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Wednesday, 3 February 2010
Page: 291

Mr BALDWIN (6:31 PM) —I rise today to address the National Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill 2009. This legislation will allow for a chairperson to be elected based on merit to the boards of the ABC and the SBS. This will occur through an independent panel which will make its recommendations based on a list of key criteria and recommend candidates to the Prime Minister or minister. These criteria include financial and technical expertise, experience in the provision of broadcasting services, and cultural interests. Criteria which set out the need for technical expertise are particularly relevant in the current environment, as both the ABC and SBS work to roll out digital television services. Currently, more than 96 per cent of Australia’s population can access the analog signals of both the ABC and SBS. Unfortunately, however, as full digital transmission is still a work in progress, many of these same people cannot access clear, reliable digital television.

Currently many thousands of constituents in Paterson have either purchased a television with full digital capability or have otherwise bought a set top box. Unfortunately, the reception they receive through these technologies is often fuzzy, substandard or even nonexistent. Therefore, what we need is a focus on the technical ability: people who understand the intricacies of digital technology and can ensure it to be of a high standard and widely accessible. Audiences and families across Australia should all have access to television regardless of whether they live in the city or the country, on a hill or in a valley.

I am aware that the ABC has started to broadcast a high definition digital service as well as a second digital channel on ABC2 and a third, ABC3. Similarly, SBS provides standard definition and high definition services as well as SBS2. All of these channels are already being broadcast. However, they are not accessible to some in my electorate, because they cannot receive either a digital signal or clear digital signals. Since the ABC and SBS are largely funded through federal government, this means a portion of the Australian audience is missing out on the services provided and paid for with their taxpayer dollars. So clearly the Rudd Labor government needs to focus on the technical aspects of digital transmission so that all taxpayers can access all channels. This should include regional channels, such as Prime, 7TWO, Ten, ONE HD, GO! and NBN.

As I clearly stated, it is my belief that all people should have access to uninterrupted television. In this country free-to-air TV is used not only for entertainment purposes but also to give people vital information such as bushfire and storm warnings and to keep them up to date with local and national news and events. In my electorate of Paterson there are a number of community owned television transmission towers. These include the one at Gan Gan in Port Stephens, which is a digital transmitter. There are transmitters at Forster, Smiths Lake, Blueys Beach, Elizabeth Beach, Booral and Stroud, and these are analog transmitters. With this in mind it is particularly concerning that the Rudd Labor government has decided to switch off the analog signal. In Paterson this is due to happen between 1 July and 31 December 2012. Currently those of my constituents who cannot access clear digital transmission can switch back to analog. However, within the next three years there will no longer be an option, and I am extremely concerned that many could be left with blank screens.

My constituents deserve a guarantee from the Prime Minister and Minister Conroy that digital TV will be ready by 2012—ready to deliver clear and uninterrupted transmission to every household in Paterson. For this to be achieved the government needs to invest in technology upgrades across my electorate. As federal member for Paterson I fought hard and delivered digital upgrades at Gan Gan when the technology became available. Unfortunately, since the change of leadership the Rudd Labor government has not pushed ahead with such upgrades, and most towers across Paterson remain analog.

What the Prime Minister and his ministers have invested in is spin. For the past few weeks it has seemed that every time I have sat down in front of a television or turned through the pages of a newspaper I have been confronted with taxpayer funded advertisements telling me ‘It’s time to get ready’ for digital. I can do this by going out and spending hundreds, often thousands, of dollars on a new television or by purchasing a set top box. Yet when I get home I am without clear digital reception. Instead of wasting money on advertising asking people to get ready for a network which is not ready, the government should be investing in the technology upgrades.

Unfortunately, it has become evident that two things that the Prime Minister is very good at are talking the talk and spending money. For example, the Prime Minister proudly promoted the GROCERYchoice website and Fuelwatch, both of which cost millions of dollars, with promises of cheaper food and petrol. However, these were both monumental failures, and we had to watch food and petrol prices rise rather than decline. To avoid making the same mistake this time round the Prime Minister needs to follow through on his promise and make real, practical, lasting changes to improve television reception.

There are a number of trouble spots across Paterson that need to be addressed urgently. I have received hundreds of complaints via mail, phone and internet, as well as two separate petitions with hundreds of signatures, calling for actions to improve digital television. I have also heard many dozens more complaining during my travels around the electorate, because it is an issue which inevitably arises during most conversations. Those areas affected include Dungog, a large portion of Port Stephens and the Great Lakes region. Residents in these areas often receive fuzzy transmission or cannot get any signal at all. Hot sunny days seem to be the worst. Allow me to illustrate some of these problems by reading a selection of the letters I have received on this issue. Maria from Lemon Tree Passage in Port Stephens wrote to me, saying:

I would like to endorse any action you are able to take to have digital TV reception rectified. In Lemon Tree Passage over the past 3 nights I have not been able to pick up ANY of the TV stations, and on some of the new entertainment systems, analogue is not an option. It is unacceptable that we are encouraged to adopt the technology which is clearly not proven - at least not outside the capital cities.

Another letter, this time from Warren and Jan, reads:

We have all the latest technology but experience significant variation in the quality of our digital television reception much the same as reported in the news report tonight.

We would appreciate any assistance you can bring to upgrade the transmission to allow us to enjoy the wide variety of programs available.

Ron of Soldiers Point wrote to the Newcastle Herald, as published on 27 January:

The reported statistics on digital audiences don’t reflect my preferences, because I rarely receive the signals ABC, Nine and SBS, and the new channels just disappear on a regular basis. Prime and Ten are mostly available.

What’s the matter with our digital engineers? Why can’t they fix the transmissions? Who can explain why digital signals are interrupted when the sun is strong, but mostly OK when it’s raining and overcast?

And when analogue closes down, who do I sue for loss of amenity? The retailer who sold me the fancy big-screen TV that does everything except receive signals, or the stations that can’t provide the transmissions?

As these examples show, the quality of digital television across many parts of Paterson can only be described as poor. This is not only because of reception but also because many local residents cannot receive the same digital channels as those in the city. To address this issue, I wrote on behalf of my constituents to the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator the Hon. Stephen Conroy. His reply was vague at best. Minister Conroy assured me a new satellite service will be available to viewers who live in digital television black spots ‘well before’ the licence areas in which they reside switch over to digital-only television. Despite this assurance, Minister Conroy has failed to detail when and at what cost services in Paterson will be upgraded. He has also failed to describe which channels will be provided to my constituents under the Rudd Labor government’s plan and whether or not this selection will be downgraded under digital. This is far from the solid guarantee that residents deserve.

In some areas of my electorate of Paterson there are no nearby digital transmitters whatsoever, and this has placed digital television totally out of reach for constituents such as Phil, who is from the Great Lakes area. Allow me to read the email that he sent to me:

Twelve months ago I moved to Smiths Lake from Ulladulla on the South Coast.

Ulladulla is a smaller township than Forster and roughly the same distance from Wollongong as Newcastle is to me now.

I purchased a $3000 full HD digital TV while in Ulladulla and I received digital TV reception without any difficulty 99% of the time.

In Smiths Lake where I am now I get no digital reception at all.

I do not pretend to be an expert on TV, but I have listened to enough complaints from constituents to know that there are real problems with digital television transmission in Paterson, and it is my job as an elected member to make sure it is known here in the parliament. It is my job to fight for the needs of my constituents, and that is what I am doing here today—applying the pressure to the Rudd Labor government, which needs to put the focus on expert ability rather than spin and deliver these vital technologies.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority also needs to play a key part in this digital rollout. According to its website, ACMA is responsible for the regulation of broadcasting and aims to foster an environment in which electronic media respect community standards and respond to the needs of our audiences. It also wants to be a forward-looking and efficient organisation which supports and encourages a vibrant communications sector. Surely, then, television reception which is high quality and far reaching should be a key goal for this organisation and, ultimately, the government which is responsible for it. So I call on the minister to commit to this issue and take tangible actions to improve the signals in my electorate.

Already, many of those residents experiencing problems with the television reception across Paterson have called ACMA to register a complaint. In reply, they have been sent a survey form to complete and send back. Then they have to repeat all the complaints they have already explained over the phone without any guarantee of further action. Their second option is to dig deep into their own pockets and pay hundreds of dollars for a technician to come out and inspect their homes for individual problems which may be preventing them from receiving a clear signal. This is yet another strain for families who are already struggling with rising costs and interest rates. I can understand why this individual application process works in isolated cases, but if ACMA is taking dozens, if not hundreds, of phone calls, surveys and letters from the same area then the government has a responsibility to act to address the problem.

This government has a responsibility to deliver to the residents of my electorate the services it is promoting through advertising. It has a responsibility to spend the money necessary to provide clear digital reception, especially since it is asking families to spend money on new TVs and set top boxes. Lack of action from the government on this issue has been continually highlighted at my office. Recently, it was also highlighted in the Newcastle Herald newspaper, which reported on 28 January this year:

GROWING problems with digital television reception in Port Stephens have been blamed on errant signals from the Illawarra “knocking out” a major signal station on Gan Gan.

I note this ‘major signal station’ is the same one I secured more than half a million dollars in digital upgrades for in 2004 and which the Rudd Labor government has failed to keep up. I fought hard for these services, and it is extremely disappointing to watch them dwindle under the current minister. The article goes on to explain:

Businesswoman Marian Sampson, one of the many people to complain about the problem, said it seemed to be weather-related but there was no rhyme or reason to the failures.

“It stops so often and for so long sometimes that it’s impossible to watch,” Mrs Sampson said.

NBN digital services manager Steve Brown said that in some weather conditions digital signals from Wollongong were reaching the Gan Gan translator station, causing it to stop transmitting.

He said strong signals from Newcastle created similar problems in Wollongong, and the various authorities were trying to find a solution.

“We have told the Australian Communications and Media Authority about it but nothing much seems to have happened,” Mr Brown said.

Here we see a broadcasting professional noting that the Rudd Labor government seems to have done little to address the reception problems across Paterson. Sadly, I have found the same to be true in my experience. The Hunter is certainly not a remote area; it is one of Australia’s largest regional centres and Paterson alone is home to approximately 90,000 people. It seems even more ridiculous, then, that television services should be so abysmal. If the Prime Minister and his ministers cannot deliver clear reception to such a central region less than 200 kilometres from Sydney, I wonder how they can possibly hope to do so in a country with more isolated communities.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—The member for Paterson has had a fairly good go on a wide ranging issue that has what I would think fairly little related to the bill in front of me. I would like him to come to the bill in front of us.

Mr BALDWIN —With all due respect, Madam Deputy Speaker, when I started speaking, I talked about the need for the director to have technical abilities as outlined in the bill to understand the new and emerging technologies such as digital transmission, and it is the lack of ABC transmission and SBS transmission under digital in the areas which I am referring to. So I will continue.

One particular reason areas in Paterson, in particular Port Stephens and the Great Lakes, are such large centres is tourism. Beautifully situated on the coast, these regions rely on tourists to help make businesses of all sizes a success. This in turn has created employment opportunities which support a great majority of my constituents and provide the means for them to raise healthy families. As I have already mentioned, Port Stephens is just a couple of hours drive from Sydney, so a large portion of this tourist market is directed towards city residents who are keen to escape for a break that is not too far from home. Imagine their surprise when these city residents arrive at their destination only to discover they cannot keep up to date with what is happening by watching the news and they cannot relax and enjoy the seasonal finals of the tennis or cricket. These same people are normally accustomed to watching not only the major free-to-air channels but also the supplementary digital services such as ABC2 and ABC3 which are now available.

The areas along the Hunter coast offer everything from beautiful beaches and fantastic surf and fishing to some of the best food and wine to be found anywhere in the world. The cherry on top of this award-winning pie surely, then, should be fantastic technological access—clear, uninterrupted, wide-ranging television services which are available to tourists and residents alike. This government owes it to tourism operators who support jobs, support our way of life and bring millions of dollars into our economy each year.

What this really boils down to is the basic responsibility the government has to provide television access, including local information and entertainment. It was not enough for the Prime Minister to promise an upgraded digital network. No, instead he announced a revolution in television—the shutdown of the analog transmission many of my constituents rely on. It is now time for the Prime Minister to put his words into action and make the digital network truly ready as he continually asks my constituents to do through advertising.

I have made this as easy as possible for the Prime Minister and Minister Conroy. Since complaints have started to filter into my office, I have kept track of where each complaint is from and I have identified a number of specific black spots. I am only too happy to provide this list to the minister so that the rollout of new technology can be as swift and accurate as possible. I would also be more than willing to meet with the minister to explain the particular issues in my electorate. My only concern is ensuring local constituents get the television reception they deserve and they pay for. It certainly does not seem like too much to ask for a major regional centre.

It is now up to the government to take action on behalf of Australian residents, and on behalf of all those people who live and work in Paterson. Action, though, is not the Prime Minister’s strong point. This has been demonstrated a number of times, such as when our proud Prime Minister wasted $800 million on a blow-out of the digital education revolution—with a promise to deliver a laptop to every senior high school student. The majority are still waiting. I sincerely and desperately hope I will not be saying the same thing about digital television services.

In the latest fact sheet I received from the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, the minister promises that for most people the switch from analog to digital TV will be relatively straightforward and will deliver a number of benefits. So far, the switch has been anything but straightforward, and I fear it could leave many people actually worse off than they currently are. In this case, I wait eagerly to be proven wrong.

In summary, with any appointment to the board of the ABC or SBS, there needs to be a broad mix of people. There need to be people who understand the technological challenges not just of Sydney or Melbourne but also of the people who rely so heavily on these services, and those are the people in rural and regional communities. I have been very concerned with the way this bill has been put forward, and look forward to the amendments to be put forward by the shadow minister.