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Thursday, 13 May 2010
Page: 3523

Mr BALDWIN (1:07 PM) —I rise today to address the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2010. This is a very important bill for the electorate of Paterson, where many of my constituents struggle with very poor or no digital television services. Sometimes they get no digital reception whatsoever. Television is a vital form of entertainment which has become a huge part of Australian culture. Ever since it first reached homes in September 1956, television has been a popular form of entertainment for kids through to seniors. Importantly, television also allows us to see vital weather messages, emergency warnings, news and sport in our local areas. Furthermore, it is important to advertisers, who use TV to showcase their products to a local audience. Its uses are multifold.

Analog transmission has, until now, been used quite successfully by broadcasters to reach their audience. However, as time has passed we have seen significant advances in technology and the advent of digital television. This brings with it some great advantages such as new channels and a clearer picture. However, for many residents in my electorate of Paterson, these advantages are out of reach because the Rudd Labor government has failed to keep local infrastructure up to date. With analog television now to be switched off, my constituents need a guarantee that services will be upgraded and upgraded soon. Time is of the essence. This proposed legislation goes some way to help address problems with digital TV in the Paterson electorate, but I am concerned about value for money, cost, time management and the provision of local content under Labor’s plan.

The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill has been designed largely to establish a satellite service. The service will allow residents in black-spot areas who cannot access terrestrial digital TV to watch via satellite instead. Specifically, the bill will change the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 and the Copyright Act 1968. Some of the major points are as follows. A satellite digital television service will be established under a new licensing agreement, which will include three satellite licence areas. ABC and SBS will be provided on a statewide basis via this satellite, whilst channels ABC2, ABC3, ABC HD, SBS TWO and SBS HD will be provided to five areas, with Paterson to be part of the south-eastern Australian zone. This zone will include New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory. Satellite broadcasts must include content tailored to local broadcast areas. Free-to-air broadcasters will switch off their analog signal by the end of 2013. Also, it is important to understand that only 87 of the 698 self-help retransmission sites will be upgraded by broadcasters under the agreement with the Rudd Labor government.

Mr Deputy Speaker, in order to explain my concerns with this legislation, please allow me to give some background on what has been taking place in the Paterson electorate. Over the past few months I have received more than 1,100 complaints about digital television reception in my electorate. These have come by phone, email and letter—many people have made contact with me to complain about the lack of digital TV reception. I have also personally visited a number of homes to see their television screens with my own eyes. In addition, many people also took time to respond to a detailed survey I distributed across my electorate, which has given me much more information on where specific trouble areas are. To all of those residents who put in the effort to help resolve this issue, I say thank you. To date, the largest number of complaints have come from Anna Bay, closely followed by Tea Gardens, Forster, Boat Harbour and Stroud respectively. These areas contain widespread black spots which need to be addressed urgently through upgrades. However, there are also problem areas in East Maitland, Gloucester and Dungog, which means that all local government areas in my electorate are affected by this problem to some extent.

The Maitland Mercury reported on the woes of one such affected constituent on 28 April this year. The article, by Briony Snedden, reads:

What Dave Ramsay can watch on television depends on the weather.

The slightest shift in wind speed or an increase in temperature can affect the digital reception at his Gresford home, leaving Mr Ramsay to watch a flickering screen with no sound.

He is the most recent to complain about digital reception in the rural outreaches neighbouring Maitland, joining a growing list of disgruntled television viewers across the Paterson electorate.

Mr Ramsay invested in a new digital television last year, only to discover his best chance of watching commercial stations was when it rained and the air was denser and the signal was less prone to scatter.

He said there were no problems with analogue transmission.

‘It’s heartbreaking when you’ve spent the money (on a new TV) and you can’t watch it,’ he said yesterday.

Mr Ramsay said Channel 7 was non-existent during the day, but he could sometimes watch it at night.

Similarly, Channel 9 was impossible to watch during the day, but from 4.30pm began to improve.

But Mr Ramsay said the quality of reception could change in a moment.

‘I have been watching a program and halfway through it pixelates, and there’s no sound,’ he said.

‘Once that happens, that’s it—you’ve lost it.’

Mr Ramsay was a linesman in the air force, and installed antennas and aerials.

But he said when he contacted the stations and the Government about the problem, he was ‘treated like an idiot’.

It is a disgrace that Mr Ramsay feels as though the government regards him as an idiot. There are big and real problems with television in my electorate and we desperately need upgrades before the analog signal is switched off in 2013. In response to complaints such as those by Mr Ramsay, I have written to Minister Stephen Conroy on several occasions to ask for a clear time frame on when local services will be upgraded and what content they will broadcast. His replies have failed to satisfy the questions of my constituents, who genuinely fear they will be left with blank screens when analog signals are switched off.

I discussed these fears directly with local residents at three separate forums earlier this month—held at Dungog, Forster and Soldiers Point—and Senator Mary Jo Fisher also visited residents to hear their concerns direct as chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications and the Arts. The two most common issues raised with me at these forums were reliability and cost. As for the latter, many residents in my electorate of Paterson are elderly and live on very tight budgets. It is these same people who often rely on their television for relatively cheap news and entertainment. If satellites are to be installed at a cost of $650, how are locals going to afford that sort of cash? Yes, Minister Conroy has promised to subsidise, which is expected to be around $400, but that still leaves residents having to fork out $250 and possibly even more if there are installation problems.

As I have repeatedly said, this is why we really need definitive dates for the upgrade of towers and we need them soon so that those who will need to rely on satellite equipment know so. Armed with this knowledge, these residents can plan for the added costs of purchasing satellite equipment and having it installed. The second reason my constituents need to be given an answer soon is so that they do not purchase expensive yet useless equipment. One Vacy woman who attended my forum in Dungog this month explained how she had just bought a new antenna to pick up the digital signal at a cost of $1,100, only to find out that she cannot get any digital or television reception. Had this woman known she would need to rely on a satellite, she obviously would not have wasted all of that money on unreliable technology.

The Rudd Labor government is largely to blame for this waste, and the reason is the Prime Minister has spent a massive amount of taxpayers’ money on advertising his new digital network in local papers. Had all of his advertising money been used on upgrades instead, my constituents could be enjoying quality, uninterrupted television. Instead they have been encouraged by this Rudd Labor government to go out and buy expensive set-top boxes for digital ready televisions, only to get them home and find out the digital network itself is not ready. To make matters even worse, some of the digital televisions now being sold cannot receive analog signals at all, so buyers cannot even switch back to analog, which would at least deliver some coverage. So it is a cruel message for my constituents. The phrase ‘get digital ready’ has been splashed all over our newspapers and television screens, yet residents are getting ready for a network which is clearly not ready itself.

Residents in my electorate need to know now whether to invest in a new television or whether they will simply have to sit back and wait for this satellite service to be delivered. They do not deserve to see misleading advertisements, paid for with their own taxpayer dollars, which advertise a digital network which they will never be able to watch. So they deserve a new satellite service as soon as possible. In fact, they just need clarity.

It is important to remember that residents are not the only stakeholders who need urgent information prepared. The effects of this legislation are wide-reaching. Technicians will need to know the details of the digital rollout in order to prepare their businesses and staff for increased demand. They will also need to ensure that they have enough equipment ready and the right equipment to help deliver this technology to the households that have been desperately waiting for it. Local councils also need to be a high priority, but seem to have been forgotten by the Rudd Labor government. Take for example Dungog council, which only allows one satellite dish per household roof as outlined in its development control plan. Now that many locals cannot access quality television at the moment, they have chosen to pay for subscription TV such as Foxtel or Austar. This means they already have a dish on the roof, and since that new satellite service will also require a dish, households now face the prospect of having two satellite dishes. This means they will either have to submit an expensive development application to council just to have a satellite service installed, or councils will need to make changes to their control plans. There needs to be more consultation on this program so problems can be ironed out in time to ensure a smooth and quick transition.

This digital rollout needs to be thought about from a business perspective. Businesses need to have smart goals—that is, goals that are specifically measurable, attainable, realistic and timely. This is something that all successful groups have in common, yet the Rudd Labor government has failed to do so. Prime Minister Rudd has failed to deliver a specific time frame for digital tower upgrades or satellite rollout. He has failed to explain who will need to rely on the satellite. He has set a date for an analog switch-off but is not doing enough to now guarantee future services.

People in my electorate are already struggling with television reception, and it is clear through the complaints I have received they want action and they want action now. Let me be clear: although ours is a regional area, my constituents deserve quality television, including the latest technology—the same as anyone else in the city. That is why I fought hard to have a television transmitter at Gan Gan upgraded to a digital signal. Unfortunately, the Rudd Labor government has failed to continue such vital upgrades since taking over government, so there are still six self-help retransmission sites which need to be upgraded in the Paterson electorate.

According to this bill, our commercial broadcasters have agreed to pay for the upgrade of 87 self-help sites. That is less than one-eighth of the 698 eligible sites across Australia. Of these 87 sites to be upgraded, four are in the electorate of Paterson. Those sites are: Booral, Stroud, Forster and Smiths Lake. Unfortunately, it seems that the tower at Elizabeth Beach is set to miss out, set to be serviced by satellite instead. And the irony of this is the Elizabeth Beach transmitter sits between the Forster and Smiths Lake transmitters. It is just simply defying belief.

Further, there has been no mention whatsoever of the Dungog nominal transmission site which needs to be upgraded to rectify its signal strength. Similarly, there has been no mention whatsoever of the Gan Gan tower. I fought hard for these upgrades to this tower and the former coalition government invested in omni-directional services, yet they have now been shut off with many residents left in the dark. This raises questions about value for money in Labor’s plan which I am extremely concerned about, and a review needs to happen urgently.

Allow me to use Great Lakes to demonstrate my concerns. The council has been given the option to upgrade its Elizabeth Beach retransmission site at a cost of about $100,000. This upgrade would allow locals to be able to access terrestrial digital TV—local TV. Unfortunately, neither the Rudd Labor government nor broadcasters will pay for it. No, if the Elizabeth Beach site is to be upgraded, the council has to fork out for the upgrades. On the other hand, if Elizabeth Beach is not upgraded, households will be provided with a $400 subsidy for a satellite dish. This would be paid for by the Rudd Labor government, using taxpayer dollars.

The problem is this: there are approximately 950 households that currently rely on the Elizabeth Beach site to watch television. If this tower is not upgraded, and all these residents claim a subsidy for the satellite service, the Rudd Labor government will have to spend almost $400,000. That is four times the amount of taxpayer money it would cost to upgrade the Elizabeth Beach tower. So if the Rudd Labor government simply paid for the tower upgrade, that would be a saving to taxpayers of $300,000 and it would not include any outlay from the council. That is two birds, one stone—three birds in fact, because more of my local constituents would then have access to terrestrial digital television rather than satellite. That means they would have access to specifically local, regional channels such as Prime and NBN designed for the Hunter and mid-north coast, without having to resort to satellite, which will need to service the entire south-eastern Australia zone of NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT.

This is a blatant example of the Rudd Labor government’s failure to think smart and use taxpayer dollars wisely, as demonstrated in the budget this week. Just this year we have been forced to watch blatant waste through Prime Minister Rudd’s Building the Education Revolution program, which has seen some classrooms erected for more than the cost of a luxury home. In fact, one school in my electorate, Booral Public School, received a double prefabricated classroom for $850,000. For the same price, another school got three classrooms, a basketball court and rainwater tanks. In my experience taxpayers are more than happy to invest in the education of our children, but what they do demand is value for money, which simply has not been evident at all in the BER program. Prime Minister Rudd obviously has not learnt his lesson and I would urge him to rethink the number of retransmission sites which are to be upgraded. Residents in the Paterson electorate deserve to have each and every tower upgraded, in order to give them the best chance at accessing terrestrial local digital television.

This Rudd Labor government will not invest in upgrading all our towers to digital. This is the same government which gave our broadcasters a $250 million discount in licensing fees, but failed to secure upgrades in those areas that really needed them. I am here to remind the Prime Minister that regional areas need urgent technology upgrades. People in the Paterson electorate deserve absolutely nothing less than the same services available to those in the city.

This brings me to another point of importance within the legislation, local content. Of course, Australian governments have always worked hard to ensure that people have access to relevant news and information through our commercial television broadcasters. It is not only for safety that people know what is going on in their local area but also so that people can stay informed about their local community and make a contribution. If you live in East Maitland, for example, I would argue most people would much rather read the Maitland Mercury, the Star or the Newcastle Herald rather than, say, the Canberra Times. While the latter is in no way of lesser quality, the issue here is proximity and relevance. I believe wholeheartedly that it needs to be the same with television—local content for local people; local news, local advertising, local community connection .

The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2010 does address the issue of local content and I am pleased that this has been considered. However, the legislation indicates that satellite service providers will be required to present local news and information ‘as soon as practicable’. Therefore I would like to again stress the importance of local news, local sport, local weather, local community service announcements and local advertising. It is vital that the phrase ‘as soon as practicable’ does indeed translate into a timely news service which is aired at a practical time for my constituents.

Clearly, over the past five decades television has become an integral part of life for many Australians. It should be not only enhanced but also protected. Therefore, it is vital that this legislation be made a priority and that action be taken urgently. Of course, our Prime Minister is known for his talk rather than his action. But I am here for the people of Paterson and I will continue to hold the Rudd Labor government to account until clear, uninterrupted television can be viewed on the screens of every household. I have grave reservations about part of this bill and the ability of this government to roll out a quality service to my constituents. I remind the House that this Rudd Labor government stripped $2 billion from the regional telecommunications infrastructure black spot fund in December 2008. That is the sort of money that could have been spent on digital upgrades in my electorate.