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Thursday, 4 December 1986
Page: 3418

Senator LEWIS(8.37) —The Senate is debating the Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1986 and the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1986. I say to the Minister for Community Services (Senator Grimes), in a somewhat puzzled way, that Senator Macklin has just informed me that there was to be no debate on this matter, that it was to be referred straight to a committee. I had not been acquainted with that information and I am ready to make my speech.

Senator Grimes —Go ahead.

Senator LEWIS —Thank you. The purpose claimed for these Bills by the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) is the provision of three commercial channels for the five million people who live in regional Australia. The Opposition parties say that that aim-the aim of the Minister and the aim of the Government-is ad- mirable. The Government's proposed path is by way of aggregation. There is an alternative path, the multi-channel path. However, the purpose of these Bills, that is, equalisation, has now been thrown into confusion and doubt by the Government's statement of policy for commercial television ownership.

I wonder whether I might explain to the Senate what the terminology is. Firstly, as to the multi-channel service, if we take as an example three of the regional services in Victoria, Ballarat, Bendigo and Albury, which for this purpose is considered to be part of Victoria-that is not my suggestion, that is the Minister's suggestion-then under the multi-channel path each of those stations would have been able to broadcast to its own region on three channels. That would have given a diversity of choice to the people in those areas. For example, Ballarat would have sent out signals on three channels. One would presume that it would have had the popular programs, if I might call them that, on one of the channels, perhaps sport on another channel and the less popular programs on a third channel. That is one of the ways in which this service could be provided to the people of regional Australia.

The other path is the aggregation path whereby each of the other two channels would be able to provide the service in the third channel's area. That would expand the region very substantially, but the problem that that would create initially would be the cost to the regional television station because each of those stations would have to provide office facilities for their television advertising salesmen. In addition, they would have to provide some form of television production facilities in each of the other towns because in each of those towns there would need to be some local content and local advertisements. Also there is the problem of providing the television antennas to distribute the service around the region. That is not an easy question to solve. For example, the people of the Australian Capital Territory would be well aware of the massive dispute which took place over the erection of the Telecom tower on Black Mountain. I understand that the facilities there would not be adequate to enable two other channels to send out their signals from those facilities. So the people of the Australian Capital Territory would have to face the problem of having another television tower erected on another mountain around the Australian Capital Territory. That would be the subject of an environmental argument.

Senator Robert Ray —Send it off from the flag pole.

Senator LEWIS —Senator Robert Ray suggests that the antenna be put on top of the flag pole. That would not be a bad idea. I understand that a similar problem exists in Ballarat. Again, the people of Ballarat have no great desire to have another television tower erected on any of their mountains. So what appears to be a fairly simple proposition is not simple at all. This applies to some areas and the Government has defined those areas. They are described-one must learn a particular jargon, terminology, when one moves into this area-as approved markets. There is an approved market for Queensland which will comprise the Cairns-Townsville area, Mackay, Rockhampton, Maryborough and Darling Downs; an approved market for northern New South Wales comprising Lismore, Coffs Harbour, Tamworth, Taree and Newcastle; an approved market for southern New South Wales comprising Orange, Dubbo, Wollongong, Canberra, Wagga Wagga; and an approved market for Victoria comprising Albury-as I have mentioned, the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) thinks that Albury is part of Victoria-the Bendigo-Traralgon area and the Ballarat-Shepparton area. Those are the approved market areas but in addition to the approved market areas we have special cases. Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory are special cases. Other special cases are an area in northern New South Wales, Griffith in southern New South Wales and Mildura in Victoria. There is another special case for Wagga Wagga in New South Wales, but no case for Geelong in Victoria.

Senator Boswell —What about Mount Isa?

Senator LEWIS —I am sorry; Senator Boswell asks me about Mount Isa. I am not the Minister and I do not know the answer to that question. But the area of Geelong is of particular concern. The people of Geelong have access to Melbourne television. They get a wide choice and everyone seems to think that it is a great service. But the important point for them is that they get no local content. The local council and the business community in Geelong have got together to demand some form of television service for their region. It is a region of approximately 180,000 people but there is no local content on their television channel. Geelong businesses are deprived of promoting their products in the local market through the television media. The cost of advertising on Melbourne television is considered by the people of Geelong to be prohibitive in relation to the target market. Most importantly, the Geelong public is deprived of the coverage of items of local interest. The Geelong area is a matter of great concern and should be dealt with in some way or other as a special case. But it is not being dealt with by the Government as a special case.

There are also major difficulties in Tasmania where two stations are owned by the same company. That company is one of the few regional television stations which are not being given access to an additional market. It has been put into the position where it either divests itself of one of its channels or the Minister will in effect release another channel to another company. The company has agreed-indeed, it is somewhat anxious to go along with what the Minister has asked-to divest itself of one of the channels. I understand that the divestment will reap it a reward of about $30m or $40m because that will be the sale price. That is not a bad sale price to receive under a government monopoly situation.

One of the main concerns of the coalition parties is that, in the Government's policy announcement, it seems to have forgotten about the viewer. After all, the purpose was to provide the viewer with choice. It is not clear whether or how the viewer will be better off under this proposed plan. What will happen to the regional content? Will the regional stations simply become repeater stations for the major networks? Is that what the regional viewer wants? This is a very important issue for regional viewers. We know that regional television stations believed previously that under the multi-channel service they would have been able to remain viable and carry on until 1996 when the proposed aggregation requirements of the Government would have come into force. But we also know that, as a result of the Government's recent statement on ownership of television stations, a number of the regional television companies are talking about rapidly moving into aggregation so as to maximise the value of their assets in case they are taken over by one of the major networks, which will come about as a result of the Government's policy announcement about ownership.

We do know that, after weeks of infighting in Cabinet, Minister Duffy's fair, reasonable and balanced 43 per cent reach of the national audience proposal to replace the two-station rule was rolled. We know that Minister Duffy was rolled by a proposal from the Treasurer, Mr Keating. It is now proposed that any television proprietor will be able to buy up to 75 per cent of the national television audience. On the other hand, we are told that there will be tough cross-media restrictions. We cannot help but ask: Is this another bucket of worms resulting from Hawke and Keating getting together to override the Minister and his Department? What were the concerns of the Minister and the experts of his Department that caused him to fight to limit national audience reach to 43 per cent? Were there concerns about monopoly possibilities, commercial and advertising viability of regionals, new technological developments or regionals becoming automated repeater stations with little, if any, local programming? Or were there other concerns? If so, what concerns?

The whole issue is very complex. There are many questions to be posed and resolved. The Bills fail to address many issues about the subject which they purport to address, let alone deal with the complex questions arising from the Government's latest policy pronouncement on ownership and cross-media ownership. The Opposition believes that these questions must be posed and answered before the Parliament can give its final approval to this legislation. The only solution is to refer these two Bills to a Senate select committee for consideration in the light of new broadcasting and technological developments and the Government's policy statements on ownership. I move:

Leave out all words after `That', insert:

`(a) these Bills be referred to a select committee, for report, by 28 February 1987, on the provisions of the Bills and their implementation in the light of new broadcasting and technological developments and the Government's policy statements on ownership; and

(b) the composition and powers of the select committee be determined by a subsequent resolution'.