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Thursday, 24 March 1994
Page: 2211

Senator BOURNE —My question is addressed to the Minister representing the Minister for Communications and the Arts. Is the minister aware of an item on this morning's Radio National Media Report concerning a person who has bought at least 53 open narrowcast licences and is now the subject of serious allegations over his financial dealings with the subagents and the contractors involved? Does the minister agree that the cost of litigation would prevent most of the complainants from seeking redress through the courts and that the Australian Broadcasting Authority has no power to help them? What action will the minister take to evaluate the complainants' concerns and to help them if their complaints are found to be warranted? Finally, will the minister propose amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act to allow the ABA to cancel open narrowcast licences if the licensee proves not to be a suitable person?

Senator FAULKNER —The Minister for Communications and the Arts has advised me that he is aware of the item on the Media Report about the allegations referred to, which I understand concern non-payment of commissions by Mr Ashton. I have also been advised that in order for there to be no confusion on this issue the point must be made that the services that Senator Bourne is concerned about, open narrowcast services, are licensed under a class licensing system under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992.

  Unlike mainstream broadcasting services, open narrowcast services are not individually licensed. An operator of an open narrowcast service simply obtains a technology licence—for example, a Radiocommunications Act transmitter licence—from the Australian Broadcasting Authority or the Spectrum Management Agency. Provided the operator meets the class licence conditions laid down in the Broadcasting Services Act, there are no other restrictions. It is important to note that under this regime there is no suitability test for operators of these services.

  The minister advises me that the reason for this is that the regime reflects the niche broadcasting character of narrowcast services. The reception of these services is limited by being targeted to special interest groups or by providing programs of limited appeal, limited time period or geographical reach. The degree of regulation is therefore much less than that applying to mainstream broadcasters.

  In response to Senator Bourne's specific questions about Mr Ashton, the minister cannot comment on the cost of any litigation which persons involved in this matter may initiate. As far as any help which the ABA might provide, that would be a matter for the ABA to consider. There are no powers available to the minister under the Broadcasting Services Act to assist persons with claims against the operators of narrowcast services.

  These persons must seek their own legal advice on the appropriate way to seek redress. The minister does not consider that amendments to the Broadcasting Services Act are necessary as the matters at issue appear to relate solely to business arrangements entered into by the parties concerned. There are already adequate penalties available under the legislation for any breach of licence conditions.