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Monday, 4 September 2006
Page: 2

Senator COONAN (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (12:36 PM) —I thank all honourable senators for their input to this debate. The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2005 [2006] will provide a framework to implement the model agreed with WIN and Prime for the conversion of their commercial television broadcasting services in remote and regional Western Australia from analog to digital. The bill will facilitate, as part of the conversion model, the joint provision by WIN and Prime of a third digital commercial service under section 38B of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992. For the first time, this will provide viewers in non-metropolitan Western Australia with a choice of programming commensurate with that in Perth.

By allowing the broadcasters to multichannel the three digital services on a single channel with exemption from any high-definition television requirements that might be applied in remote areas, the government is providing them with significant cost savings that will help to underpin the continued viability of remote broadcasting services. This is in addition to the significant funding assistance of $19.36 million over eight years that the government is providing to WIN and Prime under the regional equalisation plan to further assist them with digital conversion in remote Western Australia.

This government remains committed to the rollout of digital services to regional and remote Australia. To this end, this government has provided up to $250 million towards the cost of converting television broadcasting to digital technology in regional and remote Australia as part of the regional equalisation plan. The bill also extends the same arrangements to the commercial broadcasters in the other remote licence area, remote central and eastern Australia, should those broadcasters choose a similar digital model for that market. Regional equalisation plan assistance will also be made available.

I would like to avail myself of the opportunity to address some issues that have been raised in the debate. Firstly, on digital television take-up, which has been the source of some commentary by senators, conversion to digital is the most fundamental change in broadcasting since the introduction of television some 50 years ago. The government is working hard to ensure the smooth transition to and the smooth introduction of digital television to Australia, and we are committed to ensuring that all Australian consumers have access to the exiting new services that digital technology will bring into our homes.

I am very encouraged by the most recent industry estimates that at the end of June 2006 over 1.7 million digital television receivers had been supplied to retailers and installers. Around 48 per cent of these were supplied in the 12 months to June 2006, which represents a household take-up rate of around 20 per cent. Despite assertions to the contrary, the government message about the exciting new world of digital television is being heard. Over 95 per cent of Australians can now access at least one digital television service with the purchase of a set-top box or a digital television.

These achievements are very much down to the Howard government’s willingness to take the lead in this area and to establish a sound legislative framework to support the smooth introduction of digital television in Australia. I have announced, as a key aspect of the media reform package that I am developing, a digital action plan in line with the government’s 2004 election commitment. The plan, which looks at driving take-up of digital television, is being developed for release later this year. It is important that the government’s progress on digital take-up is noted, when nothing much to prepare for the introduction of digital television was done by anyone else while in office.

Australia’s new target for switch-over of 2010 to 2012 aligns with most comparable countries. I want to disabuse senators of the view that Australia lags behind other nations in switching off the analog signal. We do not. For example, Germany will have completed theirs by 2010; France is aiming to have done it by 2011, region by region; the United States is looking for a nationwide switch-off in February 2009; and the UK will complete switching off region by region by 2008 and 2012. The government is acting to drive digital take-up because we need to switch off the analog signal as soon as possible. It is simply untenable for Australia to remain in an analog world while other comparable countries make the permanent switch to digital. Increased demands for spectrum and the expense, for both government and industry, of simulcasting means that Australia certainly cannot continue indefinitely with the dual analog-digital system.

There is another important point here. Should anyone still adhere to the view that a 2008 switch-over is realistic or that a switch-over is simple, I would be very interested in their views on and a timetable for some of these issues: conversion to digital television in remote areas, conversion of self-help facilities, conversion of community television, channel planning for digital transmitters and signal coverage, establishment and funding of a testing and conformance centre, the need to convert reticulated systems in multi-unit dwellings and hospitals, whether subsidies or incentives should be made available and to whom and when, and a myriad of other issues which the digital action plan will need to deal with.

The digital action plan will be a road map to guide the process and the time frame for analog switch-off. It will contain measures aimed at providing appropriate incentives for industry to move to digital television. It will have appropriate incentives and potential assistance measures to encourage consumers to move to digital television. It will define the roles that various stakeholders and agencies will play in working together to achieve switch-over, including the potential formation of a dedicated organisation to oversee and coordinate these activities. It is a truly massive undertaking.

The rate of digital take-up will be influenced by such matters as public education, limited commercial multichannelling from 2007-09, the removal of genre restrictions on the national broadcaster multichannels, and the allocation of licences for new digital services over spare spectrum. The government has announced that the two unassigned digital terrestrial channels throughout Australia will be allocated as soon as practicable in 2007 for new digital services.

I would also like to take this opportunity to respond to Senator Murray’s views on high-definition television. He indicated that he was unsure of the actual benefits of high-definition television. Digital Broadcasting Australia has stated that high-definition television broadcast pictures have image resolution which is superior to standard definition pictures and to the existing analog television broadcast, offering an improvement in quality of up to three times the detail. It is important also to note that Digital Broadcasting Australia has stated that, of the 229,000 units sold to retailers and installers during the June quarter, 14 per cent were high-definition receivers. So it does seem that this penetration of the wonders of digital is extending to the ordinary consumer wishing to get a much-improved and better service.

This is an important bill and, before commending it to the Senate, I should mention that the amendment proposed by Labor on lifting the current genre restrictions on ABC and SBS multichannelling has become redundant since I announced on 13 July the government’s intention to introduce legislation to achieve that, with the exception of sport on the antisiphoning list. This bill now only concerns implementation of the model for the introduction of commercial digital television services in remote licence areas. It is a very confined topic and, for those reasons, the government will not support this amendment, which is the subject of legislation currently under development.

In relation to some considerable discussion on television advertising of so-called junk food, there are some comments I should make in summing up. First of all, this matter has no particular relevance to a third digital television service in remote Australia and very much is related to the Australian Greens seeking a ban on food and beverage advertisements during children’s television viewing times. I am aware that television advertising of so-called junk food has been raised as one of a range of possible contributing factors to increased levels of obesity in children. However, there is not any evidence to suggest that a prohibition on advertising—which, of course, is a very different thing—as proposed by this amendment would be an effective remedy for this problem or even contribute to being an effective remedy for this problem.

I am not just stating this in isolation; in 2004 the United Kingdom communications agency, Ofcom, produced a report that noted where junk food advertising bans have been put in place—for example, in Sweden 12 years ago and in Quebec 25 years ago—there has not been any impact on obesity levels. In that study, Ofcom noted that conclusions based on research into this area are at best both unclear and contested and:

… the instigation and implementation of regulation draws more on moral anxieties than on evidence-based policy making.

In his recent letter to Premier Beattie, the Prime Minister made the position of this government very clear—namely that advertising regulation is a federal responsibility rather than a state one and that obesity is a problem to be primarily addressed by parents and individuals. To this end, the government announced in July the creation of a new ministerial task force to tackle what is obviously a significant issue, and that is rising obesity rates. This task force will coordinate a whole-of-government approach to this issue, building on such existing government initiatives as the $116 million Building a Healthy, Active Australia package, the $6 million program designed to encourage children to exercise for at least one hour day, and the ‘two fruit and five vegetables’ campaign. So I would contend, in these circumstances, that this government is well and truly addressing the needs identified in this area, and I note that broadcasters are already subject to a number of restrictions in the regulatory sphere.

Just to conclude these remarks in summing up: the digital television conversion model which would be enabled through the passage of this bill represents, in the government’s view, a balance between public interest considerations and the special needs of remote area commercial television broadcasters. Delivery of high-definition television to all viewers in this wide and diverse market would be a very significant cost to broadcasters, and ultimately the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment Bill provides an opportunity for households in remote Australia to have a new third digital service delivering a substantially increased range of information and entertainment. I thank senators for their contributions and commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.