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Tuesday, 28 April 1987
Page: 1909

Senator VIGOR(8.00) —The Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1986 and the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 1986 are a clear indication of what is wrong with the Government and the Department of Communications when it comes to proposing media policy. The Government seems to be more interested in looking after a few of its perceived mates in the large media networks and in the large media consortia than in looking after the people of Australia. The Bills purport to offer equalisation and more services to the people of regional Australia. In fact, these Bills would probably, if they pass this Parliament, do the opposite in that they would narrow down the options available for people and hand over more of our media to exactly the same people who control the large Sydney and capital city based networks. What we need is a policy that will promote variety, that will promote localism and that will meet the information and entertainment needs of all Australians in a stimulating and satisfactory way. I believe the Department of Communications would prefer to do things behind closed doors with a handful of predictable `clients' who require only periodic appeasement rather than deal with the real requirements of Australians out in the country, out in the regions and even out in our cities.

The way that the Department collapsed underneath the pressure of perhaps having to consider pay television applications shows that we stand little chance of being able to get any type of new technology in place before the 1990s. The Department has not been putting forward 1990 solutions for 1990 problems. In the case of pay television the Department persuaded Cabinet to impose a four-year moratorium-Senator Short has already mentioned this-and the amending legislation is shortly to come before us. This is typical of the methods of the Department-if the problem exists, define it out of existence; if doing nothing seems to get nowhere, one can continue doing nothing. This approach appears before us in two forms tonight: In relation to supplementary licences, and also in relation to the definition of gross earnings for the purpose of television licence fees. It has taken the Department about two years to deal with the question of gross earnings, after the courts indicated that the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal could not examine all the documents it needed in order to be satisfied that the correct amounts were being paid. At least the matter is now being tidied up, and we have the possibility of rebates. These rebates will be rebates of fees payable under certain circumstances.

If the trend towards networking continues, as it has recently, we will get more and more dumping of local content and of local employees. We have seen an example of this in the last break of Parliament, in the case of Channel 7 in Melbourne. As we get concentration and centralisation of ownership, we get concentration and centralisation of operations. This means that people will not get their local programs. Currently this is happening to our cities as the various networks centralise in Sydney. We must do something to contain this problem. The Government has the responsibility for providing a sensible and equitable system for controlling the air waves in this country and providing a service to individual Australians which they can rely on and enjoy. If we go into the type of proposal which the Government is putting forward in another Bill later, of 75 per cent audience reach as a criterion for ownership limitation rather than the limitation which is applicable in the United States, of 25 per cent of audience reach, we will find more and more that the production facilities, the distribution facilities and the news gathering facilities will become centralised in major cities, particularly in Sydney.

This particular legislation deals with regional television and the aggregation proposal, which on surface perusal may look reasonable. It is in fact the second try to solve the problems of these regional areas. We have had a previous proposal using supplementary licences. The Department is, I believe, trying to cover up its abject failure to administer the supplementary licence scheme properly by a variety of excuses. Some of its excuses sound quite good, but people who are good at making excuses are, unfortunately, seldom any good at doing anything else! The Department keeps on telling us how unwieldy and cumbersome the Fraser legislation was, and yet it was the Department's legislation then as it is now. It fails to mention its refusal to put forward fast track licence hearings as a possible improvement to this legislation, and it certainly neglects to mention is own failure to submit notices to the Broadcasting Tribunal. In the time since the Hawke Government announced that it would proceed with a supplementary licence scheme only one television proposal-that was for Canberra-has been submitted to the Tribunal. Only three radio proposals, two for Canberra and one for Mildura, have been put before the Tribunal, and three new services can be expected in the next few months.

In the case of Canberra's supplementary television licence we had the shameful attempt by the Minister last year to browbeat the Tribunal into breaking the law. The upshot has been that these hearings have remained stalled for months and there are no plans to resume them in the near future. I asked about this at Estimates committee hearings only recently and people looked at me blankly. People's money is involved, if we want to look at it from that point of view, and people's viewing is involved-the viewing of the people of Canberra. What is more, the Government has failed abjectly to face up to the responsibility with which it has been charged-the responsibility to properly manage the air waves. This is, indeed, government by Press release at its worst.

Millions of dollars have been spent in good faith by current licensees and independent applicants because they believed that the Government and the Department would in fact be properly implementing the legislation. This Government should publicly apologise to each of them, to all of them. Instead the Government has tried to piece together an arrangement which suits the current licensees or at least is not objectionable to the most influential of them. The Government has completely ignored the needs and wishes of the people of regional Australia. It has not really consulted them.

The Forward Development Unit has in fact operated with network television lobbies at its shoulder at every stage, telling it what to do. This is a Yes Minister operation of the highest order. When the Forward Development Unit was set to work within the Department, it was supposed to come up with medium and long term radio and television options for Australia. Within a couple of months the Unit had persuaded the Minister that it needed to deal exclusively with the short term options only and, surprise, surprise, that is exactly what happened.

The first public input-where assertions and assumptions were tested-happened only recently during the hearings of the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation. The total unsuitability of the Government's proposal become quite obvious at that stage and even Government senators on the Committee detected flaws in the legislation. I must commend them for putting forward improvements. They, unfortunately have been loftily dismissed by the Minister and the Cabinet. What is the purpose of the Senate? What is the purpose of these inquiries if they are going to be totally ignored by the Government? Are we standing here wasting our time? Maybe we are. Maybe the Parliament is being taken for a fool by the Government. I believe the Government has something else coming to it because this Senate is not going to accept the Government's shoddy legislation. The Government senators on the Committee wrote in their report that networking will not necessarily interfere with localism. I quote:

If the demand for local programming is as strong as regional licensees claim, the introduction of competitive services may even increase the degree of local programming.

This is the greatest amount of hogwash I have ever seen. That is illustrated very well by the recent sackings in Melbourne of HSV7 staff and the strike action which has followed-250 people on the staff at that station have objected to the rationalisation. We are told that rationalisation has been carried out with regret. A number of long-running and popular programs of local interest to the people of Melbourne have been given the axe. World of Sport and Day by Day fell by the wayside quite quickly and senior newsroom staff and presenters were also shoved out. Last week 78 more employees, mainly technicians and camera operators, were sacked. Some 250 production staff have gone on strike as a result.

If the Department ever got around to the implementation of the aggregation program would it result in the same type of disruption of regional television stations? I would uphold that there is a fair chance that this would happen. Indeed, this is the almost inevitable outcome of centralised operation in which management just decides that its objectives would be met better by squeezing out most of the locally originated programs or producing them completely centrally. Staff in the outlaying stations are sacked under the euphemism of rationalisation and programs are then networked. The original costs of production are recouped by dropping programs previously produced locally and replacing them with material from the heart of the empire. I believe that that is exactly what would happen in this three-way aggregation program because unfortunately this Government seems to be able to count up to three. It has trilogies, triumvirates, troikas and options A, B and C and I do not know what else but everything seems to go in threes.

Considering that there are three transmitting organisations in each aggregated area, it is significant that there are three major networks to which the Government wants to hand these regional stations. I have referred to last year's purchases in Melbourne, which still have to be ratified by the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and which probably could be considered to be beyond the current law. The same removal of local content, I believe, is inevitable if there is to be a service for all regional Queensland or if regional New South Wales is to be carved up into two areas. The identity and input of places such as New England, the Darling Downs and Cairns will be lost. The result will be the fairly rapid removal of all local content and a fairly direct handover of operations to Sydney-to the empires. These groups have absolutely no local heart.

The people of regional Australia need more services and they deserve these services which take their particular needs into account. They do not need to be subjected to the tyranny of the bottom line, which is all that Sydney considers. It should not be beyond the Government and the Department of Communications to find solutions which address the wishes of the people in regional Australia. Those wishes will vary from place to place; Australia is a diverse country. There is no reason why a sensible broadcasting policy cannot take account of this. For instance, in isolated areas one additional service run by the current licensee and a community input facility would go a long way towards meeting the requirements of the people. As Senator Puplick said in his very commendable dissenting report--

Senator Puplick —Excellent.

Senator VIGOR —`Excellent', says Senator Puplick so modestly! Fortunately, I agree with him totally; it is an excellent report. As Senator Puplick said, it is important to give people choice, diversity and local content; to give them what they want and to allow them to participate in their own television systems. The Government has not gone any way towards this. In places such as Canberra, Wollongong and Newcastle, there are natural surrounding regions and a fast track licensing process could establish whether independent licences are warranted in these areas. Similar examinations of other regions will turn up collections of communities with real interests in common where it would be possible to produce a coherent local program which would serve that community. A second independent service may be useful in these areas. In some bigger areas we may want a third service but this has to depend on the area. These matters have to be thrashed out in the open, not behind closed doors. They have to be thrashed out at public hearings with a reasonable opportunity for all views to be put forward, and cutting out the opportunity for deliberate delaying tactics which seem to have been the hallmark of communications legislation over the last few years.

The Senate Select Committee identified a clear need for a service which covers the Geelong area and the possibility of one covering the Cairns region. This was done in a matter of weeks, I must point out, on the basis of evidence submitted and tested in public. I believe that that type of process can be carried out in each part of Australia if we do not have a Communications Department which hides itself in a building in Canberra and does not go out and talk to other people but the large media owners.

Some exciting opportunities are left open to us. I believe that if we are going to deliver diversity to the people of regional Australia we can do that essentially by cherry picking-I have heard this said here before today-from each of the networks for two stations in each area. We would then get a much better program than the type of program which can be individually delivered from each network separately. We should then bring in a third service which has a charter complementary to those of the other stations to provide real diversity in those areas. Such a suggestion was put forward in submissions by Huw Evans, a notable broadcaster. This suggestion was canvassed in Senator Puplick's dissenting report.

The fact is that a channel 4-type proposal in the country would give more diversity, especially if it also had the type of community windows and local public television facilities that Senator Mason mentioned in his contribution to the debate. I believe that Australia deserves media that is two-way, not just one way; not just feeding us American ideas through the current network channels. The Department is giving a direct line from the American networks to our people in regional Australia. It is allowing us to be culturally indoctrinated and enslaved by that process. We need something very different-the ability for each community to determine what it wants.

What is more, we need to consider what type of television we will have in the next 10 years. We must actually look at the problems properly and realise that the types of channels that we will need will be high definition television, not just the normal VHF-UHF PAL systems that we are currently using. We must think about integrated services in which we can provide a general service of distribution, perhaps of long term current affairs on videotape or compact disc, built to fit in with the same instruments that we watch on a day-to-day basis. High definition television will also offer us a large number of opportunities. The advent of optic fibres in small, local, optical fibre regions with satellite dishes and with locally delivered programs on video cassettes that can be shown over a local regional cable or country town based radio frequency broadcasting system is an exciting option, but it is not being considered. The type of diversity that we can develop for country people would be the envy of every city person. It is not a matter of equalisation-of crushing everybody down to the same unimaginative grade of service; it is a matter of showing the imagination that is necessary to use the new types of technologies that are now available.

The fact is that people will want to talk to people. We will need community, educational and public access television to run in parallel with the commercial stations. The Government is taking a piecemeal approach. It is considering the national broadcasters such as the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Special Broadcasting Service-which it recently failed to destroy totally, through merger, because of the action of the Australian Democrats and the Opposition generally-in isolation from the commercial stations. It is considering not the service to people but the interests of the networks. That is exactly what we are fighting against, and that is why we are saying: `Gentlemen from the Communications Department, go back and think again. Do the job that we are paying you to do and advise your Minister in the way in which you have responsibilities to advise him, with an eye to the opportunities that are coming forward because of the advent of computers, which will allow switching of programs out of hours through satellites, the setting up of program databanks in regional areas and the merging of local contributions from local service clubs. Do that rather than try to hand this over to the monopolies that have been dominating our media to date'.

I want to say something about the cities. They need extra services through low-powered UHF transmitters or by cables. Those local services should be financed by a levy on the commercial channel in those cities which currently make an enormous killing at our expense. We are providing our air waves-and they are ours; they belong to the people of Australia-for those people to use in a restricted way. We are giving all that to them on a plate and we are also protecting their interests. We are taking very little money from them in areas such as video and audio entertainment and information services-VAEIS-through satellites. In fact, we are handing it to them pretty well free of charge. In the United States of America, ways have been developed to claw back public revenue from that process, and we should look at that system and impose similar levies on VAEIS and on our commercial television outlets. We should place limitations on those corporations. We should not worry whether they will go broke or will make a buck. We are giving them the privilege of being able to control our media and communicate with the population of Australia. They will pay for that and pay well if we ask. Why are we trying to protect those networks when they are quite big enough to protect themselves? Is it that the Government is afraid to disturb them lest they will not support us at the next election?

We must look now at more innovative models, which is why we are sending this Bill back to the Department. We are saying: `It is not good enough; consider things such as licensing two commercial stations, or maybe three in the most populous areas, with one further complementary charter service'. We are suggesting various things such as allowing spare capacity-a down time on complementary channels-to be available for educational programs such as the Open University in the United Kingdom or technical and further education courses.

We must grasp the opportunities that are offered by satellite and by the various communications means to produce viable, local and locally answerable television. We must also think about integrating, in some way or another, the national broadcasting services into this system. We have to provide a medium for public television in the long term at each level, irrespective of the fact that we are dealing with small communities. There are people at Yuendumu and Ernabella who are actually running public television on a shoestring; they are showing us what to do. Yet we are not prepared to look at the examples that have been put before us by the Aboriginal communities in those areas. Admittedly, they are small and isolated, but we have many small and isolated non-Aboriginal communities that could be capable of picking up those models and working with them effectively.

We are not looking for more American model television, with more soap opera and selling soap opera values. We are looking for local television with local values, with real values, with real ethics, directed towards the family, towards the community in which we live and towards survival in the world that we all understand. We should not try to get viewers to buy more and more wares from America or wherever else the network programs originated.

The Australian Democrats will be opposing the Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1986. In so doing we will be opposing the model that has been put forward by the Department. We will, however, be voting for the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill because it contains some long overdue reforms, some of which I have mentioned during my speech. I commend the latter Bill to the Senate and ask the Department: Why could it not have come two years earlier?