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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 4

Mr CREAN (9:16 AM) —Before the adjournment last night, I was making the point that we support our going digital but arguing for our amendment to the second reading motion for the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digitial Radio) Bill 2007 on the basis that the government does not have the framework right for us to do that. We see the need for the development of digital radio because it is an integral part of the digital media landscape. However, if we are to embrace it, it is essential that all Australians embrace it, not just those in the capital cities. Hence, the amendment we have moved seeks a deferral until we have established the means, technologies and framework for ensuring the coverage of this digital reach to the whole of Australia.

It is interesting that the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, in the second reading speech, mouthed the words that this will be a technology and a platform available to the whole of the country. He talks about ‘equitable access to new services in broadcasting for people living in rural and remote’ areas of the country. However, the bill requires that digital be rolled out only for state capital cities and that this has to happen before 1 January 2009, but when it comes to the consideration of technology for the regions, that will not be completed until a review of appropriate technologies by 2011—in other words, a review up to three years later.

The reason we have moved the amendment, Mr Speaker—and you would be aware of it because you represent a rural community—is that we want to ensure that the technologies and platforms that are developed are compatible, that they extend to all the regions, that regions do not miss out or that they do not end up having to purchase more costly equipment because, on the basis of what the capital cities have rolled out, tuners and receivers are equipped to receive only what is appropriate for them and their technology but not what will subsequently be needed for the regions.

We know from the bill’s explanatory memorandum that the platform being talked of as being available for the cities is not appropriate for the regions. The bill establishes the problem; the explanatory memorandum confirms that the technology in question is not appropriate for the regions. That is why we do not quibble with the need to go digital; we are saying it has to be a digital reach for the whole of the country, not just for the capital cities.

I urge the regions and rural communities to agitate to ensure that they are not left behind. Quite frankly, this legislation can leave them behind. They should be aware of what is inherently involved in this legislation. They should look seriously at the amendment we have moved, which is asking for a deferral until such time as technologies are compatible, so that we can move forward for the whole of the country.

I said at the outset that we support going digital and we do that because it will help us meet the real challenges of an increased audience expectation. Digital radio is more efficient than analog, AM-FM, and more stations can be broadcast within the same spectrum. What will that mean? It will mean greater diversity, greater choice and greater competition when it comes to news, current affairs and entertainment. It will expand listener choices and this is critically important. As we all know, radio is the lifeblood of those who spend time in the regions. People spend a lot time in cars and at home. This is their connection, in many ways. It is about news and it is about connecting communities.

The digital approach also will provide better services with minimal interference and signal fading, better quality, described as ‘compact disc quality sound’ and much better reception. You will be able to tune into a radio station using its name only. You will be able to tune to programs on stronger frequencies when travelling. This is all terrific stuff. Whilst we welcome digital radio, it is essential that we get the framework for its introduction right. That means ensuring that people in capital cities and people in rural and regional Australia will have the same access.

We have had experience already with the regions being left behind the capital cities, and that is when it comes to broadband. Who has stepped in to propose the policy alternative? Labor, with its Broadband Connect. It has taken the view, because we have read the evidence, quite frankly, that the regions that already have access to fast-speed broadband over the internet are the regions that are going ahead. Those that do not have it are being left behind. Governments have to step in, either to address the market failure or by regulation, to ensure that the access and the platforms are available to them. This government has not done so in the case of broadband, and it is not doing so in relation to the spread of digital.

This bill does not adequately address the roll-out of the enhanced radio services to people in regional Australia. I will remind the House again of what is contained in our second reading amendment. In particular, I remind those members on the other side of the parliament who represent rural and regional Australians. We note in our second reading amendment that the Senate committee inquiry into the bill did not allow interested parties time to consider and draft submissions to the committee, and that this constraint did not allow for meaningful consultation. So this is another rushed job—a rushed job that is so typical of the way in which this government has moved forward.

The second reading amendment also notes that this has led to a lack of information as to how the omission of the digital radio mondiale—DRM—platform from the legislation will affect the roll-out of digital radio to rural and regional Australia, and notes that the legislation only specifies the use of the other platform, digital radio broadcasting, or DAB. So the legislation only specifies DAB. It does not talk about DRM. It defers that for later consideration. The government says it will look at that later, but why not look at it now? Why should we be taking precipitate decisions in the absence of knowledge about the technology and platforms that will enable us to take that regional opportunity?

Our second reading amendment also demands that the government make every endeavour to ensure that the standards are in place to enable the roll-out of digital radio to remote, rural and regional Australia. Many of these communities, as I said before, rely on radio, particularly the ABC. The bill’s explanatory memorandum notes that the success of the introduction of digital radio will depend on the take-up of the system by broadcasters and the public. We heard last night from the member for Moreton, who talked about radio broadcasters welcoming this bill. I notice he did not talk about what the ABC had to say about this. One would have thought, if we were talking about regional and rural Australia, that we would take some notice of what the national broadcaster has to say—a national broadcaster whose reach is almost 100 per cent throughout the whole of Australia, and which does provide a service for the totality of the country, not just for the capital cities of the country.

I remind the House what the ABC had to say about this matter. It made specific recommendations relating to the roll-out of digital radio to rural and regional Australia. The ABC has indicated that it believes the only technology being referred to in the legislation, the digital radio broadcasting, otherwise known as the Eureka 147 platform, will not adequately service rural, regional and remote areas. That is not what the Labor Party has said; that is what the ABC has said, in its submission to the Senate committee inquiry, yet this legislation is proceeding and the government is ignoring that advice. The DAB standard, the standard that is provided for in this legislation, was prescribed by the minister in October 2005 as the primary platform, but at the time it was also recognised that additional standards such as DRM were required to address regional and remote area coverage. Even the minister understands the deficiency of the platform being prescribed in this legislation.

The ABC went on to say that a wide-area digital radio standard should be determined before the provisions of the bill are put in place. In other words, the ABC is saying, ‘Defer this legislation until we get it right.’ That is what Labor is saying; that is what our amendment is saying. The bill omits the digital radio mondiale platform. The bill ignores the warnings and recommendations of the ABC. The ABC notes that, if DRM is ultimately adopted as the wide-area digital radio standard, it will be necessary for receiver manufacturers to produce multiformat devices that are able to receive both DAB and DRM, as well as AM and FM analog radio. But as the ABC notes, in the absence of a second digital radio standard for regional areas, there are no incentives for manufacturers to consider the need to develop multiformat receivers in their forward programming.

What is the result of that? It could be that, by the time a second digital radio standard is settled that can extend to the regions, digital tuners that are only able to receive DAB will be available for purchase. Where does that leave the people in the regions? Clearly, a better outcome all round would be for all digital tuners that are sold in Australia to be capable of receiving both standards. But this legislation will not provide that direction, guidance and incentive. That is why we say this should be deferred.

We are not trying to be prescriptive about the technologies the government should commit to, given that trials as to the best technology are being carried out; we are saying: ‘Let’s get it right. Let’s take the advice and let’s consider all the information that is available to us.’ But the government has to ensure that regional Australia does not miss out on this technology. Our fear is that rushing in haste to introduce this legislation will see them missing out. Why is the government rushing it? Why shouldn’t it be properly considering the submissions that are being made? There has not been enough consultation, not only in relation to the impact on rural and regional Australia. The report of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts identifies a number of other problem areas, and there has not been sufficient time for those making the submissions to consider the department’s response to them because the department’s response to their concerns only came in last week. There were some 137 responses from the department, yet there has not been sufficient time to consider them at all.

We believe that all of Australia deserves the best available standards. We believe this bill is letting down regional Australia again. I do not know where the National Party stands these days, but if it is not standing up for regional Australia who does it represent? Why are they supporting the undue haste of this legislation? I say to the National Party, to the members who represent rural and regional Australians: support Labor’s amendment because we are looking after their interests and ensuring that the reach is available to them. We want digital but we want it for all Australians, not just for the capital cities, and our amendment, our deferral, will ensure that we get it right. (Time expired)