems like 100 years ago, but it must have been about 25 years ago—at 2CA. He would probably be the best walking, talking authority on radio and digital radio in Australia, and he works for Austereo, a major player in Australia’s media empires. Around this country they have major, very popular metropolitan stations—Triple M and B105 in Brisbane, for instance.

I simply make the point that the best knowledge is obviously in the companies themselves, in the organisations that are daily planning how to maintain their viability, how to ensure that something they sell—that is, access to the airwaves, to advertisers—turns a dollar and enables them to make a profit. How do they finance that? By having popular programming and by more people having access to them than to other radio stations. They maintain their viability by having a sufficient number of listeners to ensure that they have the ratings that they need to sell the advertising time that they need to sustain it all, and on it goes.

One of the things that radio has to do is, as all the other media have done, to diversify the range of things they can sell. During the cricket coverage during summer they could be flogging a 0055 number to vote for the best catch or to purchase a cricket bat that Tony Greig has endorsed. That is what television is doing—providing access through the phone lines or the internet to purchase things from the cricket shop. Why is it that radio do not have the capacity, as they would under this legislation, to point people to competition, fine-print details and other things on their website or indeed to broadcast that through a separate channel? While they are broadcasting their main audio program on one channel, the visual content, still pictures, could explain some of the fine print and details of any competitions they run. Why can’t they do that? That is what this digital technology is promising and creating a certain environment for.

The member for Grayndler put great store in the importance of community radio in rural and regional Australia. I do not disagree with the importance of that, but this legislation is marking out the six major metropolitan markets and saying: ‘Let’s see what the radio industry decides for itself within the framework of this legislation using the technology that is available and driving people towards this technology through their market influence. Let’s see what technology and the market together can deliver. Let’s trust the industry to create an environment in which it will turn people onto this digital radio technology.’ You obviously have to have a framework in which that can operate and that is what this legislation is providing.

We are introducing a six-year moratorium on the issue of new area planned commercial radio licences from the commencement of services in the respective markets so that we can allow those radio stations to bed down this far higher cost to their overall operation to maintain their viability while they prove the technology. This proof of technology is important because, for regional and rural areas, and indeed community radio, to have the opportunity to look at the example of the success or otherwise that has been generated by the more highly profitable stations in major metro markets and then make decisions, is an obvious, common-sense approach. But if you listened to Labor, the lab rat concept would continue. Their idea is, ‘Radio is not all that important; we will just poke and prod and see where it bleeds and, moreover, we will plan where the blood happens to run.’ That is a dreadful analogy and I wish they had not used it. They have done this before. Paul Keating’s famous ‘princes of print or queens of the screen’ declaration of the mid-eighties destroyed the radio and television industries and even damaged the newspaper industry in this country for many years. The job losses in the Brisbane market alone were astronomical in the late eighties. The full effect of the consumption of radio and television licences by those with lots of money to spend continues, so it is absolutely important that we create a framework wherein the technology can grow, drive forward and be bedded down.

If you listened to the member for Grayndler, you would not even start the process until you had had a full-on second guess by mere politicians and slowed the whole process down and then told this sector what they should do. I do not for a moment believe the knowledge would ever reside in a Senate committee, with the greatest respect to our brothers and sisters in the other place. I do not believe the knowledge would reside in a Senate committee ahead of the knowledge which resides in people like Des DeCean and others who have the technology background, who have experience in the industry, who understand where the industry gets its money from, how it maintains itself and how it plans to reinvent itself yet again.

In that regard, this legislation has got the balance right. This legislation does not declare but leaves open the way in which the system itself can develop the way ahead. This legislation simply talks about the Eureka 147 platform and the fact that we know that there is a need to ensure that digital radio can provide a real improvement on the analog services in regional Australia. It says that we do not think there can be a replication of the extensive broadcast coverage of services in many regional markets under that Eureka 147 platform, particularly AM services, and that we will be looking at other technologies, including the one the member for Grayndler mentioned—the digital radio mondiale system. But we are not locking people into them. The last time I bought a new computer for myself was 11 years ago. I spent a couple of grand on it to upgrade the hard drive and then Bill Gates brought out something else and I could not fit it on the computer. We laypeople cannot possibly guess where technology is going to take us next, and I do not think the cumbersome wheels of government should be restraining the way in which technology in the market is driving things forward.

This whole thing will be decided essentially at the consumer level by people of about the age of 12 to 15 because they will be the ones consuming things such as the examples that were given by the member for Grayndler, the additional things that radio stations will be able to broadcast on other parts of the spectrum—still pictures and so forth. Just as mobile phone companies are offering ring tones and screensavers, radio stations will be able to offer the same thing. Equally, they will be able to do as they have done in parts of England for some years using digital technology and give you a digital readout of where traffic jams are and not just simply the audio report from some eye in the sky. You will be able to get your weather report through a different frequency. Getting this system right and working in all parts of Australia is going to be a far greater challenge than it is around Greater London, where it has been bedded down for most of the past decade. The government has to act within a framework which allows all of these possibilities to be discovered. That is what this legislation today is dealing with. It is certainly not specifying the outcome, but it is specifying a framework within which many of the flowers in the garden can flourish.

Consistent with the government’s commitment, given most recently at the last election, the government is maintaining that community broadcasters will be included in the initial planning process. The great diversity of radio in Australia today is being delivered by the community radio broadcasting sector, such as on Logan 101, where I know the member for Fadden is heard on a Sunday night playing the great show tunes, Julie London and people like that. They were around before I was born but, nevertheless, these sorts of community radio stations are very much living up to the mantra of ‘radio is where you live’. The importance of radio is that it is the ultimate one-to-one communication vehicle. For those of us who have been broadcasters, when we talk to one person at a time we might just happen to have hundreds of thousands or, if our ratings are good, maybe millions of people listening, but it is a very personal media. It is something we do not want to lose as the technology which is constantly driving this debate continues to pervade what has been a marvellous friend for so many people over the years.

The commercial radio industry have generally welcomed the government’s announcement of preparation for enabling legislation—and that is what this is: enabling legislation to build the framework on which other things can happen for the implementation of digital radio. They know that the start date of 1 January 2009 is feasible. It is in line with industry expectations and business planning. It allows the viability question to be exercised, and it allows businesses to make forward plans, report to shareholders and create an environment by which they can carefully and methodically plan their next step. But again the Labor Party and their politburo, central-planning concept of the way you should run government say very plainly: ‘The Senate committee will decide on the logic. Forget all of the technicians and the people who understand the radio industry, forget all of the viability questions, forget the way the market wants to operate and forget the technology; this is what you will do.’ It is no way to run a railroad or a radio station.

I congratulate Senator Helen Coonan for the close work and I congratulate the departmental officers who no doubt have worked with her. In closing, I make the point that it is very plain to me that this will continue to be an ever-receding finish line—that technology will continue to provoke further changes. We want to see radio stations that have access to spectrum that is being preserved for this make good use of it and—if they are able to because the market demands it, the technology is settled and the industry has its absolute act together—introduce this well before 1 January 2009. But it is absolutely critical that the government’s way of doing this is understood as a way of building the critical mass by which others outside of major metro areas will be able to respond in time—that others in the community sector will be able to respond in the period of time.

The reason the member for Grayndler was the lead speaker in this and wimped out at 14 minutes will be a matter of enormous speculation in the commercial radio sector. Perhaps it could be because the Labor Party have no digital radio policy. In fact, when Senator Conroy put out a press release at the announcement of the digital radio framework in October 2005, he simply criticised the framework for not delivering radio services to rural and regional areas. Nothing has changed. The member for Grayndler was mouthing Senator Conroy’s press release of October 2005 here again. All this time down the track, and they pretend they want to be the government at the end of the year. They have no digital radio policy and no vision for Australia. Labor stand condemned.