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Thursday, 13 May 2010
Page: 3517

Mr FORREST (12:41 PM) —I am very pleased to offer some useful comments on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2010. It is vital that this bill gets the support of the chamber because there are 48 days to go before the provisions in it are going to be needed in my constituency. I might briefly take the opportunity to rebut the remarks made by the member for Wakefield. Obviously the particular region he referred to did not have a hardworking member to make sure that the Howard government’s black spot program was implemented. Across my region, three black spot programs went some way towards addressing the television challenges that confronted my constituents, and I want to make some comment about all of that in my remarks today. It has been an interesting journey.

I can recall sitting right here in December 2008, just before Christmas, after the government had tabled its switch-over schedule, and being advised that the transmitter at Yatpool, for Mildura, was to be the first. I groaned, ‘Oh, no!’ and was initially a little cynical as to why Mildura was first. But after a while I accepted that there were good, logical reasons why we should be the first pilot. Mildura happened to have the largest concentration of digital reception of any community across Australia—as high as 78 per cent. There were special reasons for that, which I will address later; it is the flat earth. Whilst initially as a community we resented the fact that we would be the guinea pigs, to use that euphemistic phrase, it made a lot of sense. And together, as a community, we saw it as a huge opportunity to have the huge number of television challenges we confronted finally addressed, once and for all. Digital television offers a huge amount of advantages but we know, as we learnt from the switch-off of the analog mobile phone service, that it does not offer the advantages that the analog signal provided in geographic coverage because analog had the ability to go around trees and bounce off clouds. That creates a particular issue for regional Australia, and we have learnt that as a result of the last 18 months of conversion that we have been through.

My story on television goes back even further than that, to when I was first elected in 1993. At that time Mildura was one of those peculiar licence areas scattered across Australia which were referred to in those days as the solus markets. At the time of full aggregation, through the mid-eighties, the TV channels in these markets were privately owned operations. They were scattered across Australia—I know there was one at Renmark, out of Loxton, one at Griffith, I think, and one at Darwin. It was successfully argued that a locally owned television service could not cope with the competition that full aggregation with three commercial channels would bring and the market pressure that that would put on. Mildura, at that time, had only two channels. It had the ABC and one commercial channel which had recently been purchased by one of the regional networks—WIN Television.

I set about addressing a commitment I had made. In the 1993 election campaign, I said: ‘Send me to Canberra. Send me. I will get some common sense into this. Mildura, like any other community, is entitled to full aggregation.’ There were complaints from tourists—because Mildura is a tourist destination of some note—which came through the various tourist authorities and from individuals. Out of that exercise I learned how much significance Australians place on their sport. Mildura could not get the football or the tennis because they only had one commercial provider and did not have the scope for the transmission. So I called a public meeting and I persuaded what was then the Australian Broadcasting Authority to attend. They were a bit reluctant, because bureaucrats do not like to expose themselves to public meetings. There were over 3,000 people present at that public meeting. They were a bit cranky. I admired the Australian Broadcasting Authority bureaucrats, who tried to explain how they were bound by difficult legal constraints arising out of the peculiar licensing arrangements in Mildura. But we ignored that. Thousands of signatures on petition after petition were tabled in this chamber and sent to the Australian Broadcasting Authority.

Over a period of time I was successful in persuading the authority and the relevant minister at the time to put to tender the provision of an additional licence for that solus licence area. That was not easy to achieve. The existing commercial broadcaster challenged it in the Administrative Appeals Tribunals. There were a range of acrimonious exchanges between me and that broadcaster. I was accused of threatening the important local news service they provided—they argued that the competition of an extra broadcaster would mean that Mildura would lose that service. I was able to persuade the broadcaster that it would give them an enormous market advantage if they saved that news, and to this day Mildura still gets its local news. That gives that network a marketing advantage.

Thankfully, the licence went to tender and was purchased by the other very strong regional broadcaster, Prime TV. Then, as a result of the Howard initiatives, we got SBS shortly after 1998. So we had two commercial channels and we had the ABC and SBS. I was getting there and at each successive election I would say: ‘This is unfinished business. Send me back again. I told you it would take a long time.’ There were legal constraints to getting the third commercial channel—effectively the Southern Cross Television or Channel 10 signal. They have the licence to broadcast AFL football, and if my constituents cannot watch their footy they put enormous pressure on. Out of that, I was able to convince the two commercial operators to form a joint venture to get around the legal constraints, purchase the Channel 10 signal and jointly broadcast it. People were so grateful that Mildura Digital Television started broadcasting the football on 1 January 2006. I thought then, ‘My television problems are now over.’

However, that still left a lot of those communities around the fringes. A particular interest has been Murrayville, a community right on the western boundary. It is on the South Australian border, adjacent to the member for Barker’s electorate, and is not legally within the licence area of Sunraysia. They are in a remote zone and they have to get their access via satellite from a signal that comes out of Darwin—basically they watch Imparja. Murrayville is a terrific little township. They had their 100th anniversary over Easter. It is part of the Mildura Rural City Council. They want and, I always thought, they deserve to be able to watch the local news. It can report on council matters and make that community feel part of a very strong local government area. I am pleased to say that this legislation delivers them exactly that outcome and I was able to announce that at their centenary. There were 4,000 or 5,000 people there and they cheered, because that is how significant their television is to them. A lot of them rely on television for their view of the world. It is the way they become informed—about what happens in this place for some of them, if they are interested—but most particularly it is for the cricket and the football. Of course, down our way it is AFL, but there are some NRL enthusiasts in Victoria. It is also for motor racing. I had not realised there were so many petrolheads with an interest in motor racing. Now all that is all available in Mildura.

That is part of the reason why I sat here and groaned when I saw that schedule, but I have reconciled this. I discussed it with my community and we have come to the conclusion that this is a terrific opportunity for us—a tremendous opportunity. I resolved to work in cooperation with the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Conroy. He knows that. I have operated in every way in extreme good faith and, although it has taken some time to get the bureaucrats to acknowledge it, he has agreed to every single request that I have put to him—including the delivery of service to Murrayville.

This has been some exercise in the last 12 months and we have to make it easier for the future. My remarks here today and my support for the amendment we have moved are, contrary to the member for Wakefield’s interpretation, to reinforce the point and the suggestions I want to make as my contribution today. Spare other communities some of the uncertainty we have confronted. Spare other communities the enormous expense. We need to start off by saying that it is not just a simple matter of purchasing a digital set-top box; it is about purchasing the correct set-top box. Beyond that, you need attention to your cabling. Some of it is 20 years old and has deteriorated. Beyond that again, you need good advice on the installation of the aerial and the direction in which it is pointed.

In the early stages, people thought that all they had to do was buy a box, but they were confronted with ongoing challenges. To this day, that is still happening. It has taken far too long for the task force to get out there and communicate. I know they will be reading my remarks and I do not intend them to be critical in any way. When you are the pilot, there will be hiccups and it takes a long time to get the momentum going. It took too long to have the local representative appointed. That did not happen until this year. They should have been on the ground with communication occurring much earlier. The doorknocking that has occurred has only been happening in the last month and, from today, there are 48 days to go.

I am advised that the concentration is now up to 90 per cent. That still leaves 10 per cent, which is a large number of viewers. In fact, even yesterday I got a phone call from a constituent who said, ‘Why are you always banging on about the TV?’ They did not know that switch-off day is looming in 48 days time. That is one, and for every one there are another ten. When you consider that the predominant regions of regional Australia are to be included in the switch-off by mid next year, the broadcasting authority needs to be out there earlier and there need to be locally appointed raconteurs. Our raconteur is a lady by the name of Kellie Boyce and she has done a great job. She is actually employed by the Mildura Rural City Council, but the position is funded by the federal government. Those people need to be on the ground a lot earlier.

The minister announced very early that those people on fixed incomes and social security would get some assistance with the purchase of their set-top box. In fact, seniors on the age pension were going to have their entire costs met—whatever was required. Sadly, they relied on printed media to get that message out when the concentration of readers is probably less than 20 per cent. Some of those people who were eligible for legitimate support went in and purchased what they were advised they needed, but by that process they disqualified themselves from the assistance. That has left some angst in the community. The minister is aware of that. I have certainly conveyed it to him.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority needs to be out there now measuring signal strength. I was amazed when I drew attention to the problems we were having in Robinvale, which is a very strong community on the Murray River with a district population of well over 10,000 that embraces the member for Farrer’s electorate at Euston. I was writing and making representations because we had some problems with digital reception in Robinvale. I was advised by the engineers that there were no problems at all based on the theory. The reality is that the digital signal gets interfered with so quickly by an obstacle, whether it is a tree or a wheat silo. It is particularly interfered with by mobile phone towers because they use the same technology. To this day I suspect that was the problem in Robinvale. It took too long for that message to be heard, but I am pleased to say the solution has been the installation of a repeater at Robinvale. The early suggestion that half of the township of Robinvale would get their reception from satellite and the other side of the street would get theirs terrestrially was just a nonsense comment that divided the community. That has been addressed.

Ouyen was a particular problem, and I am pleased to say that has been fixed. The networks have installed a transmitter at Ouyen and I was advised this morning that it is operating and they are satisfied with the signal. With 48 days to go, I am very concerned because I am advised that the set-top box for satellite reception will not be in the Mildura community until mid-June, or maybe earlier. That is a short space of time for people to make a quiet assessment of the quality of the two alternative signals. They can use the terrestrial signal if it is unreliable, but they need to be able to make an assessment because they are being asked to make a significant investment. Some of them have already spent a lot of money. In fact, a lot of their investment has been wasted. Setting aside the capital costs of buying a new digital television, the antenna costs can mount to thousands of dollars. The retailers and suppliers have complained that they have had to return to properties time and time again, which has caused extra costs to the customers. To be told after all of that expense that you need to invest another $600 for satellite reception is creating enormous angst. I am very concerned that, come the deadline, there is going to be some cranky, bad media about that.

I have tried my best to work in good faith with the minister and, to his credit, he has responded to every request I have made. I am not churlish enough to speak disparagingly about that. We as a community accept the fact that there were going to be problems. We were always first and they are going to learn from us. This amendment reinforces the comments I am making here—get it right by 1 July in Mildura. I am not persuaded by the assurances that I have had from the minister. He continues to believe that he can get it all done. He continues to believe that, even with the short amount of time that will be left after the digital satellite boxes are available, it can still be achieved. But I am pleading with the minister and I have been doing so for quite a long time now. Open your mind to extending that deadline. Get it right in Mildura. The rest of the nation is watching. The rest of the nation is enthusiastic about the opportunities digital television provides. If you get it wrong in Mildura, they will get to know about it and it will make them nervous about their future opportunities. The minister has heard that call and I think he has learnt, as have I, the task force and the networks.

I am very pleased to offer a few commendations. I was delighted to see the way the networks have cooperated in this venture. They put their normally competitive marketing spirit aside in the interests of viewers. In fact, the minister has asked them to fund a lot of the decisions that have been made—repeaters at Underbool and the replacement of a self-help scheme, a new transmitter at Ouyen and a new transmitter at Robinvale. I understood the reasons why the minister offered them substantial rebates on their licences. I understood immediately when I saw that announced because they are being asked to make significant contributions. They have put their own resources on the table, and they are as keen as the community is to make sure that this transition is as smooth as possible.

I have to confess that my heart is in my mouth, and the shadow minister has also put on the record the way he views the matter. I do not want a wreck; I want a successful outcome. I want to see this used so that Mildura has a wonderful marketing opportunity to showcase itself to the rest of the nation. I have had that spirit of cooperation all along, so I am not going to be churlish about it, but I do ask that for the sake of the future we learn well the lessons that have emerged from the case of Mildura in the last 12 months.

I go back to that period from 1993 right through to 2006, when I finally got the solution for the large suburb of Mildura, and commend and put on the public record the wonderful support I had from Giles Tanner. Giles will probably see these remarks because he is currently the general manager of the digital transmission division of the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Without him, we could not have achieved what people told us was going to be impossible: getting networks to cooperate so that the people of Mildura can have the benefits of complete aggregations.

I am looking forward to a successful outcome. To reinforce the comments I have made here, I have expressed my concerns and seconded the resolution put by the shadow minister. But I do plead with the minister: do not close off the option of making the deadline 1 July; give people an opportunity and a little bit of space to make the assessments they need to make about the quality of the picture. (Time expired)