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Monday, 30 March 1987
Page: 1456

Senator VIGOR(4.03) —I believe that this response by the Government is a shallow and rather facile response in an area where quite a number of problems were brought out by the dissenting reports to the main report of the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation. One whole area the response fails to mention is the administrative problems which the Department of Communications has had with the previous proposals before us for supplementary licences and the failure to administer these effectively for the people of Australia.

The principles of choice and diversity which were brought out so admirably in Senator Puplick's dissenting report and the issue of localism-that is, providing local programs with guaranteed local input-in the television process as far as I can see have been totally ignored in the Government's report, as has been the question of what people in regional areas want. There seems to be a determination just to satisfy the needs of the Government's mates in the large networks. There does not seem to have been very much consideration for what the ordinary Australian wants to see on his or her television screen. That important issue certainly has not been addressed effectively by the majority report either.

The way this report was presented during Question Time is, as Senator Powell said, somewhat of an insult to the Committee. It has been put down in a very unusual way and shows the Government's very cavalier attitude towards the Senate's activities. It also illustrates the way this whole matter has been dealt with. Prior to the formation of the Committee, the Government and the Department of Communications had basically operated behind closed doors. The Forward Development Unit basically had consulted only the large media interests. Yet in this report the Government has the temerity to say that from the beginning of its consideration of the equalisation policy it has placed the debate in the public domain and invited all interested parties into the consultative process through public submissions and meetings. This is blatantly untrue. This has happened only since the Committee was formed.

The Committee has reported along blatant political lines. It seems almost as if the report was prewritten because large sections of it correspond exactly to the Forward Development Unit's documents. There was a reply in the Senate from Senator Richardson who said that the dissenting report by Senator Sheil and Senator Lewis was not satisfactory. The Government report effectively does not even mention them. If we are to take note of committees and not waste the money of the people of Australia it is important that the Government take note of what committees do-minority reports as well as majority reports-because there was a lot that the Government could have learnt from reading Senator Puplick's and Senator Powell's excellent submissions. A year ago, 43 per cent of the nation as an audience was considered to be at the extreme limit of what was acceptable in terms of media ownership. The Government is now proposing 75 per cent. The Labor majority of the Committee at least has been honest in admitting that the Government's so-called one-in-all-in rule should be abandoned and everybody should be forced into the process, because the carrots-the financial inducements-were available only to those people who went into the aggregation process. Hence, the Committee is just recognising what the Government's proposal really meant. It just went a little too far. I do not believe that anything at all in the Government's response shows there were a variety of economic incentives which could have applied either to multi-channel services or aggregation. All the incentives the Government put forward pushed towards aggregation. I am only consoled currently by the fact that the Opposition has made a firm stand with the Australian Democrats on the legislation and that the Government's report obviously is not directly relevant.

The thing that really needs to be brought out, however, is that the Department of Communications and the Minister, who are claiming in this response that they are considering the new technologies and advances in technologies in broadcasting, blatantly have failed to date to take those into account, including the area of the new video and audio entertainment and information services proposals, where the Department did not even manage to be organised sufficiently to be able to collect the proper levels of fees. This is all covered under the Radiocommunications Act, rather than under the Broadcasting Act. I commend to the Senate Senator Powell's recommendation that all of these broadcasting processes should be brought within the same Act.

The Government has said in this document a number of times that the Department of Communications is involved in further discussions with a wide variety of people and groups. `Further discussions' is one term that is used many times in this response. From previous experience further discussions with the Department of Communications are a pretty open-ended thing which takes a large amount of time. I believe that most of the other processes in relation to which there have been recommendations by the Committee outside of the Government's original proposals in the Broadcasting Amendment Bill will take an enormous and inordinate amount of time to come forward.

I make the point that for the past 3 1/2 years the Government has been fiddling about with this proposal. The Department was frantically searching for ways to stall bringing in pay television under the current legislation. It has not tackled the problem of high definition television, nor has it looked at the proper uses of new satellite technology. The whole object of this exercise is to produce a media ownership environment which is suitable to the Government's few mates.

Senator Vanstone —To its big mates.

Senator VIGOR —To its big mates. This is exactly what we deplore and what we will be fighting in relation to this legislation when it comes forward and in relation to future legislation for media ownership provisions.

I finish by commending the Committee for identifying in the report a need for a local service in Geelong-it is long overdue-and the facilities that are needed in the Cairns region. I do not believe the Government's response answers any of those proposals satisfactorily. It should not be beyond this Government to come up with the 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, and that has been stated. That has not been considered at all in the Government's response, even though it has been proposed in two of the dissenting reports. In that way a second service could be provided everywhere within the next two years. The Government has admitted in its response that the regions are currently underserved. It does no good to express pious hopes, as the Labor Committee members have done, that a service covering all the regional areas of Queensland would provide adequate local programming. I believe that is a farce. The demise of some long running programs on HSV7 in recent weeks shows how localism will be sacrificed if we have huge empires developing and handling programming.

I believe that the United States model, which has a 25 per cent audience reach limit and quite strict cross-media ownership provisions, even under the Reagan Administration, is much better than that proposed of 75 per cent ownership. I believe there has been a phoney compromise between the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) and the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) who, a year ago, were haggling over 35 or 43 per cent. Even 43 per cent, which has been taken up by Senator Puplick, is still too high, and I would commend that we make certain when the legislation comes up that we guarantee the interests of people in regional areas and that we make haste to provide them with proper services and extra services rather than continue with the pious talk of aggregation, which is dead because the Senate will throw out the legislation.