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Tuesday, 28 April 1987
Page: 1919

Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Resources and Energy)(9.13) —The Minister for Communications (Mr Duffy) said in his second reading speech on the Broadcasting Amendment Bill and the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill in the House of Representatives last year that the Broadcasting Amendment Bill is an historic one because it provides the legislative framework for a major expansion of the Australian broadcasting system. I think it ought to be appreciated that this legislation reflects the Government's continuing determination to give five million Australians who live in country areas access to the same television choice which has been available to most metropolitan viewers for 20 years. The Government is not prepared to accept that 35 per cent of Australians should have access to only one commercial television service and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It is both unnecessary and inequitable, with today's technology, that this situation be allowed to continue. Regional Australia is entitled to a level of commercial television services commensurate with that enjoyed in the mainland capital cities. They are the objectives that the Government had in mind in bringing forward this legislation and those are the objectives that we persist with in now bringing the Broadcasting Amendment Bill to a vote.

I have not heard the course of the debate today, being out of Canberra, and under those circumstances it would be even more difficult than usual to give a comprehensive second reading reply. In winding up the debate, I simply want to restate the priority the Government attaches to these Bills and refer again to the interdependency of them with the proposed legislation to be introduced in the House of Representatives later this week to abolish the so-called two-station rule and replace it with a 75 per cent population reach rule with appropriate cross-media ownership restrictions. The policy objectives contained in the legislation now before the Senate are inherently linked with and complementary to these proposed amendments on ownership and control. Such is the nature of the equalisation legislation that the Government has predicated certain aspects of the ownership and control changes on passage of this legislation.

I repeat that a major objective of the equalisation legislation is the creation of large competitive markets to address the perceived imbalance between the smaller regional licensees and the larger capital city-based networks. It also has the objective of creating an opportunity for other operators to have a greater capacity to influence programming and local production.

If the two-station rule is to be lifted, and the structural imbalance addressed, a necessary corollary is access to larger markets in a competitive environment. This legislation creates such markets. Regional licensees, to avail themselves of changes in the ownership and control provisions, must have access to larger competitive markets.

I note that the Opposition shares with the Government the view that the two-station rule should be lifted although, as has been evident from the dissenting reports in the Senate Select Committee on Television Equalisation report before us now and in keeping with, I suppose one might say, the general state of the parties opposite, there are several competing views on this issue.

As the Senate is aware, certain commercial transactions have taken place since the date of the Minister's announcement on 27 November. That is something of an understatement, I suppose, but the reality is that the television industry itself has commenced the process of change and realignment. Not to pass the equalisation legislation in its present form is not only to deny additional competitive services in regional Australia, which is the objective that I have obviously been focusing on so far, but also to introduce considerable commercial and legal uncertainties into the commercial television industry, which is already adjusting to wider commercial realities. Therefore, the Government regards as really quite critical the intrinsic nexus between this legislation and the proposed ownership and control legislation.

Senator Vigor —So do we; that is why we are not voting for it.

Senator GARETH EVANS —I urge all honourable senators opposite, including the more recently vocal of them, to carefully consider not only the objectives entailed in this legislation, which focuses on more commercial services for regional Australia, but also the wider strategic proposals affecting the future development and structure of commercial television in Australia. The Government has made several decisions that have been long overdue, and they require legislation that this chamber must properly consider in the national interest. I commend these Bills to the Senate.

Senator Lewis —I ask that the questions for the second reading of these Bills be put separately, although the Bills themselves have been debated cognately.

Question put:

That the Broadcasting Amendment Bill 1986 be read a second time.