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Thursday, 22 March 2012
Page: 4102


Mr HARTSUYKER (Cowper) (11:21): I am pleased to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Regional Commercial Radio) Bill. The coalition recognises the importance of strong, profitable regional radio stations. Radio has played a key role in the development of Australian society, beginning with the first commercial radio broadcast by Sydney's 2SB in November 1923. From that first broadcast, Australia's commercial radio industry has matured quickly and has served our nation well for almost 90 years.

There are now 261 commercial radio stations on air in Australia, including 224 regional commercial radio licences. The ownership of regional licenses is concentrated, with stations owned by only 32 operators; 80 per cent of stations are linked to one of 12 networks. Radio is still the preferred means of accessing local information, news and weather for millions of Australians living in the regions. Radio is the only medium that is accessible in almost every situation and location. All over regional Australia at any time of the day or night radio can be heard in cars, trucks, on building sites, on farms and in tractors and headers. Radio is also the key source of information during emergencies.

Regional commercial radio stations hold a privileged position in their communities because they have the right to use radio frequency spectrum, which is a public resource. With this right comes a responsibility to serve local community with the provision of local content. The Howard coalition government enshrined this responsibility in legislation with the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Act 2006. These radio local content rules were introduced as part of the government's broader reform of media and industry regulation. The intention of the local content rules is to ensure that local radio stations continue to broadcast local material using local facilities and local people.

My colleague the member for Hinkler, who is here in the chamber today, has been a great champion of regional radio, and he championed the local content rules in 2006. He maintains a keen interest in this sector. The 2006 changes also introduced rules to ensure that regional radio stations could not be purchased and then stripped of staff and production facilities and the programming moved to a central broadcast location.

The 2006 legislation introduced the concept of a trigger event, which occurs when an interest in a regional radio licence is transferred. Stations that have experienced a trigger event are subject to certain obligations in addition to those imposed on other regional radio stations. These so-called trigger event rules and reporting requirements have proven to be a regulatory burden on regional radio stations. This bill removes some of that burden and levels the playing field for stations that have been subject to a trigger event.

The coalition's approach to this issue is all about balance. We recognise that licensees need freedom to compete and flexibility to react to the dynamics of the market. We also recognise the importance of maintaining strong local content rules. We believe this bill strikes an appropriate balance.

I would like to turn my attention to the important details of the bill. Items 2 through 4 of schedule 1 clarify the definition of regional racing broadcasters and remote broadcasters. Item 6 is particularly important because it reduces the local presence requirements for a station subject to a trigger event to 24 months. At present a regional commercial radio licensee must maintain in perpetuity the same local presence in terms of staffing and use of studios and other production facilities in the licence area that existed three months prior to the trigger event. This rule means that a station cannot reduce its staffing levels following a trigger event, even if the business is struggling and advertising revenues are down. The rule has the potential to discourage employment and investment in the radio industry. This new 24-month rule is a reasonable compromise which discourages new owners from stripping away local staff and facilities from a town, while allowing sufficient flexibility for owners buying for the long term. Item 7 exempts racing and remote broadcasters from the local presence requirements I have just noted. This amendment recognises the unique nature of these broadcasters.

Item 8 allows regional commercial radio broadcasters to take a five-week holiday each year from the local content requirements. At present most stations are required to broadcast three hours of locally significant material each business day, stations in smaller licence areas have a 30-minute requirement and remote broadcasters a five-minute requirement. This item recognises that many regional radio stations are not large enterprises. Stations need the flexibility to allow presenters and production staff to take annual leave over Christmas and the new year period. Many stations also struggle to find qualified and available replacement staff for this period. This amendment allows ACMA to specify when the five-week period will begin. If ACMA makes no determination, the five weeks will begin on the second Monday in December each year. It should be noted that nothing in this bill limits the amount of local content a station may broadcast. Many stations will choose to continue broadcasting local programs, news and weather during the new year period, and there is nothing in this bill to prevent this happening. Indeed, my experience is that most regional commercial stations are a key source of local information, entertainment, news and weather.

Item 9 exempts remote and racing broadcasters from the local content licence condition. Items 10 through 12 deal specifically with the interaction between Australia's local content rules and the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement. The coalition had significant concerns with this part of the bill and the government agreed to remove items 10 to 12, after prolonged negotiation. I thank the government for cooperating with the opposition in this matter.

Schedule 2 introduces some clarity and precision to the definition of a trigger event. Items 1 through 6 of schedule 2 insert or amend various items defining different family relationships for the purpose of the Broadcasting Services Act. Item 10 amends the definition of a trigger event. A trigger event currently takes place when a regional commercial radio broadcasting licence is transferred. These amendments will broaden the definition of a trigger event to include a change of control of a regional commercial radio broadcasting licence, rather than a change of ownership. Item 10 also deals with intergenerational change. This item includes a new provision which excludes inheritance as a trigger event in most cases. If control of the licence is transferred to a near relative for no financial consideration—which is most likely in the case of an intergenerational change—no trigger event is deemed to have taken place. Item 10 also allows for exemptions to the trigger event provision if a change of control of a licence happens as a result of circumstances beyond the control of the person controlling the licence. An example would be of change in control due to a licensee contracting a medical disability and not being able to continue running the station. In such a case the subsequent change in control would not be a trigger event. Item 10 also allows exemptions to trigger event rules through regulation. This measure would permit regulations to cater for matters like corporate restructuring when new holding companies or subsidiaries are created but the ultimate control of the affected licence does not change.

Item 11 amends trigger event rules as they apply in the event of the creation of a registrable media group due to a decision by ACMA to vary details of a licence area. In practice this means that a trigger event will not take place simply because ACMA merges licence areas or varies a determination in relation to a licence area. Lastly, item 12 amends the trigger event rules as they apply in the event of certain changes in control of a registrable media group. As the rules currently stand there are a wide variety of situations that constitute a change of control of a registrable media group, which can lead to many trigger events. As a result of this item the changes in control of a registrable media group brought about by circumstances outside the control of the group would not constitute a trigger event. This would include circumstances such as a court-ordered divestment transfer. In conclusion, although it will remain an important part of our society for many years to come, the role of radio in our society is changing. Digital radio has been introduced in the capital cities and will eventually be rolled out in the regions. The convergence of different media types is affecting the way we interact, access information and receive advertising and a huge range of music available on demand. Radio needs to be able to compete in this environment. These amendments provide some important regulatory relief to commercial radio while preserving measures that guarantee the continued broadcast of local content. We support the bill as amended by the Senate.