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Tuesday, 28 April 1987
Page: 1894

Senator POWELL(4.48) —The Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1986, one of two Bills which we are debating cognately, provides the machinery for implementing the Government's equalisation policy which, according to a letter from the Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) to the Deputy Managing Director of Telecom Australia, basically means `the provision of three commercial television services for regional Australia'. I stress that at this early stage of my contribution in this debate because it is really that fundamental fact, and all that is consequent upon that, which has led to the position which the Australian Democrats took when this Bill was first introduced into the Senate and still take subsequent to the Select Committee on Television Equalisation inquiry in that we will not be supporting this Bill.

Senator Robert Ray, in the final stage of his comments, referred to a dissenting report which I brought down as a member of the Select Committee. I will first address a couple of Senator Ray's criticisms of my report and, in particular, his questioning of the issue of diversity of choice-the fact that I stressed in my dissenting report that I believed that that was a fundamental issue and that the question of provision of services to regional Australians ought to be para-mount. Senator Ray seemed to suggest that that was some kind of esoteric consideration which was really beyond his comprehension.

I quote from the second reading speech by the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan), representing the Minister for Communications, when the Bill was introduced in the Senate last year:

The Government places primary emphasis upon the need to extend regional services and to maximise diversity of choice.

Obviously I am not the only one who has believed, at least at some stage, that maximisation of diversity of choice should be a paramount issue in the consideration of the provision of television services to regional Australians. In addition, Senator Ray has been somewhat critical of the proposals of both Senator Puplick and myself that we need a proper survey of regional Australians to see what they require from additional television services.

No one is questioning that country people need, deserve and want additional television services. Having lived for most of my life in regional Australia and having suffered the restriction of having only one commercial service along with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation service, I certainly have sympathy with that view. However, for Senator Ray to suggest that if regional Australians were surveyed they would come up with some kind of rinky-dink conclusion is, I think, an insult to people who live in country Australia. If country Australians were surveyed on the issue of what they want in the form of additional television services, they would be asked a question about something which they consider to be terribly important. I for one believe that they would not give ridiculous answers such as those suggested by Senator Ray. I have a great deal more confidence in the good sense of people from regional areas in this country: They are people who have definite opinions, who have needs and who have understanding quite beyond that credited to them by Senator Ray.

The Australian Democrats support a greater diversity of program choice for regional Australians. However, we do not believe that this Bill, if passed, would provide that diversity of choice. This Bill, together with the Government's proposed changes to media ownership rules, will usher in a concentration of ownership within the Australian media under which three or four owners will control the electronic media and a further one or two will control the nationwide print media. Concentration of ownership in the media and increased cross-media ownership ranging from book publishing, through news-papers, television and video promotion houses is not simply an Australian phenomenon. A recent publication by the Parliamentary Library points out:

The combined outcome of these trends [overseas] is a gradual shift from the traditional-

I refer to the American context-

American media conglomerate . . . towards a new kind of vertically integrated monopoly; such monopolies aim to achieve market saturation by controlling not only a full range of potentially competing delivery systems, (print, broadcast, cable), but also the original sources of programming and information and the means of distributing those resources to the various outlets.

There are overseas examples from which we as a country should take some instruction. Because of our concern in this area, the Australian Democrats sought to extend the terms of the Senate inquiry set up on these two Bills to include a complete investigation of the concentration of media ownership in Australia. Of course, that failed because neither the Opposition nor the Government would support us in that effort.

The Opposition cannot find a place for Mr Macphee on the front bench and also, evidently, cannot recall the words of one of Sir Robert Menzies' Ministers in 1956, Mr Davidson, the then Postmaster-General. On the introduction of the Broadcasting and Television Act in 1956 Mr Davidson said, in the fine Menzies tradition:

The Government is firmly of the opinion that the ownership of commercial television stations should be in as many hands as practicable and that it should not be possible for any one organisation to obtain control of any substantial number of stations.

He said further:

Television stations are in a position to exercise a constant and cumulative effect on public taste and standards of conduct, and, because of the influence they can bring to bear on the community, the business interests of licensees must at all times be subordinated to the overriding principle that the possession of a licence is, indeed, as the Royal Commission said, a public trust for the benefit of all members of our society.

I think it is a great pity that the Australian Democrats were not supported by the Opposition in that tradition in attempting to have at the very least a full and in-depth inquiry into this whole issue by virtue of an extension of the terms of reference and an extension of the time of the Select Committee of which I and other speakers in this debate were members.

As I have said, we believe that the inevitable consequences of this legislation would be to consolidate the domination of our nationwide electronic media by three or four ownership groups. I believe it is embodied in the Minister's comment, which is at the base of the whole thrust of this legislation, that somehow or other the magic number three is just not negotiable and that there must be three commercial services. The fact that that coincides directly with the number of major networks already established in the major metropolitan areas is in our view by no means any kind of a coincidence.

The cost of aggregation, which will be well over $200m, the short period in which aggregation is scheduled to occur-only two years away in some cases-and the proposed 75 per cent ownership rule would result in three tightly controlled national networks programming entertainment, news and current affairs out of Sydney to all Australians. We believe that independent regional television stations will be a thing of the past if this legislation is passed. It is interesting to me as a Victorian and a Melburnian that, just after the publication of the report of the Senate Select Committee inquiring into the Bills we are now debating, some of the predictions which some of us-and I in particular-had been making in relation to this kind of process were actually seen to impact on Melbourne television stations as a result of the very turbulent process of changing and concentrating ownership which had been taking place in the media since the Government's announcement in November of its proposed changes in this area. While we were concerned about the small regional television channels being taken over losing their autonomy, television channels in the second largest city in Australia had that happen to them. Television channels in the city of Melbourne found it impossible to retain localism in the face of the power of the very tightly controlled media barons. Looking at that example, how could we possibly expect cities such as Bendigo, Shepparton, Mildura and Ballarat to retain their ability to provide local content?

I was interested to hear both Senator Lewis and Senator Ray say that because local news broadcasts are very popular in country areas, even if there were a concentration or centralisation of ownership out of the hands of regional operators and into the hands of city based or Sydney based owners, no one would be taking the local news off the television; it is just too important. Tell that to the Melbourne people who have lost their local sports programs, who have lost their local current affairs programs; tell it to the people in Queensland who have lost their A State Affair program. People in those major capital cities have already lost localism, and I do not think the arguments will wash any more with people in small provincial centres, who of course are sharing the loss as many of them received Channel 7 programs throughout Victoria on a good many of the regional networks. So I believe that those predictions I made in my dissenting report, those assertions of mine, are borne out by the evidence.

If the Government were prepared to introduce an ownership limit, say with a maximum of 35 per cent, so preventing common ownership of both Melbourne and Sydney, its equalisation policy would not have such disastrous consequences. A 75 per cent limit, with three commercial stations in each region, will guarantee the three major metropolitan networks' domination of regional television either through outright purchase or by their control over program distribution and national advertising revenue. It will be imperative under those circumstances for each regional to affiliate with one of the major networks, and once affiliated there will be no opportunity to go elsewhere and none of the bargaining power which currently exists in relation to the major network partner.

One of the things we are asking, by virtue of this legislation and the aggregation proposals, is that regional operators give up that ability, which has already been mentioned in this debate, to cherry pick amongst the available programming. The recommendations I have made for two services to be provided virtually immediately through the provision of supplementary licences to current licence holders would continue to provide the ability to cherry pick but it would provide a far broader service, close to 100 per cent of the commercial programming which is currently shown on the three networks in metropolitan areas.

As I stated in my dissent from the report of the Senate Select Committee, this policy is being forced on the industry and on the population on the basis of no more than anecdotal evidence that this is what the Australian population wants. No evidence came before the Committee during the inquiry to support the contention that regional Australians would prefer three commercial television stations to a program choice which might be different in nature-for example, two commercial channels and SBS immediately, two commercial stations and a narrow cast station, or just two stations with a good local program content. That is the reason I suggested, as did Senator Puplick, that the Government has a responsibility to survey regional Australians to find out what it is that they really want. The only real evidence we have in this area is that which resulted from the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal's licence inquiry in Perth. It is interesting that that information, which is the only survey work of any consequence and validity, actually showed a far more discriminating preference.

Given that guidance, it is important that we find out what people want before launching into something as crucial as the sort of program which the Government is proposing for regional television. We must do nothing to inhibit the potential for diversity of choice. There are, of course, other options which arise out of the expansion and development of technology. Many of those areas will be expanded on on behalf of the Australian Democrats by my colleague Senator Vigor. Again, there is overseas experience to show that there are ways to provide very different services, many of which are locally based. If we do know one thing, we know that people in regional areas and even people in metropolitan areas would be very grateful and consider it very important to have that sort of local community element in their media, no less in their television than in others.

I recently discussed this issue on a network program on regional radio which was also a talkback program. I was interested that callers contributed from a fairly wide area-from New South Wales, all over Victoria and into South Australia-and several emphasised their feeling of deprivation because, for example, they do not receive SBS transmissions. They seemed to feel-and I sympathise with them-that people who live outside the metropolitan area are all too often not considered by governments to be taxpayers, like all the rest of us. They feel that they have a right, as taxpayers, to the provision of that service. It would provide further diversity of choice for people living outside metropolitan areas.

The question is sometimes asked: `Will not Australian television be dominated by three networks whatever the Government does?' After all there are only three networks in the United States of America and the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal has said that networking is inevitable and a good thing. The Australian Democrats say that the sort of three-network system which operates in our metropolitan areas is not inevitable. We have to realise that there are different kinds of networking. It is not necessary, in order to provide the broadest range of programming through a network process, that ownership also be in the hands of the people providing the programming.

It is not necessary at all. Already in many parts of regional Australia there is a co-operative process in which the broadcasters co-operate with each other and that sort of networking, which is based on independent and separate ownership, is the way in which the system operates in the United States-not the sort of system we have already in metropolitan Australia and which this legislation is bound to impact on to regional Australia as well. It is not necessary that we should go that route. As far as we are concerned it is not aggregation that is the problem; it is the connection between an aggregation policy, such as this legislation is designed to introduce, and the proposal for a 75 per cent ownership rule which would concentrate ownership into too few hands. If we had an ownership environment, the kinds of ownership rules here, which would allow and encourage the independence that we see in the United States to continue, aggregation would make sense.

That is the reason why the Australian Democrats have proposed for regional Australians a wider choice of commercial television services. In the first instance, the Government should provide supplementary licences for current licence holders for a set period so that they can prepare for aggregation and so that preparation can take place in an environment in which there is the possibility and much more likely the probability that ownership will not concentrate itself into a very few hands. We believe that a simple amendment to current broadcasting legislation will make this possible. We are not suggesting, and we have not favoured, the use of the current supplementary licence system. That system has suffered a great deal of criticism, on the Committee and subsequently, and with perhaps some justification.

The legislation to provide for supplementary licensing has had a beleaguered history since its introduction in 1980. Its provisions were extended in 1982, then restricted again in 1983 without any supplementary licences having been granted. In various debates the supplementary licence system has been criticised. The proposal which is abroad that this system should be done away with is a little unfair because it really has not had a chance to operate. On the other hand, Regional Television Australia Pty Ltd has reported that many regional licensees are convinced that the supplementary licence concept is a good means of bringing about additional television choice to regional areas. What we are suggesting is a refinement which we believe would speed up the process. We understand that the current operators have a monopoly in what is currently a fairly small market and, therefore, we suggest that aggregation should take place at a set time because there are concerns about markets being aggregated next door to other markets at different times, which could provide the possibility of neighbouring service providers having an unfair advantage.

Given that we do not expect this legislation to be successful, we hope that the Government will not run around the country bleating and beating its breast and saying: `Well, we tried, but we were not able to get you more television'. If this legislation were to pass, while on the surface it might appear that regional people would be getting more television and more choice, they would not. They would be plugged into a system of commercial networking which currently is becoming a networking out of Sydney because of connections and business decisions based purely on business imperatives and not on the need for diversity, choice, localism or anything else. Already it is quite nauseating sometimes watching network television, in particular news programs, containing a high content from other countries, in particular the United States. We might find ourselves struggling not just for localism for Bendigo, Ballarat or even Melbourne, but for localism for Australia as a whole as we are swallowed up by the media moguls and become just a network outpost for Los Angeles. This is a major concern and a possibility which must be avoided at all costs. Our major concern with this aggregation legislation, with the insistence that the only option for country people is three commercial networks, is that in the context of a 75 per cent ownership rule we are looking in fact at a restriction of localism, a restriction of choice, more of the same-which is the very thing that city people complain about so much.

I will touch briefly on other factors which have been mentioned already in this discussion. When I was looking at the evidence on the Committee, I was concerned at the cost to Australia of the necessary technological developments to provide three commercial channels under the proposals of this legislation. Billions of dollars worth of technical equipment would have to be imported to move to UHF transmission. The equipment is not available from Australia; it would all have to be imported. In our current economic situation, it seems to me and to the Australian Democrats to be absolutely ludicrous and somewhat suicidal. Alongside that is the question whether the stations could meet the deadlines set by the Government, because to provide all of the equipment necessary to bring UHF services to the vast expanses of regional Australia is a very large project and one which seems to me to have an enormous number of constraints, in addition to the financial issue that I have mentioned.

Evidence demonstrated that the process of setting up the two new UHF services meant that in many country areas there would be a loss of program choice for a substantial time while transmitters, translators and so forth were being set up. Those are some of the other areas in which we have concerns. Although we were opposed to this legislation before the Senate inquiry, more facts which were brought before us have caused us simply to harden our opposition, as has the experience of the proposed 75 per cent ownership rule. Although the Liberal Party opposes the passage of the Broadcasting Amendment Bill, I am concerned that its opposition is obviously not based on the same concern that the Australian Democrats have about the 75 per cent ownership rule and its impact in this whole area. The strongest evidence of that is the demotion of Ian Macphee from the front bench. The Opposition apparently has no quarrel with that 75 per cent ownership rule and appears prepared, along with the Government, to turn the Australian electronic media over to the hands of a very few, very powerful media operators, and that is a matter of great concern.

The Australian Democrats also oppose passage of the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill, and I cannot understand for the life of me why the Opposition does not since the Bill is simply consequent on the passage of the first Bill. However, I suppose that simply demonstrates the points which I made about the confusion of the Opposition's position on many aspects of this legislation and other legislation on communications and media ownership particularly. This is to the detriment of the Australian community as a whole, as are the Government's proposals.