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Wednesday, 16 August 2006
Page: 31

Senator HUMPHRIES (11:57 AM) —I am very pleased to contribute to this debate on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2005 [2006]. I note that, until Senator Eggleston rose to speak, there had been something of a lack of discussion about the contents of the bill itself.

This bill is a rather narrowly defined piece of legislation. It is, I should say, a very important one for the people of rural and remote Western Australia, but it is not a piece of legislation that covers the gamut of issues that have been raised by other speakers in the course of the debate. Nonetheless, acknowledging that these debates are an opportunity for some broadening of the base of discussion, I am pleased to acknowledge the importance of these particular proposals for the people of Western Australia. Senator Eggleston has very amply explained how this will make rational use of the available spectrum in Western Australia and how it will ensure that viewers in remote parts of that state, where vast distances are a significant issue, will be in a position to receive a quality service which is more commensurate with that available to viewers in metropolitan areas of Australia.

I particularly note that this is part of a very important program of the federal government to ensure that we carefully and prudently manage what is a finite resource—that is, the allocation of spectrum for digital broadcasting and for broadcasting generally—and ensure that we have a capacity to provide a high-quality and competitive service, one that meets the needs and expectations of Australian consumers and pays regard to the changing technological environment in which the rollout occurs so that, by the time the switch-over occurs, sometime after 2010, it will be possible for Australians to say that they have state of the art access to digital television, to high-definition television and to a suitable range of options with free-to-air broadcasting that reflect best practice from around the world.

I believe that the plan the government has put in place—and the Digital Action Plan will give flesh to that plan, as outlined by the minister in her statement earlier this year—is an effective way of achieving that goal. I hope that those who complain about this plan and have some criticism of its direction will at least do the Senate and the Australian public the courtesy of spelling out very clearly where it is that they would take Australia, if not in the direction which the government has announced.

I heard in Senator Conroy’s speech that the Labor Party endorses some of the policies that the government has announced—for example, the lifting of the genre restrictions on ABC and SBS television. I also note that the Labor Party opposes much else that is in the government’s package, or at least criticises the timing of that package and the timing of the decisions made under that package. But I still have a very significant lack of clarity or understanding about what the Australian Labor Party’s alternative vision is for digital rollout in Australia for access to multichannelling and related issues. I hope—perhaps a little forlornly—that that will be made clearer by other speakers in the course of this debate. I further note the point that has been made already that this bill has been criticised for having taken too long to reach the floor of the Senate. But I observe that if it had not been for the Labor Party refusing to give the bill non-controversial status, it might have been able to be debated in this place long before now.

So we have a very important piece of legislation on the table for the viewers of Western Australia. This reflects an emerging and changing environment in that state, for people to be able to access services in a rational and sensible way. The model includes the joint provision by WIN and Prime of a third, digital-only commercial television service under section 38B of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, and it is applicable to the remote central and eastern licence areas as well as the north of the state.

There has been some adjustment of the timetable for rolling out the services to the people of Western Australia. I think it is important to observe at this point that that reflects the fact that the technology involved in these services and the cost-effectiveness of rolling out those technologies are matters of some sensitivity that need to be the subject of negotiation. It is pointless for government to mandate that certain services be provided when it is not economical to provide them. It is equally inappropriate for government to attempt to deregulate an environment in which there is substantial expectation on the part of existing operators that they will have certainty of a return on their own investment in services in this area. Adjustments of this kind have been necessary in this legislation and will be necessary into the future to ensure that what we have here is a sustainable provision of services to people across Australia.

Since the introduction of the bill, both WIN and Prime in Western Australia have continued to develop plans for the introduction of their digital television services in the remote parts of Western Australia. Both broadcasters have indicated that this planning is now well advanced and subject to passage of the legislation this year. I understand that they are planning to commence the digital transmission of their current television services in remote parts of the state in 2007. A third service by a third provider will commence sometime shortly thereafter. That is good news for the people of the state.

I made reference a moment ago to the Digital Action Plan. That is an extremely important framework for digital conversion in this country and particularly for bringing into focus the time when Australians will be told that analog broadcasting will end and digital broadcasting will be the exclusive way in which people receive free-to-air broadcasting. Despite criticism from those opposite, we need to acknowledge that this is a very delicate and sensitive matter which needs to be the subject of very careful discussion and consultation by the government. The Digital Action Plan has been under development for some time. It has been consulted about with stakeholders over that period and I understand it is due to be released later on this year.

The plan will certainly attempt to clarify the switch-over commencement date and the expectation of course that it will be between 2010 and 2012. It will commence a process for determining the switch-over mechanism so that everybody concerned is able to say with certainty what their obligations and time frame will be, both broadcasters and providers of television sets. The plan seeks to publish a task list identifying major tasks which should be undertaken, the time frames in which they should be undertaken and the stakeholders responsible for carrying out those tasks. It will include appropriate incentives for industry and consumers to foster digital television take-up. It will address issues involved in the conversion of self-help retransmission services, community television and television narrowcast services, and it will set out consultative and coordination arrangements for progressing the switch-over date.

This is an important timetable, not just for providers of services but also for consumers. Consumers need to have some idea of what life they might expect from televisions they purchase which have a limited capacity to receive digital broadcasts. They need to know at what point in time their televisions which are based on obsolete technology will become unusable. So settling and clarifying that switch-over date is very important for them as well. No doubt, some people will think ahead to those issues and will want to know that, if they buy an analog television at this point in time, they will get three, four, five or six years life out of it before it needs to be replaced. I have a television at home which is quite a lot older than that. I expect that it will have to be replaced at some point. For me, knowing when that switch-over date is going to occur would be a very useful piece of information and I am sure it would be for many Australians.

It is important to implement a plan of this kind to move digital conversion forward and to reduce the costs of simulcasts to both government and broadcasters. Of course, most importantly, it is designed to free up spectrum so that these other uses that have been discussed in this debate, such as multichannelling and datacasting, can be implemented.

The Digital Action Plan will be an iterative process that will need to be developed cooperatively and in close consultation with stakeholders. It will need to be able to be updated, as we move closer to switch-over, as circumstances require. Other issues that it will need to address, either at the beginning or as time goes by, include measures to drive uptake and overcome barriers to conversion such as promotional and education campaigns; financial assistance, possibly, to some members of the community; a digital tuner mandate of some kind; equipment labelling requirements; obligations on broadcasters to assist in expediting conversion; and measures to address technical and standards issues. As I have indicated, those are complex matters which do need to have extensive consultation around them. It is also possible, of course, that further regulation in the form of amendments to broadcasting legislation or in some other form will need to be made to effect those changes. I welcome the process whereby that plan is being produced, but I remind members of the Senate that this process is not quickly and easily accomplished. Those who urge the government to move faster underestimate, I suspect, the importance of bringing all of the stakeholders along at the same time.

In recent weeks, the minister has spoken at some length about the importance of keeping Australia at the forefront of digital and other technological change. It is really not just about giving people clearer pictures on their television sets. It is much more complex than that. It is about providing for an information-friendly society—a society which is able to understand the benefits of technology and take up opportunities to use technology in order to be better informed, better in touch and better able to play a role in the world. I emphasise that this is important for Australia in a commercial sense—in the sense of Australians trading with the rest of the world and developing these technologies in conjunction with the rest of the world—and in order that, at the end of the day, we can say that we have best practice in this country so that Australians can benefit from that dedication to making sure that we have the best in this country.

In the media recently, the minister made comments about the way in which conversion to digital is the most fundamental change in broadcasting since the introduction of television itself 50 years ago and about the need for us to move out of an analog mindset when we look at the way in which services are provided. We need to ensure that the opportunities for new digital free-to-air services on the broadcasting services band are not overestimated. We acknowledge that it is a finite resource and that we must carefully decide how best to use this finite resource to the benefit of all Australians. Simply offering new television stations or allowing television stations to offer their existing product perhaps at different times or in different formats is obviously an underestimation of the potential that the technology has to offer. We cannot fall into that trap. We must make sure that what we offer to Australians is absolutely the best thing for the take-up and sustainability of these technologies.

I was glad to hear Senator Eggleston say that he had visited Foxtel in Sydney recently. Colleagues and I made a similar trip to those studios in the northern part of Sydney—in Ryde—and we were very impressed with the enormous investment which is being made by Foxtel in subscription television broadcasting in Australia. It is an extremely important part of providing choice and diversity to Australians. I hope that that investment is handsomely returned, because it provides those opportunities of which I spoke before.

The government’s overall package, obviously, is about creating opportunities and ensuring that there is some opportunity for rationalisation of the way in which players roll out their services, not just in the broadcasting area but also with respect to other media opportunities and other media outlets. This is about giving the industry the capacity to diversify their services but have some certainty of the environment in which they do that. Again I say to those who think that the plan is wrong in some way and that the government’s package should be rejigged that they owe it to the Australian community to spell out exactly what they mean by that, where they would go, what changes they would make and, particularly, how they would effect the best in current and over-the-horizon technology to the benefit of all Australians.

I commend this bill. I think that the bill, as part of a broader package, is an appropriate way for Australia to grasp the future. I look forward to this plan benefiting the people of Western Australia in particular in this case but, overall, providing for Australia to be at the crest of a wave which will only grow larger and stronger into the immediate future.