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Wednesday, 27 May 1998
Page: 3168

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL —(11.17 a.m.)—The national transmission network carries television and radio signals for the ABC, SBS, some commercial radio and TV stations and vital community services, such as Radio for the Print Handicapped. It includes 1,197 radio and television transmitters used to broadcast ABC and SBS radio and television services from 547 owned and leased sites and 520 transmitters belonging to 167 licensed broadcasters. There is also a large number of other transmitters housed for radio communications, police and emergency services and other services.

Due to expansion over the last few years, the agency has the potential to reach 18 million Australians, which significantly includes rural and regional Australia. The national transmission network is part of the National Transmission Agency, a separate cost centre operating on a commercial basis outside the department of communications. From all accounts, the NTA is an efficient operation. Over the last few years the NTA has undergone extensive changes in its operations. Telstra held a monopoly over this outsourced operation and maintenance role of the network, but under competitive tendering it now shares the work with Broadcast Communications Ltd, a division of Television New Zealand Australia Pty Ltd. BCL is the forerunner to acquire the NTN. A company from the United States, Castle Group, has also emerged as another frontrunner in the bid to acquire the national transmission network.

Tendering resulted in savings of $20 million in 1995-96. Once again, we see an Australian owned enterprise, which is efficient, about to pass into foreign ownership. It is also worth noting that there was a scoping study done for the sale of the NTN by the government, the results of which have not been released. The sale is not in our national interest and will not lead to any economic or social efficiencies. As Stewart Fist pointed out in his article in the Australian earlier this year, the fee and budget estimates match, meaning little real long-term gain, only short term, which is a way of borrowing against budgets of future governments who will have to bear the cost.

At the public hearing on 5 February 1998, the Office of Assets Sales and Information Technology Outsourcing and the Department of Communications and the Arts were unable to provide specific examples of any efficiencies that would occur as a result of the sale of the NTN. The bill outlines that transmission coverage for the ABC and the SBS will be funded by the government for the next five years for the purchasers of the national transmission network. The onus, therefore, is on the broadcasters to ensure quality of coverage. There will be a direct commercial relationship between the ABC and the SBS and the transmission carriers, where previously the link was mediated through the government. The government is ridding itself of responsibility to all Australians, particularly those in rural and regional areas.

On Monday of this week, representatives of the ABC and the SBS came to my office to speak to me about this bill, to tell me that they support it. I listened to them as they outlined the reasons for their support. The Senate legislation committee which examined this bill heard from representatives of the SBS, witnesses who stressed that the sale of the NTN facilities provided them with the more flexible delivery opportunity that they had been seeking for a number of years. It is okay for our national broadcasters to support this sale. Access to transmission services for them is guaranteed in the bill. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for our community and self-help broadcasters. The question arises that, once the NTA is privatised, will the ABC and the SBS have to have an additional sum of money to pay the new privatised owner the recurrent cost of running the services? There may also need to be an additional fee to cover the capital cost, the amount that these companies will tender to purchase the network. Has any research been done into this issue? Does the minister responsible have any comment or response? I eagerly await his reply.

What guarantees are there for the maintenance of existing services and service quality, particularly after the five-year contractual agreements have run out? There is an option for the bodies involved to renew for two terms of five years on terms and conditions to be negotiated. How much will our national broadcasters have to pay for transmission services? Will they be priced out of the market? Perhaps this is a long-term objective of the Howard government: a great way to save money, to starve the ABC of funding by then starving the ABC and the SBS of ready access to government controlled transmission of services and then forcing them to close, saving even more money.

The ALP dissenting report points out that there is also the problem of a conflict of interest should a commercial broadcaster purchase the NTA. Commercial programming and services could be prioritised by the potential commercial broadcaster to the detriment of ABC and SBS services. Also there are no guarantees that the ABC and the SBS will continue to receive sufficient funds to maintain and improve their services.

Following on from this, the national transmission network sale has particular importance for rural and regional communities, where often the ABC and SBS are the main media and information links with the rest of the world. The NTA annual report for 1995-96 states that almost 90 per cent of the value of transmission assets has been provided to serve regional Australia. That clearly is a big investment on the part of federal governments over the last six years.

In its submission to the Senate legislation committee, the Department of Communications and the Arts said that the access regime provisions in the legislation would ensure that residents of remote areas would continue to receive the same level of broadcasting service after the sale of NTN as being received currently. Yet the bill itself contains no guarantees regarding maintenance of service in regional and rural areas. Also, there is uncertainty over the role that the future owner of the NTA will have in the planning of transmitting facilities in rural and regional Australia.

A great deal of the argument being used against the full privatisation of Telstra and the potential flogging off of Australia Post can be used for this sale. Many Australians in rural and regional areas now rely on new technologies, such as the Internet and e-mail, to keep in touch with the rest of the world. An article which was published in the Bulletin earlier this month outlines the problems that may arise with the full privatisation of Telstra. Even though only partly privatised now, many claim that maintenance services have been reduced already. This serves as a dangerous example for the transmission of radio and television under a privatised national transmission network.

The real fear, of course, is that there will not be any expansions or upgrades in our rural and regional areas, as a private sector transmission company will be more interested in metropolitan areas as they will be more profitable. This will lead to a decline of services over time with the possibility that, if something goes wrong, if there is an outrage when broadcasting goes down, it will take a long time to be fixed or it will not be fixed at all.

The last few years have seen an expansion of the network into regional Australia. In 1996-97 the ABC's youth radio network, Triple J, was extended into an another eight regional centres. This extended the audience by 3.7 million, and makes Triple J accessible to 80 per cent of the Australian population, or 14.5 million people. The expansion program of Triple J has been an ongoing one. Announced in the 1993-94 federal budget, the then Labor government said that it would bring the youth service to 44 regional communities via the NTA transmission network. Prior to this, Triple J was heard only in the six state capitals and Darwin, Newcastle and Canberra. Now people in Geraldton and Kalgoorlie, Mackay and Mt Isa, and Broken Hill can listen to Triple J, bringing young people and the young at heart in these rural areas into contact with the pre-eminent youth radio station in the nation.

But it is not only our younger generation that have benefited from the NTA's expansion of services and transmission. ABC TV, Radio National and local radio were brought to new audiences by way of 33 transmitters in 1996-97, and SBS was extended to two major regions. Radio National now has 235 transmitters compared with the nine it had in 1981. Even up until January of this year, the network was expanding due to transmission being extended in Queensland, with further expansions expected into rural New South Wales and Victoria.

Further, another two NTA translator facilities were installed in Tasmania under the Tasmania broadcasting development program; the ABC's Classic FM was extended to Warrnambool; and agreement was reached with a pay TV operator to share NTA facilities in Tamworth. While on the subject of expansion of the network, the NTA also has a role to play in testing, development and improvements in the quality of service and transmission, more recently running trials using the latest technology, digital radio broadcasting, in conjunction with the Department of Communications and the Arts.

The future roll-out of digital terrestrial television has been delayed due to the prospect of the sale of the network. Trials were to begin last September but have been pushed back to June 1998. This is one of the major challenges that will face whatever is left of the NTA after the sale. Up until now the network has had the opportunity to provide the best transmission services for rural and regional Australians. Now it will be dependent on the profit motive and money saving, rather than on providing services. That must be a major disappointment for all Australians but particularly for those who live in regional and rural areas. Community organisations, such as community television and radio, need the current services to be maintained, or they will be unable to keep on operating if fees for transmission are increased. This is a real threat.

From the 1995-96 annual report of the NTA, about one-third of the broadcasting transmitters on NTA sites are used to broadcast services other than the ABC or SBS. These are not all community self-help or emergency services; there are some commercial broadcasters involved. They utilise 522 of the 1,719 transmitters across the network. Commercial services utilise 418 transmitters; community services, 24 transmitters; and self-help systems, 61 transmitters. What this indicates is that there are a number of transmissions, other than those of ABC and SBS, that will be seriously affected by the sale of the network.

The Minister for Family Services, the Honourable Warwick Smith, assured the parliament that self-help groups, emergency service operators and remote commercial satellite service providers will be protected by the access regime. Capped charges and contracts or supplementary funding will ensure that they are not financially disadvantaged. This is lucky for them, but not for all the other community providers and broadcasters. Community broadcasters will be the hardest hit. They will be the first ones to feel the pinch when access and transmission fees are increased, and the least able to afford to continue broadcasting.

The ALP dissenting report indicated the grave concern that the community service obligations contained in the bill are more limited than those currently in existence. There are no guarantees on charging and access issues and community broadcasters are concerned that they will be forced to close down if they are charged market rates. Also, the legislation has ignored the needs of the hearing impaired.

While the member for Bass talked about capping, there is no guarantee on how long it will last. Senators can rest assured that the capping or supplementary funding will expire and these other broadcasters—and I am particularly concerned about the community broadcasters—will be left in the lurch. They will be abandoned and unable to serve their communities because of the Howard government which is intent on selling off everything to the detriment of our rural and regional communities.

The sale of the national transmission network could only have a detrimental impact on broadcasting, particularly in rural and regional Australia. Again, the Australian people are faced with another sell-off of a national asset that may not be as well-known as another of our communications facilitators, Telstra, but is just as important to those in our rural and regional areas.

This government appears oblivious to community and social concerns about the importance of the provision and quality of these services; services that will no doubt be downgraded or lost when the NTA is sold. The sell-off of the national transmission network is just another sign of the mantra of the Howard government. It has major implications for regional and rural Australia, which again, despite the rhetoric of the Howard government, suffer the worst effects of its policies.