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Wednesday, 23 March 2011
Page: 2992

Mr TRUSS (Leader of the Nationals) (6:19 PM) —When the debate was interrupted, I was expressing concern that the government has decided, in the context of the introduction of digital television, to close something over 400 local transmitters. These are often self-help transmitters in small locations and provide television services direct to nearby households. Instead, the government has decided that people who receive their television from these transmitters will in future have to switch from terrestrial TV reception to satellite reception. The government has put in place a satellite subsidy scheme that reimburses eligible households to assist them in the cost of making that change. However, I think that there are still issues associated with the change from receiving television reception from a local transmitter to the new television arrangement that need to be addressed.

It is clear that receiving your television from a satellite is a second-best option. There is inconvenience involved and the technology is more complicated. Particularly elderly people or those who are not able to readily deal with some of the technology issues will face difficulties. I am aware that the government is proposing to offer people in-house assistance to help them understand the new technology, but I think we all know from dealing with parents and grandparents that they find these sorts of changes very difficult to manage. In addition, if you have multiple televisions in a house or you have televisions in different buildings, you are required to have much more expensive connections. The government is only offering to subsidise the initial set-top box. If that is lost or a tenant takes it to another place, the owner will be obliged to pay the future cost of those sorts of changeovers.

In reality it would be far better to keep operating as many of these transmitters as possible. In fact, for a relatively small investment out of the billions of dollars the government expects to make from the sale of the spectrum, it would be fair to help those who would actually pay the price. Those people have to give up analog television reception, which most of them are quite happy with, so that the government can sell off the spectrum, so surely they are entitled to be treated fairly and the government should go the extra mile to make sure that they receive a reasonable signal.

There are a number of other issues with getting your television reception from a satellite. Instead of getting local programs, you get programs that have been generically prepared in a faraway place to cover, in some cases, several states. So you no longer get local television advertisements, local information or programs that are particularly relevant to your needs, and there will be time change differences because of the inability of the satellite system to deal with various time zones. From those perspectives satellite reception is clearly inferior. The government has made an effort with its plans to develop a news channel so that regional news services can be transmitted in a local format. That is welcome, although there still seems to be quite some confusion about how that is actually going to happen. Even then, people will not get the news precisely at the right time; it will be replayed sometime later in the evening, either sequentially or simultaneously, so people will have to go through a somewhat more complicated system of programming to see their local news.

Every effort should be made to have the maximum possible number of people receiving their television in the traditional way rather than having to transfer to satellite. There are already quite a number of Australians in rural and remote areas who do get their television by satellite. For those people the new satellite will be an improvement, and it will be welcome from that perspective. However, there are scores of country communities and councils, particularly in states such as Queensland, that operate these local retransmission facilities via the satellite service and would like to continue operating them. At this stage, the government has not been willing to accept that option. The local communities would like to pool the subsidies that are available so that they can retransmit.

I appreciate, and I again acknowledge, that over recent times there has been some willingness on the part of the government to consider this option. I accept that there are technical issues, but, if the trial—which I understand is to be held quite soon—of the use of some technology that will enable this retransmission is successful, then I hope the government will see the good sense in allowing this retransmission to occur at the local levels so that we can retain the local transmitters which were to be closed down by the government under these new arrangements. There does need to be an acceptance that the conversion of the self-help transmitters should happen wherever possible. That is particularly important for business and motels and places like that where there are going to be multiple connections, and it is particularly important for the elderly or others in the community who battle with having to deal with the more complex technology.

It is obvious that the digital signal offers some advantages. Where the signal is available clearly and soundly it offers more choice, better picture quality and better sound quality. But we all know that the digital signal also has some disadvantages. Its range is potentially smaller. There are going to be some people who now get perfectly good analog television reception who will not be able to receive digital. There may be some other people who, fortuitously, will receive a better signal—I acknowledge that—but I think that all of the technical experts say that more people will miss out than are likely to see new benefits. In reality, in examining these sorts of issues, we need to make sure that we do what we can to limit the obstacles to people’s enjoyment of television. In addition, the digital signal is more likely to be affected by adverse weather conditions and, of course, it pixelates and breaks up whenever there are problems with the signal. Those are issues that I think are very important and that people want answers about.

In my own electorate, the analog signal is scheduled to be turned off in half of the electorate in a few months time and in the rest of the electorate in 2013. I appreciate that that is a problem of the electoral boundaries more than it is for those choosing to turn off the signal, but in the city of Gympie, for example, a part of the city will be turned off in 2011 and the balance turned off in 2013. That is going to create some difficulties on the ground. It has been enormously difficult for me as a local member to get accurate and reliable information about what is actually happening in my own electorate. There have been advertisements in the newspapers, which I have read carefully. There are help numbers that you can call. I have called them, and the people have been helpful, but they have not been able to provide answers to most of the questions I have asked. So there was real concern that we are near to a close-down date—in fact, until a few weeks ago I thought that the closedown date might be as soon as 1 July; in other words, only two or three months away—and yet there was no information available to people to help them with the transfer.

I am pleased to say that over the last few weeks the minister’s office has been much more constructive in trying to provide us with the information we need. Previously, I wrote letters to him over many months and got back replies that provided no useful information. I studied his answers to questions in the Senate estimates and found that his answers from various times seemed to conflict with each other. So I welcome the new and more cooperative approach that we are receiving from the minister’s office and hope that thereby we can work through some of those local problems. I now know, for instance, that it seems that the close-down in the majority my electorate will not happen until December this year, so that give us a little bit more time to work through the issues.

I have been struggling to find out what was going to be the source of the programming for the satellite service, which is actually up there and has been operating since December last year, but nobody could tell us which programs were coming from it. We are still battling to get some information about where these programs are going to be sourced from in the future. But if there can be a spirit of cooperation—and I particularly acknowledge the assistance that we are receiving from Emma Dawson, who seems to understand these issues and has been prepared to deal with them in a constructive way—we may well be able to work through them.

From discussing these matters with my colleague the member for Forrest, I am aware that the changeover in western Victoria has gone better than expected. An enormous amount of effort went into it and not all the problems are resolved, but essentially, particularly towards the end, the changeover went reasonably smoothly. I hope that that same level of commitment can be provided in other areas, bearing in mind that western Victoria is comparatively flat countryside. When you move into parts of Queensland, like my own electorate, which are very hilly there are going to be many more complications.

It is important that the government offer a fair deal to all those involved. This legislation will improve the access to the VAST satellite system for some people, and that is a step forward, but there will need to be a better information program available. There will need to be real help for those who are going to be disadvantaged. The public did not ask for this and did not want it. I think they are starting to enjoy the fact that there are extra channels, and they will appreciate the quality, but there is a lot to go through and there will need to be a strong spirit of cooperation if in fact this transition to digital is to happen smoothly and without further difficulties.