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Tuesday, 19 March 2013
Page: 2621


Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (17:59): It is a pleasure to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Bill 2013 and the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2013 and indeed a pleasure to follow the member for Calare. I particularly want to endorse his remarks about the importance of local content on television stations. In Wagga Wagga, my home town, we have two free-to-air television stations at the moment producing local news: Prime Television and WIN TV. The respective news editors of those two stations, Benjamin Shuhyta at Prime and BJ Conkey at WIN, know the importance of producing good local content in their news. They know the importance of the community advocacy that they do on behalf of many groups, many of them charities or sporting groups, and just getting the news out there to the people. The respective managers of those stations know how important those half-hour bulletins are to getting advertising, because many local businesses want to advertise in those local news bulletins.

For both of those stations the actual production of their bulletins is done elsewhere, but what we do not want to see in the future are television news bulletins done out of a hub with very little local content, with syndicated statewide news. People are pretty parochial. People are concerned with their own patch, and they are often interested only in what is happening in their local area. Whilst I appreciate the value of knowing what is going on in Bathurst, Tamworth and elsewhere, I have to say that many people in Wagga Wagga are really not all that interested if there is a big story happening in Bathurst unless it is a national breaking news story. This is so even to the point where there was considerable criticism when WIN merged its Wagga Wagga and district and Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area district news. Whilst people in Wagga Wagga were concerned about what was happening in Griffith, they really wanted more Wagga Wagga content, and vice versa. We are talking about a right over a public asset, and that is the spectrum, the ability to have those channels and the ability for free-to-air stations to broadcast on that spectrum. Australian content is important, but local content to regional areas is absolutely paramount. As far as Australian content is concerned, I feel we are far too Americanised with our television stations now. It is great that we have a percentage of content being Australian, but some of the Australian-produced programming and documentaries are tremendous and need to be encouraged.

I have considerable disappointment that the government has tried to rush this and the other two bits of legislation, which are all part of a six-pronged attack on the media. I have great difficulty understanding why the government is trying to rush this through. There has been an obscene and indecent haste in the way the government has tried to get this through. Yesterday we saw the unedifying spectacle of Senator Doug Cameron verballing the TV executives who had flown in from throughout Australia to give their views on what is very important legislation. I know how much bullying has been in the news lately. To watch that last night on television and watch the spectacle of those TV executives, champions of people who want to have good Australian content, champions of people who want to give viewers a great variety of news and information, being absolutely lambasted by the questioning of Doug Cameron as though they were doing something wrong—it is so typical of this government to want to knock down anybody who is trying to achieve something and trying to make a go and make some money.

As we heard shadow minister Malcolm Turnbull say earlier—and he enters the chamber now—the devil is in the detail with this particular legislation. How appropriate. The devil is in the detail with this particular piece of legislation and with the other tranches of this attack on the media. We have a committee sitting at the moment to consider this legislation, but it has been given little time to be able to do that. I cannot understand why this is so. For the life of me I cannot understand why any government wanting to be re-elected would want to take on the media in an election year. It just does not make any sense. But, then again, that fits in well too with everything else this government does because not much of it really makes sense, and the public has stopped listening. The public has turned off.

We stand in this House to debate the largest changes to media regulation since 2006. These two bills are only part of a wider six-bill package that the Labor government wants passed by this House and by our Senate by this Thursday. It is ridiculous haste. The Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, has stated that the government will not be bartering. The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Convergence Review and Other Measures) Bill 2013 will introduce changes announced by the minister in response to the Convergence Review relating to Australian content, the use of the six-channel spectrum and public broadcasting. The other bill before us is the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2013, which will permanently reduce the annual licence fees payable by commercial television broadcasters by half to a maximum of 4.5 per cent of revenue. Here we have Senator Conroy wanting to halve the broadcasters' licence fee and them still not being in favour of it. I ran a media company once. I would hate to have him as salesman if he cannot even give away half-price licence fees.

The government's initial response to the Convergence Review in November 2012 included the extension by regulation of the 50 per cent licence fee rebate for commercial television broadcasters, explicit Australian content requirement for commercial broadcasters' multichannels and the retention of the 55 per cent local content transmission quota for the commercial broadcasters' primary channels but greater flexibility to broadcast subquota content on multichannels. It would see no fourth commercial television network.

These bills will enact these changes in legislation, as well as repeal a statutory review provision relating to the Australian content and captioning of television programs. The government has also introduced some additional provisions recommended in the Convergence Review, relating to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service—both of which are very, very important to people in my area. I certainly know how much work was done to bring SBS television to Wagga Wagga. It came in 1986, thanks to the great work of the late Doug Pitman, his late wife Dorothy and Brian Favero, who was chairman of the committee that brought SBS to Wagga Wagga. SBS gave those people a temporary licence to broadcast, a temporary tower was built on Willans Hill and the station officially started up on 14 July 1988. Some great work was done there. It is important. SBS is obviously important to not just people in my community but also people right throughout Australia—as it should be.

These changes—as part of this legislation with the ABC and SBS—include alterations to both their charters to reflect the internet based services both broadcasters currently provide, which include live streaming of TV and radio, catch-up TV, the provision of news which repurposes as text and audio and video used for broadcasting and text commentary. It also amends the ABC Act of 1983 to make the ABC or its proscribed subsidiaries the only broadcaster which can be engaged in Commonwealth funded international broadcasting services. This comes in the wake of the Australian Network calamity—and I call it a calamity—of 2010, when the tender for international broadcasting was bungled when the ABC and Sky News Australia both submitted bids to the tender process but the Labor government scrapped the tender and awarded the contract to the ABC indefinitely based on occurrence leaks which were deemed to compromise the process. It was just completely ridiculous and so much in line with so much else that this government has done since being elected in 2007. It just seems to muck up everything it touches.

We need to remember it was the minister proposing this legislation who also oversaw that particular process, a process on which the Auditor-General issued a scathing report. It cast the government in poor light and stated:

… the manner and circumstances in which this high-profile tender process was conducted brought into question the government's ability to deliver such a sensitive process fairly and effectively.

Furthermore, despite the Tender Evaluation Board's repeated recommendation to accept the Sky News Australia bid over that of the ABC—including in its final report to the minister after amended tenders had been received—Senator Conroy still decided to conduct a negotiation process with both tenders to further test the financial reliability of each tenderer, given the duration of the proposed contract. Ultimately, the process was terminated more than a year after the tender was announced and the contract was awarded to the ABC.

This legislation also makes an amendment to the SBS Act of 1991 to require of the minister that at least one non-executive director be an Indigenous person. This follows the establishment within SBS of the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander free-to-air television channel. The permanent reduction of the annual licence fees payable by the commercial television broadcasters by 50 per cent will amount to a reduction in fees of about $140 million a year. This amount has already been factored into the 2012-13 forward estimates, as updated in the Mid-year Economic and Fiscal Outlook. There we have Labor once again jumping to conclusions and being quite presumptuous.

A reduction in the annual licence fees paid by commercial television broadcasters has been provided on a year-to-year basis since 2009-10. In 2009-10 the commercial television licence fee schedules were altered by regulation in a way which had the effect of reducing fees by 33 per cent in the 2010 calendar year and by half in the 2011 calendar year. Fees were then again reduced by 50 per cent in 2012. The buyer is now sceptical of the half-price licence fee, because this government does everything by subterfuge, plotting, planning and backroom deals. Again, it is another knee-jerk response and ill-conceived policy that, like with so much this government does, it wants to rush through the parliament. They forget all tenets of democracy and all tenets of listening to what the people on the ground are actually saying, as we saw yesterday when those television executives were absolutely verballed in that review hearing.

Let us remember this policy is from the same minister who, whilst speaking at the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information conference in New York in September 2012, declared he had 'unfettered legal power' over telecommunications regulations such that if he wanted to he could make Australian telecommunication company executives:

… wear red underpants on their head.

I did not see too many red underpants on the heads of the TV executives yesterday, but I know that the minister is very red-faced about the reaction to the complete fallout that has happened. Again, it is another example of what a shambolic, divided and dysfunctional government we have in this country. People, let me tell you, are quite fed up. This is the same minister—now the third in charge in the government—who used expletives while answering questions at the National Press Club on 13 December 2011, which was being broadcast live on the ABC. It is beyond the pale.

In regards to the abolition of the reach rule, the coalition supports deferring any decision on this as recommended by the joint select committee inquiry into the proposal. This rule prevents any one commercial television network from broadcasting to more than three-quarters of the population. The joint select committee established to look into the proposed changes to this rule, along with the outsourcing of news content and whether the Australian Communications and Media Authority should direct commercial broadcasters to broadcast corrections on air, was given only four hours—just four hours!—to consider evidence. It was requested that they deliver a report on their findings the next day. Again, I say that it is indecent haste. The mind just boggles as to why Labor wants to rush this through in this last sitting week before a seven-week period before the May budget.

In a converged media landscape, it is clear the relevance of the 75 per cent reach rule needs to be considered and reconsidered. It needs to be considered very carefully. Currently, regional free-to-air broadcasters are at a disadvantage as the major networks are able to compete with over-the-top offerings by streaming content online. Regional commercial broadcasters need to be able to compete against content providers who access 100 per cent of the population with unregulated content via the internet or internet protocol television.

I will just conclude by reiterating the importance of local content on stations, particularly in news, local content on free-to-air stations and Australian content so that we do not get swamped with too much coverage that we do not particularly need or want.