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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4187

Mr RAMSEY (4:51 PM) —Let me say from the outset that the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Digital Television Switch-over) Bill 2009 is a good bill. I do not have any problems with the intentions of it. The need to switch over to digital television is a concept that started in Australia around 10 years ago, in 1998, and it is right that we should move on. None of those things do I doubt. What I am concerned about is the readiness of the government to deliver the technology to achieve this changeover date.

It is interesting to speak just after the member for Blair, who talked about the number of regional dwellers in Queensland. I can tell the member for Blair before he leaves this chamber that, when I switch on my television at home, I too enjoy regional television from Queensland, courtesy of earlier government decisions, from my side of politics, that implemented the footprints around Australia to protect commercial television operators. I have always seen it as an unfortunate thing that, when people from my electorate of Grey in South Australia—not all of us, but a significant portion—turn on the television at night, they receive regional news from Townsville and not from somewhere in South Australia.

That brings me back to readiness. The timetable for the switch-over, we are informed at the moment, is to begin in the Mildura region in early 2010 and then move into my electorate of Grey in the second half of 2010. One of the things that concern me is that much of the regional television is actually delivered by a black spot program. There is a lot of complexity, and it is sometimes difficult to get full understanding of the issues across to people. I have found, while dealing with those that are delivering the switch-over to this new television system, that I am often frustrated by their lack of knowledge about many of these localised systems and how they will be affected by the digital switch-over.

Where I live, for instance, which is in the Central Australian footprint, television is delivered by satellite, which gives us Imparja, 7 Central, ABC and SBS. In many of the small communities, that analog signal from the satellite is collected by black spot transmitters, which were funded by the previous government, and then retransmitted into the district as a UHF signal. That applies to part of the electorate. Other parts receive that analog signal from a normal analog transmitter, and it is rebooted in the district via the black spot transmitter.

The government has indicated that in this changeover it is not going to reinvest and reinvigorate those black spot transmitters to a digital standard; so they will be switched off. The government’s solution to this problem is to offer everybody a subsidised satellite service, which will still entail a cost of around $600 to those not helped by the bill before the House. So it comes at quite a cost. But the downside for communities in my electorate such as Booleroo, Melrose and Orroroo, which are existing off an analog signal that is rebroadcast in the district in UHF, is that analog will no longer be available and the transmission tower, which is not capable of picking up digital, will be shut down, and those communities will pick up their feeds from satellite. That means that at this stage they will move off their local signal and start picking up the Central Australian footprint, which will once again bring Queensland regional news into the living rooms of people in my electorate. This is totally unsatisfactory—they want to stay connected to their community; it is also pretty undesirable for those who run those television stations.

I understand the government’s proposal is to commission extra satellite channels to feed regional station programs back into the communities. However, detail is scant, the decisions have not yet been made and the date of early 2010 is looming. So there is a fair bit of unrest and unease about what kind of television reception many of these communities will have after that switch-over date. As I said, I am in favour of the switch-over. Of course we are all in favour of the switch-over—we have been talking about it for 10 years and it must happen—but it is just this worry over the preparedness for the technological changes that have to happen.

If we fall back on that satellite signal across much of our community and have not installed anything to replace it, I fear not only for the local television station but also for local advertising, which will fall away quite quickly. It affects businesses across the region. Somewhere further down the track in this debate we must also revisit some of the anomalies in those broadcast footprints across Australia where we have people living 2,000 kilometres away from the transmission source—that is, their local regional news program. It is particularly galling to me as I wander around my electorate only to get home and not be able to see local on television in the evening. It is something I have learned to live with, but for many others it is a major inconvenience.

It means that in South Australia, particularly in the rural regions, including Roxby Downs and Ceduna, it is difficult to get Australian Rules football broadcast. The one channel broadcasting Australian Rules football has no focus on the South Australian teams, whereas if you took your feed locally you would see Port Power or the magnificent Crows. People want to see their local team. That is the problem we have with the current footprints. Unless the government is prepared and the technology is organised on those switch-over dates, we are going to see a lot of people lose that local feed and they are not going to be happy about it.

The issue is preparedness. Can we do it on time? I would like to hear some strong statements from the minister. I would like him to come out and say: ‘Yes, we can. We know exactly what technology we’re going to use to suit these people, to feed local content into their houses, to support those local television producers.’ That would alleviate the unease. It would also help local councils which are dealing with these black spot issues. We all know that digital signals are not as strong as analog. We remember well when we turned off analog phones and went to digital that people were deprived of telephones in a lot of places. We look to Mildura with anticipation to see how the government addresses these problems, but I also look to the minister for some strong indications about how the government is going to deal with these changes technologically.