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Wednesday, 11 August 2004
Page: 26249


Senator LUNDY (11:13 PM) —The issue here is one of finding local content to be important enough to make the passage of this interim legislation conditional upon it. Labor reached that conclusion because, when we heard submissions through the Senate inquiry, when we took evidence and when we consulted far and wide in the Australian community, very clearly one of the greatest concerns was that we would not just lose the ability to legislate with respect to local content but we would be subject to a ratcheting down of those provisions.

That would have occurred under the legislation that we are now debating, because the wording in the agreement that the government negotiated clearly allowed for a lowering of the local content provisions in relation to commercial television and to advertising—55 per cent and 80 per cent respectively. The only way that we could prevent that ratcheting down and thereby ensure that the current levels were maintained was to put forward this amendment, which the government have accepted.

I would like to say that the fact that the government have accepted this amendment is an absolutely phenomenal concession from the Howard government that there was a problem. It was very interesting that, time after time, when I raised this issue both in and outside this chamber when we confronted the Howard government and Minister Kemp and asked them for assurances on local content, they were in fact forthcoming. The government consistently said: `It's fine. Don't worry—local content's been preserved. It can't be harmed; it can't be reduced.' And then—surprise, surprise!—when we look at the fine print, we see that it can be reduced via this ratcheting clause. This is one example of where the fine print of the free trade agreement betrayed the commitments and the rhetoric of the Howard government. It was the Labor initiated Senate inquiry process that drew out this fact, which in turn allowed Labor to move an appropriate amendment to address this particular issue.

It is worth traversing a little bit of the history of this particular amendment because, right at the start, when the Howard government started negotiating the free trade agreement, there was a clear indication from the Howard government that they would at least try to exclude cultural issues from this agreement—that they would at least have a go. On numerous occasions Senator Kemp stood up in this place, when asked by Labor, and said, `Don't you worry: culture will be just fine.' In fact, it was not until I think Mr Vaile's intervention—or it might even have been the Prime Minister's—when asked towards the end of the year about local content that he implied there would be some flexibility. I have to say this sent the sector and the opposition into a new response which was, `Hang on a minute—they're negotiating something different.' The concept of a cultural exclusion clause, similar to that in the Singapore free trade agreement, clearly was not on the cards. The prospect of what was called `standstill' started circulating. Standstill is effectively a freeze on the current local content provisions. Standstill was what the negotiators had already fallen back to at that point in the negotiation. We know that now, in retrospect. Standstill was effectively the position the government started to advocate—that they would allow the current local content quotas to be locked in place, albeit capped—and that was their rhetoric.

Then came the Senate inquiry, where the ratchet clause was discovered on the reading of the fine print. Let us get this clear: it was not until the government actually released the text of the free trade agreement that the truth of the ratchet clause actually became apparent. Nowhere before that was it mentioned. So it was only through that process and that insistence that the ratchet clause became apparent and led to a number of submissions reflecting on it throughout the Senate inquiry. Certainly the JSCOT formed the view that, if for some reason we were to lower those percentages in the future, that was acceptable on the basis of the terms and conditions that the Howard government had put forward. I think Labor's attaching this condition is not only justified but has served the purpose of exposing an effort by the Howard government to specifically mislead about the effect of freezing or capping those local content provisions. That is the importance of this.

The other thing I would like to address is the role that local content plays and why it is important. One of the many reasons it is important is that we know that the economics of the purchase of content for commercial television stations now works against the production of Australian content. We know, whether it is by economies of scale or other labour market factors, that it is very difficult for Australian produced content—particularly new content—to compete with content produced in other markets. That being the case, and given that commercial television stations are not concerned with the source or origin of their content but instead with what rates—and second-hand programs and the equivalent of back catalogue in soapies can easily fill those spaces on weeknights—we know that, unless there was compulsion through these local content quotas, local content would not be produced. The local content quotas impose a rigorous discipline on our commercial television stations to make the effort to produce Australian content—Australian drama, Australian documentaries, Australian children's shows et cetera—because without that we would not be able to see that work. We would not be able to see ourselves reflected in what we watch on our televisions.

Other jurisdictions have increasingly become aware of how important having local content, and the capacity to produce it, is to the whole sense of cultural or regional identity, particularly in the context of globalisation, which has many positive impacts as well as negative impacts. One of the important cross-references that national governments and federal governments can have is to ensure that communities have the ability to produce for themselves content that relates to their life and their life experiences. Beyond the need to do that for ourselves, I would like to turn to a more far-sighted vision: the potential of Australian content. We need the local content provisions to make sure we have something there, but they will serve a dual purpose—they also maintain a general capability in the television and film production area. We have people with the skills, we have studios, we have commercial television stations making an effort and being required to so, and we have local talent being nurtured and provided with experience.

The far-sighted vision is that it is not just about fulfilling quotas but extending beyond that and looking towards the export opportunity that exists within the fact that Australia produces great content—not just because we have to but because it is in demand. The saddest reflection on the Howard government's failings is that not only do they continually fail to recognise the basics, like preventing a lowering of our local content quotas, but they also forget about the potential of our film and television industry that would exist if there were a proactive strategy to invest in it as a nation. I believe that potential is great. Australian products, whether they are our drama series, our films or our short films—and we have seen recent success with Harvie Krumpet—are highly sought after and indeed form a critical element of the economics of sustaining our sector.

Far from being short-sighted in allowing local content to be ratcheted down, Labor's amendment is now being supported by the government to prevent that ratcheting down. The opportunity for our content-producing sector to grow as digital technologies converge even further is there for the taking. That is why, as part of Labor's policy statement on local content quotas, we will be putting together a package for the film and television industry. We know that there is untapped potential. That potential has been unable to be released by the Howard government, for a range of reasons—not least because of the downturn being experienced in, and the lack of attention being paid at a policy level to, the film and television sector but also because of other decisions that date back a few years relating to digital television, the lack of investment paid to the ICT sector and digital content production generally. It was only last year that the government discovered digital content and wrote an action agenda. It was about five years after the moment, although it was good to see that they finally acknowledged it existed.

We have gone through a dotcom boom period where every other developed country in the world mapped out a substantial plan for the future of their content and how they were going to build it within their own communities and seek export opportunities. Australia under the Howard government languished and did little to create an economic, cultural and social opportunity. This is the environment in which this free trade agreement has been negotiated. In this environment we will not now be able to expand those local content quotas. In this environment it will be a future Labor government that seeks to shore up the capability of putting local content quotas on the media, another area of neglect by the Howard government that we have identified. Why would you allow that sort of ambiguity in new media, when Labor know that new media is a big part of our future export opportunities in the production of content?

All of these issues form part of the challenge. That is why in moving this amendment Labor have not only exposed the Howard government's trickiness and deceitfulness in allowing that downward ratchet clause but also identified the need to put in place a sure-fire mechanism to allow us to legislate for local content quotas in a variety of new media. It is hard to define, because we do not know what those technologies will be. But should that fact alone prevent this parliament and a future Labor government from having the right to legislate to ensure that Australian content has a presence in those forms of media? I do not think so. We should have that right, and we have identified that as part of our plan. This local content debate has shown that the Howard government do not really care about it. They did not care enough to remove the ratchet clause. They did not care enough when they negotiated this agreement to make the exclusion of cultural content a high priority. It has been left up to Labor to fill in the gaps and fix this problem.