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Monday, 25 May 2009
Page: 4189

Mr SYMON (4:59 PM) —I rise today to support the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Digital Television Switch-over) Bill 2009. More Australians than ever before are enjoying the benefits of digital television, with better picture quality and sound, more channel options and new content. These are all key reasons why people are changing over to digital. But adjustment can be difficult. We know that not everyone adapts well when there is a need for change, and nor do they necessarily understand how to undertake the few steps necessary to make their television viewing that much better. An example that is a little before my time but still quite relevant is when we took on the metric system. When miles became kilometres and even our currency changed and pennies became one-cent pieces, it was recognised that some people needed a bit more help than others in adapting to the way things were going to be done. But, with a bit of patience and some understanding and support, those who could not cope with the new currency and new measurement system eventually adapted, and most quickly understood that the change was inevitable.

Back to the 21st century, we also recognise that, although there is a small expenditure associated with this change to digital television, for some in these difficult times even relatively low costs can seem insurmountable. Hence this bill is aimed at making the lives of many in the community easier as it seeks to support recipients of the age pension, disability support pensioners, carer payment recipients and those on Department of Veterans’ Affairs service pension to switch over from analog to digital television transmission. Not everyone is entirely clear on what digital television is and how it works. Although that is probably true of free-to-air analog TV and most of the other technologies we enjoy in our homes and workplaces already, it is a change. It can seem simple just to go to the shop and buy a new unit, but when you get it home it does not always work that way.

Television broadcasts currently come into our homes as both analog and digital signals in most areas, but digital is the modern form of communication and is the method through which the signals are sent and received. I am proud of the way the Australian government has been working to ensure our country is keeping pace with global technology, which is in stark contrast to what we have seen of previous governments. The announcement that all free-to-air TV broadcasters in Australia will complete the switch from analog transmission to digital-only transmission by the end of 2013 will be welcomed by everyone once they have the facility to receive the signal in their own homes. Digital television is being adopted all over the world for the reasons I mentioned earlier: better picture and sound quality, better reception and more channel viewing options. This system of having to operate side by side transmissions takes up a considerable amount of the available spectrum—space that could be used for other services and on which there is a very high premium. The change to digital will allow some of those spectrums to be freed up for use in other areas. Digital still takes up a slice of that spectrum, but by removing the analog signals we will gain some of that back.

Furthermore, it is expensive and inefficient to operate both systems simultaneously, especially when all new televisions on the market now are set up for digital compatibility. There are several options for households to make the change to digital television. Households can add a set-top box, connect a personal video recorder or buy an integrated digital television, a step I took last year. I have a technical background, but I had to do an awful lot of reading of the manual. I am happy to say I did succeed with that and can now watch digital television.

We know that more people than ever before are enjoying the benefits of digital television. One of the ways we can be sure of the feasibility of this change is through the results of the digital tracker survey. This comprehensive investigation used random digit dialling to survey over 9,000 households over 33 switch-over areas. The study measured the national take-up of digital television whilst also monitoring the Australian public’s awareness and attitudes towards the digital switch-over. The information from this research will help make decisions about how to communicate the message most effectively and ensure that any areas particularly suffering from a lack of understanding can be targeted more accurately.

The findings of the first quarterly report indicated a very high awareness of the government’s plans for digital switch-over, with over 82 per cent of households conscious of the plan to switch Australia to digital TV—although this knowledge varied according to many factors, including where the respondent lived. Interestingly, 47 per cent of Australian households have already converted to digital television and, of those with a digital set-top box, 82 per cent found that it was an easy step. I would like to commend the minister, Senator Conroy, for the way in which it has been handled. For such a big change to the community, there is more acceptance of the switch than I had expected. I think part of that acceptance might be driven by the content that is available on the new channels.

The research in the digital tracker survey found that the proportion of households who had expressed negative views was relatively low across all areas, varying from 11 per cent for Perth to 18 per cent for Sydney and regional and remote Western Australia. However, there were some groups who had relatively low conversion rates and low levels of understanding of how to convert to digital TV. The factors that were identified as important in this result were the respondent’s geographic area and whether they were age pensioners or whether they had particularly low incomes. People in my electorate of Deakin, east of Melbourne, are not expected to switch over to digital until 2013. They have plenty of time to make the necessary changes so that they can enjoy the benefits of digital television. But there are people who are having trouble with this change and who are also worried about the cost.

This bill is designed to assist those in the community who are most in need of help with the switch-over. The bill will provide welcome relief to those who are worried about the cost. I am talking about those people who are in receipt of the maximum rate of the following payments: age pensions, disability support pensions, carer payments and Department of Veterans’ Affairs service pensions. This provision is in recognition that for some members of the community change can be difficult. Just like with the change from the imperial system to the metric system, some people will have more trouble in making the adjustment than others. Even plugging in a set-top box to an existing analog set can be awfully confusing when you look behind the TV and find that there are a dozen or more different sockets that you could plug various pieces of equipment into—and, of course, it does not always work first time.

I have a friend by the name of Dennis. Dennis is on a disability support pension and he does it tough. He lives pretty much from week to week. Dennis was particularly relieved to receive the stimulus payment. He spoke emotionally about how much it meant to him to have a bit of extra money to cover his healthcare costs, let alone buy something extra for himself. But Dennis particularly likes to watch TV; it is probably his only real outlet. His friends fall into the same category and are also on the disability support pension. They talk quite regularly about their fear of maybe not being able to watch TV anymore—and I can understand why. For quite a long time, Dennis has been at me—and I am sure that many people like him have been at other MPs as well—about some allowance being provided to people like him. On a very low income and struggling to make ends meet, Dennis still wants to be able to watch TV once the digital switch-over comes along.

Dennis never has a spare dollar—that is true—but every time he comes to see me he has an issue, and this is one that has stuck with him for a long time. Although it might seem like a small expense to some, it is not a small expense to people like Dennis. A set-top box can be bought from a place like JB Hi Fi for $49 and from some supermarkets for even less; but, again, that is a step too far for some people. So I am quite proud to be part of a government that listens to people like Dennis—the battlers who enjoy watching TV but who cannot afford things that the rest of us might not think too long about purchasing. I am part of a government that is aware that for some people change is difficult and that there will be those who will need help with the installation. The research tells us that those who have made the changeover themselves did not find that process overly daunting. However, for some people the idea of changing over anything electrical creates anxiety, and I am happy to reassure them that we will provide the necessary assistance to help them make the change. People who are eligible for assistance under this bill will be provided with all the help that they need to watch digital TV. They will receive a high-definition set-top box, cables and antennae and all the technical assistance they require so that they will be able to watch TV—that is, someone will come to their home and install it for them. They will be able to enjoy a better picture, better sound quality and also improved reception. I hope that they also enjoy the extra channels. Of course, the best thing is that it is free transmission. I commend the bill to the House.