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Wednesday, 25 March 1987
Page: 1336


Senator VIGOR(6.12) —The report of the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation is a very important document. It brings out the value of open public inquiries into matters of extreme public interest, preferably before legislation is brought before the Parliament. The great pity in this case is that the Government and the Department of Communications sought to control the whole input process to press ahead with unworkable and unwanted proposals to hand over Australian television in toto to three operators.

I would like to support Senator Puplick who, in his very lucid report, reminded us that the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal in its 1984 satellite program services report drew attention to the impact that the satellite would make on Australian broadcasting. That report said:

Australia has reached a critical stage in the development of its commercial television system.

The points mentioned should be considered by elected members of the Government/Parliament before the impact of satellite services confirms the fundamental imbalance.

This imbalance is the imbalance that Senator Puplick has been talking about. It is the dominance of the Sydney and Melbourne stations over the whole of Australian television, and the lack of opportunities for new players to enter into the television market. Unfortunately, there has been little activity out in the open on these matters since that time. The Department of Communications boasted that:

There have been the most exhaustive consultations with the organisations representing television broadcasters on the policy objectives of the Bills, and on drafts of the Bills themselves.

As Senator Puplick has pointed out in his dissenting report, the disgraceful conduct of not consulting the people of regional Australia, has been consistently followed. The people of regional Australia were not asked about this. It was the Forward Development Unit's proposals which were put forward. No opportunities were offered for new players to provide new broadcasting services, be they terrestrial broadcasting services, or other technologies. Little consideration seems to have been given to the advent of high definition television. I do not believe those aspects and other technological changes have been systematically examined. This has in fact been brought out by Senator Puplick's dissenting report, which I would like to commend highly to the Senate. In fact, the Department has been in a flap at the prospect of having to cope with applications for pay television licences.

Documents released to Senate Estimates Committee C late last year show that the Department had been hoping to find some power to call a moratorium under the current legislation. There is no such power and legislation will have to be amended properly to implement the Cabinet's four year moratorium. The way things within the Department work, the legislation is likely to be ready in about four years time. The fundamental flaw in this whole sordid episode, and the reason why four years of this Government have failed to produce new services in regional areas, as opposed to remote Australia, is the attempt to look at only the interests of its powerful mates. This Government has not been looking after the interests of ordinary Australians. With an integrated approach to broadcasting in the 1990s, based on the most appropriate use of 1990s technology, we could have an imaginative broadcasting service. We could plan ahead. But no, we are getting old solutions, and I blame the Department for this.

What hope do we have when the Department of Communications is panic stricken by the very thought of any type of new technology? Its handling of both the pay-television and the video and audio entertainment and information services system has been pathetic. Because of its incompetence the VAEIS system has been handled within a completely different area from other types of broadcasting, and there is no proper fee structure for these licences. The whole area is fraught with difficulty. It is going to be one way in which large operators will further control our media. This, as we can discern from the report, is exactly what we would expect within the policy areas of the Department which prefer to deal with small groups of clients.

There is a tremendous amount for which the Department has to answer over its failure in the supplementary licence scheme. A large part of the failure has been to provide services, and this can be sheeted home to the failure of political and administrative will within the Department. It is not good enough to claim that the procedure was complex and unwieldy. It was the Department that was in charge of it. It should have suggested amendments to obtain a fast track public inquiry system for the granting of licences, and it did no such thing. In fact, it suited some of the key bureaucratic people within the Department to try to pass the blame on to the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal. It also suited their push for a system which handed over Australian television lock, stock and barrel to a handful of operators with whom everything would be sorted out behind closed doors. I believe that this is the scandal of this report. In that, I support Senator Puplick.

I hope we will be throwing out this legislation lock, stock and barrel. We should get the Efficiency Scrutiny Unit to examine closely the lack of performance from a Department which is supposedly presiding over our move into new broadcasting technologies. The broadcasting and media world is littered with disgruntled ex- employees of the Department who were essentially forced out because they were competent. It is time we gave those first rate employees who remain a chance to use their skills and not be stifled by high level internal manoeuvrings within the Department.

It is also time that we presented some services to the people of regional Australia. I thought that was what the report and the legislation were going to be about. Someone should demand of the Broadcasting Tribunal that it complete its Canberra supplementary inquiry. The attempt by the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) to interfere in that was quite unlawful, and I believe a disgrace within the Westminster tradition. We now have seen the Newcastle television station take the Minister to court over his failure to get a move on with that particular application. We now have a situation where there are regulations governing Broadcasting Tribunal inquiries and proposed amendments to the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act to make it harder to abuse the courts with delaying tactics, as happened during the Perth third commercial licence inquiry. Results can be achieved quickly. The Committee has in fact identified a need for a local service in Geelong, and I commend it for that. Senators Lewis and Sheil have noted that the situation in Cairns appears ripe for an independent service and I support them in that. It should not be beyond the Government to come up with areas in which a second independent service is, or may well be, viable. In other areas there could be the grant of an immediate supplementary licence, as proposed by Senator Puplick. That way a second service could be provided everywhere within the next two years.

In addition, a third service could be offered in all areas with a complementary charter and partial funding from a levy on stations with a very large reach. The third station could provide educational and multicultural programs and community access windows, alongside other programs specifically targeted to a narrow specialist audience and which would give advertisers access to those special audiences. There are an enormous number of things that we could have done, but instead we are aggregating and handing the whole system over to the current operators. I support the United States system with a 25 per cent audience reach limit and quite strict cross-media ownership provisions which are there even under the Reagan Administration. This seems reasonable for Australia, not the 75 per cent that has been proposed. I would go lower than Senator Puplick in terms of the percentage ownerships that I would allow people to have in this area. I do not believe that even 43 per cent is a decent limit. We should be considering 35 per cent or 25 per cent.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Morris) —Order! The honourable senator's time has expired.