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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4182

Mr OAKESHOTT (4:29 PM) —I rise certainly not to oppose the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Digital Television Switch-over) Bill 2009, but I do raise several concerns from the perspective of the people of the mid-North Coast of New South Wales and from a public policy perspective. By way of background to the bill, the government has announced that all free-to-air television broadcasters in Australia will complete the switch from analog transmission to digital only transmission by the end of 2013. Switching to digital television, in the words of the government, will be ‘a straightforward and inexpensive task for the vast majority of Australians’. We certainly hope so.

However, the government says:

… some viewers may need practical, in-home assistance to make the switch to digital. To ensure these Australians are not disadvantaged by the switch-over, the Government will implement an assistance program in regions switching from analog to digital transmission between 1 January 2010 and 31 December 2011.

Those areas are the Mildura-Sunraysia region, regional South Australia, regional Victoria and regional Queensland. The message from the government is:

Lessons learned from switching over these regions will inform the broader switch-over of the rest of Australia.

What is described as inexpensive, practical in-home assistance, when you look at the financial impact, equates to $70 million over three years. In 2009-10, $11.3 million is being provided. I would assume that is for the Mildura-Sunraysia changeover. Then there is the meatier $31 million for 2010-11 and $29.8 million for 2011-12, covering the regional South Australia, regional Victoria and regional Queensland changeovers.

The message that this is an inexpensive switch-over does raise some concerns for me on behalf of my region, the mid-North Coast of New South Wales, in that the financial impact, as of 2012-13, stops dead. As we all know, the fiscal message from government is: ‘Yes, we’re spending big at the moment. In about three years time it will be the responsibility and the obligation of all of us to limit spending as much as possible for the broader budgetary considerations.’ I therefore raise the concern that $70 million is going to be dropped into four regions of Australia to do what is considered an inexpensive switch-over and then there is nothing after that for the other regions of Australia. It is, I think, a large hope that ‘lessons learnt from switching over these regions will inform the broader switch-over of the rest of Australia’. There will be people in other regions of Australia in need of in-home assistance. I do not accept that it will be a revenue neutral exercise come 2012-13, which is, sadly, when regional New South Wales and areas such as the mid-North Coast get to make the switch-over.

The Australian government’s switch-over timetable sets out a region by region transition to digital television, giving Australians ample notice to become ready for analog switch-off. As has previously been said, switch-over will begin in Mildura-Sunraysia in the first half of 2010, with switch-over in all areas of Australia completed by 31 December 2013. The specific date for analog switch-off within this six-month period will take into account local market circumstances and community feedback. An area within my region where there have been continual dropouts in reception is Mount Seaview. It lies in the remote central and eastern Australia switch-over and licence area. The analog switch-off will occur there in the second half of 2013. Another area of concern with regard to television reception is the Long Flat area. The Long Flat self-help facility lies in the Northern Rivers switch-over area and is due to be converted in the second half of 2012.

The message from government—in a letter I received from Minister Conroy—is this continual line that the lessons learnt from the switch-over in Mildura will help to inform the approach to the broader digital switch-over program around the country. Great weight is being placed on this issue but no financial resourcing is being provided. I would certainly hope that there is consideration of that question for the final out year of this switch-over period—that 2012-13 window—because for only four regions of Australia to be able to receive assistance of $70 million and the rest of Australia to be, at no expense to government, relying on the lessons learnt from the experience is, I think, a rather large assumption on the part of the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. Otherwise, I think this is a sensible and necessary change.

I never thought that teeth and television would be close together, but the change has to occur alongside some changes appearing in the Dental Benefits Act 2008 and in section 202 of the Social Security (Administration) Act. As someone relatively new to this place, I find those sorts of titbits about the way government works absolutely fascinating. I am sure that my broader community at home will not find those sorts of issues fascinating, but it goes to the length, breadth and reach that the Commonwealth has to go to in order to achieve what is, on the surface, a somewhat inconsequential practical change from analog to digital.

I would like to make two other quick points, now that there are other speakers here. The first one regards advertising. In our office we are starting to receive a lot of complaints about advertising of digital. It is rubbing our region’s nose in it. The changeover does not occur for three more years and yet the promotion of digital television is occurring. The letters about truth in advertising on local television are starting to appear. The government needs to keep an eye on raising the level of angst about this changeover.

The other point I would like to make regards support for local councils within my region, and I am sure it is a similar issue with other councils around Australia. It is seen to be somewhat of a council responsibility to assist in the problem of television coverage black spots, and there are various programs that councils in my region deliver on their own. Quite often, however, they apply for grants from government to try and achieve those outcomes. There are some questions about the size of the grants provided by government and the size of the task that is being left for councils to achieve. The two are somewhat disconnected, the size of the grant being a lot smaller than the cost of the exercise for councils to fill these black holes in the delivery of telecommunications—in this case, digital television or television generally. I would ask the minister to consider the complaints from local authorities as to the level of support from government in helping to fill black spot areas of television coverage generally, and assistance with regard to this switch-over to digital for the local administrations, particularly in black spots and drop-out areas.

The federal government and the department of communications can generally share the love with local authorities in trying to make this as smooth a transition as possible, and generally share the love with regard to the question of trying, regardless of where people live—it might be up the deepest, darkest alley—as much as possible to provide equity of service in the full suite of telecommunications that is every Australian’s right to access. It might be television, analog or digital, or mobile phones or landlines, or internet coverage—but there should be equity of service delivery. I hope the government does not drop the ball on that and does fulfil its commitment to make sure whatever resources are required are provided.

I do not oppose the legislation but I do question the financial impacts and the missing year in the out years, the final year. I hope that the government provides an answer on that and on the question of advertising for three years for a service that we cannot access. There is also the general question with regard to the equity of service delivery by the government in regional communities such as mine.