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Tuesday, 19 March 2013
Page: 2619

Mr JOHN COBB (Calare) (17:49): The member for Bradfield hit the nail on the head when he said this broadcasting legislation is incredibly flawed. I will confine my remarks basically to those parts of the bills that deal with licence fees and local content. Others will speak on the ridiculous overview that the government is seeking to assert on the industry. That is not something this country has ever done before.

The coalition is willing to support two of the six bills—the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2013 and the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Bill 2013. These bills are now going to be voted on as stand-alone propositions and they include measures that would reduce the annual licence fees paid by commercial broadcasters, set new Australian content rules for multichannels and amend the ABC and SBS charters. The coalition will move an amendment to one measure in the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Bill which will have the effect of ensuring only the ABC may offer Commonwealth funded international broadcast services such as the Australia Network.

I repeat that I am appalled by this abuse of the democratic process. The minister for communications introduced this bill into the parliament with a mere two days allowed for committee inquiry, and both houses are expected to then vote on it. It is not the way we have come to expect—and, more to the point, our country has come to expect—democracy to work. It is a bill which is rather breathtaking in the way it looks at change.

The media landscape has changed dramatically in my time, and certainly over the last 10 years, and we can now access content from all over Australia and, in fact, the world. It has given us choices that we never had and broadened our horizons for all the good reasons. We have digital TV and digital radio, and can tap into stories, interviews and information on demand. But I do still relish the fact that I have a local newspaper that I can read as I pick up my morning coffee in Molong, and a few local news stations to keep on top of the local issues in the electorate of Calare. However, I am immensely concerned that the removal of the 75 per cent reach rule could dramatically decrease the diversity of television ownership, thus concentrating control, increasing the possibility of television network mergers and decreasing the amount of quality content available to the electorate.

Concern over local content is not new. In 2002, what is now the Australian Communications and Media Authority, ACMA, undertook an investigation into the adequacy of local news and information programs provided on commercial television in Australia's regional and rural areas. It was concluded that there had been a decline in competing sources of news since the mid-1990s and a similar decline in the offering of local information other than news broadcasts since the aggregation of television markets. It was considered that community concern about the lack of diversity in broadcasts of matters of local significance by commercial television licensees was legitimate. It also concluded that there was a lack of competition in delivering local news and information, and that some regional commercial television broadcasters were not sufficiently responsive to audience needs for local content, particularly the need for programs which reported on matters of local significance. As a result, additional licence conditions and quotas were imposed on regional television broadcasters.

I mention all that as background to the situation we now face. The legislation is complex and it certainly demands time to be scrutinised. Removing the reach rule would allow Seven, Nine and Ten to acquire a merger with regional affiliates WIN, Southern Cross and Prime, to cover 100 per cent of the population. In broad terms, the current legislation prevents any one commercial network from broadcasting to more than 75 per cent of the population. In the rush to the finishing line, this tick-and-flick government has given the new Joint Select Committee on Broadcasting Legislation only one day to examine just how the reach rule will impact on local news services and how we might best ensure regional Australians are not disadvantaged by this haste.

Those of us who live in regional Australia are very cognisant of the fact that, in parts of New South Wales, Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia, in particular, it is quite often a long time between drinks, and a community really does need access to local news and stories so that they know how their part of the world is getting on. I think anything that decreases the level at which local issues are put before our people means the more we suffer as a nation and, certainly, in the case of regional and rural Australia, the more we suffer as a community. It is very precious thing. While we are a nation of people who live in cities and on the coast, our ethos is very much tied up in rural and regional Australia—in the way that we communicate with one another and in our sense of community. If people are not given the opportunity to be aware of what is happening in their local region, it is not just us but Australia's whole convergence as a nation and how we see ourselves, our pride in ourselves, that is threatened.

Given the fact we have been given next to no time to look at all this broadcasting legislation, I think we are agreeing only on two of these bills, with one amendment, because the coalition at least are incredibly aware of the fact that regional Australia does need local content safeguards. And I am not one who necessarily assumes that media owners are always going to do the wrong thing when it comes to local content and not give us local news. They are not fools; they know that we like to see what happens in our own region. But I do think it is important to safeguard the reach rule and local content. If, along the way, that means looking at the way in which broadcasters and station owners pay for their licences, then I am good with that. But, when it comes to the amendment, I hope that the government realises—and we say this out of sincerity, not out of any political motive with these two bills—that Australia needs a regional Australian focus for everybody's sake, and that is something we have to safeguard. Thank you.