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Wednesday, 27 May 1998
Page: 3175

Senator MARGETTS (11:52 AM) —In listening to the debate so far today, I have been very cheered to see issues of public interest brought up continually, in particular by the ALP. I took particular interest in that because for some time, in fact since before 1995, we have been dealing with the issue of competition policy, that is, the major shift in policy that has occurred—and we know that it is supported by both major parties—where everything that can be done by the private sector and everything that can be opened up to the market will be opened up to the market. This is an ongoing process. What happened in 1995 is not the be-all and end-all. We are involved in this process as we speak and in the end, by legislation, we will be required to open sectors up to the market unless there are exemptions, and I have not seen any.

I find their contributions encouraging but also concerning because public interest was never a strong point of the 1995 competition policy legislation. Whether it is opening up markets, opening up public provision of services to the market or, as in this case, privatising what is currently a public asset, we have no legislative guarantee that the public interest will prevail. It is all very well for the Labor Party to rail against the ignoring of public interest in this regard, but they did not listen in 1995. They are still resisting and, in fact, they told me they would not vote for an inquiry—a long overdue inquiry—into the social impacts of competition policy. That motion stayed on the Senate Notice Paper for weeks—in fact, probably months—waiting to see whether there was some iota of support in the Labor Party for looking at the whole gamut of issues involved with competition policy to see if we can responsibly assess, as a community and as a parliament, whether we are going in the right direction and whether we have put public interest in the right place in terms of public policy. And they have resisted it.

We know the government is likely to resist it. We know that in 1995 there was a Labor government and a different Prime Minister, but there is time to reassess that now. It is no good saying, every time one of these issues comes up, `The government of the day is not acting in the public interest' when we had the chance, and still have the chance, of assessing whether we can put public interest more strongly into the competition policy regime.

I will move to the Greens (WA) position in relation to the National Transmission Network Sale Bill. The Greens (WA) are not convinced that the sale of the national transmission network is ostensibly in the public interest. The plan is to sell off the range of assets currently contained in the National Transmission Agency. Essentially, the assets consist of transmitters used to broadcast ABC and SBS television and radio programs throughout Australia. The government's argument is that it will enhance customer service through competition. In addition, the government proposes that the sale will benefit the public by retirement of debt.

Going back to the debate we had in 1995, what we could find out in 1995 from both major parties was that public interest equals competition equals public interest. It was a circular argument. There were some exemptions but they were very limited. We find these arguments less than convincing. Competition and debt retirement seem to be the government's catchcry and pet argument whenever they cannot think of a rational reason to pursue their endless privatisation and deregulation agenda. We heard it with Telstra and the banks, and the same line has been pushed again in relation to the national transmission network. It is highly questionable whether increased so-called competition and debt retirement are in the public interest in this case. While these things are not necessarily bad in principle, it is necessary to look at the costs associated with going down this track. It is also necessary to look at alternative means of achieving the same results.

The national transmission network, under Commonwealth control, is an extremely efficient network. As mentioned by other speakers, in the last few years it has dramatically expanded its network and, in doing so, has performed an admirable role in extending radio and television access. A lot of that has come, I have to add, by parliamentary pressure. It could be pork-barrelling and it could be before elections, but parliamentary pressure has added to that. Pressures within electorates, we know, have added to that.

The national transmission network has spent a lot of money keeping its equipment up to speed, despite funding cuts. Over the last few years, the national transmission network has not only updated and expanded its services but has also managed to implement significant savings in its recurrent costs. As the NTN is already providing excellent and efficient service to its customers and the community at large, the claims of efficiency through competition—another of the famous catchcries of government, despite any evidence to the contrary—does not hold much water. When you cream off the profit margins here, who is getting more benefit than they got before?

The Greens (WA) have major concerns about the continuation of national coverage and customer service obligations in regional, rural and remote areas. We have already heard of the plans to make digital telephones and television services compulsory and to cut off the access to analogs. This is another situation where, in the future, technology itself may cut off access, and what direct implications does that have for parliamentary input into the provision of services?

Facilities in the bush are faced with yet another threat by this sale. The community service obligations are a watered down version of what is already in existence, and we have seen that before. Whenever there is a government asset for sale, in order to push up the price, they reduce the compliance for those networks. So instead of having more oversight and more regulations, as they would usually do in America when there is a public service provided by a private provider, they are actually having less; and I find that extraordinary.

The government is making noises along the lines of `she'll be right, mate'. The government plans to ensure national coverage through the contract with the purchaser of the network. This is clearly an unsatisfactory arrangement. Any protections or assurances of access in the bush should be in this bill so that the parliament can determine whether or not they are adequate. Will the contract ensure quality of access? Will it even ensure current access? What about the price of continued access? What about those rural and regional areas that do not have current coverage? There are no promises made about extending coverage to those people who do not already have access.

Remember that, under corporate law, the primary obligation of the corporation which purchases the national transmission network, whether they are from Australia or from overseas, is to their shareholders. They will do whatever is best to enhance the profits of their shareholders. If that means cutting, reducing or limiting access to services in remote and regional areas in Australia, under corporate law that is what they must do unless there are laws to tell them otherwise. We note that commercial broadcasters will be provided with a grant to operate in declared remote areas. This grant should be extended to national and community broadcasters.

Long-term access to transmission facilities for the ABC and SBS is another issue that is still up in the air. The bill assures access for the next five years, but what will happen after that? Will we be assured by another wink and a `she'll be right' from the government? The ABC and SBS will undoubtedly be in under dog positions when it comes to doing their own bargaining when the five years is up. They will be bargaining with owners in a distinct monopoly position. As the government has acknowledged—and, indeed, is proud of—the ABC and SBS will be in a direct commercial relationship with a provider. A direct commercial relationship comes with all the power imbalances that come with any monopoly provider and with all the pressures to make direct commercial decisions and not public interest decisions.

Another concern is that the national interest objectives of the ABC and SBS will be undermined. The Friends of the ABC are concerned that working in a commercial context could put unwanted and unwarranted pressure on the ABC and SBS to cede to commercial interests, especially when the five years are up. On top of that, the ABC and SBS are reliant on the government to fund their access to the network. How long will that last? Promises of funding have been made and broken in the past. The promise of maintaining funding in real terms to our national broadcasters has proved to be hollow. Our national broadcasters have had to feel the pain and have been made sacrificial lambs every year when the knife comes out at budget time—of course, this is less so in an election year. Not only are the ABC and SBS faced with the uncertainty of continued access but also they will not know the price of access or whether the government will provide adequate funding.

The government claims that the ABC and SBS want this direct commercial relationship and that it is just playing fairy godmother in making that wish come true. Obviously I have heard from representatives of the ABC and SBS, as have many other players in this debate. They said to me quite clearly that they want to have some aspect of control of the network. Will this do it for them? I think the government misstates the position of the ABC and SBS in this regard. What they really want is, as I said, greater control of the transmission network. This does not necessarily mean the sale of the national transmission network. We would argue that, with the sale of the network, the ABC and SBS potentially may have less control through public accountability. So, yes, they do want some control of the network and to have a greater say in transmission. I am not entirely sure that, in the current commercial environment, this is necessarily in the best interests of consumers in remote and regional Australia—that still has to be argued. Does the sale of the network give them greater control? This is yet to be proved.

The government could have allowed the ABC and SBS greater control by directly funding their transmission costs and providing them with control of the radio communications spectrum used to broadcast their services. The sale of the national transmission network does not have to be a step towards giving greater control; in fact, it may lead in the other direction. Although I imagine that it would be heresy if the government extended the funding to the ABC and SBS when it was something it could flog off to service debt, it is something that should be considered.

Community broadcasters are also under threat. These energetic and colourful broadcasters do not, under this bill, receive any kind of supplement or real guarantee of access to transmission facilities. The government is showing a complete lack of understanding of the role and importance of community broadcasters. They play an important and unique role that cannot be replaced by commercial broadcasters. They present a diversity of views and opinions that provides a unique service which caters to local people. Many community broadcasters would go under if they had to pay full prices for access to broadcasting services. This would be a grave loss to the community and a significant reduction in diversity. But maybe it is in the interests of the government to have those voices silenced. Is this the kind of vision that the government has for the future of Australia?

Another concern relates to who will buy the national transmission network. There are no limits on foreign ownership, for a start. Also, the bill makes no provision for potential conflicts of interest if a commercial broadcaster bought the network. What are the implications there? Will there be any restrictions in the legislation? No. For instance, if there were a breakdown in the network, the commercial services would be repaired ahead of the national broadcasters.

All in all, the Greens have not been convinced that the government has provided enough assurances to the Australian community. We have been asked to stand at the abyss and to take a leap of faith that things will work out better not only for the bottom lines of broadcasters—the ABC and SBS—but also for the provision of services to the Australian community. We are talking about short-term budget bottom lines as opposed to long-term interests. I have strongly argued that we have never assessed long-term Australian public interest in relation to competition policy; the Labor Party has resisted us doing that. Now that we have more and more examples of where this is going wrong without any real control by the parliament, maybe the Labor Party will agree that it is time to go back and look at public interest and the social impacts of competition policy. The benchmark should be community service, not an ideological agenda. This bill does not address the real impacts of service provision in Australia.