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Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Page: 83


Senator RONALDSON (6:20 PM) —I thought that Senator Webber was next to speak, and I am sure it is purely coincidence that she is not here. I am sure there would not have been any intention on the part of the opposition to collapse the debate before dinner. I am sure that would be a very cynical view of what might have happened here. I was actually due to speak after dinner, but I am very happy to speak for the next nine minutes. That might even give Senator Webber—if she is watching, I send her my very best—the opportunity to speak after dinner. I am sure there is some good reason why she could not get down here.

There were a number of us on the Senate committee that met on Thursday and Friday a week ago. We heard exhaustive evidence from a large number of participants. If my memory serves me—and you were there, Mr Acting Deputy President Brandis—we started at about 8.30 on Thursday morning, went through to about nine or 10 o’clock that evening and started early the next morning. While there was a level of self-interest, as there always is with these things, I thought nevertheless there was constructive input from a large range of people into that Senate inquiry. What was quite clear from the evidence given to the committee was that the Australian Labor Party’s view of life in relation to this is not shared by anyone else except possibly the Greens, who in this debate, as in other debates, are totally irrelevant.

I would have thought that the Australian Labor Party, which pretends to be the alternative government, could have had some constructive input into this matter. However, without breaching the confidence of committee discussions, it was very clear that from day one, from the moment we started this process, that the Australian Labor Party would vote against these bills.

Cross-media and foreign ownership, as the majority committee report says, was not an issue for this committee. Several matters were raised. One was raised by your good self, Mr Acting Deputy President Brandis, and will be the subject, I understand, of an amendment in relation to the powers of ACMA. However, there has been some confusion, particularly from the Australian Labor Party, because it is simply not interested in a sensible debate in relation to this matter, despite the fact that a succession, a plethora of spokespeople have dabbled at the edges of this. Stephen Smith has been one of them; Lindsay Tanner has been another. The shadow shadow shadow minister, Senator Conroy, who might actually now be the shadow shadow shadow shadow minister—whichever it is—has also dabbled with this.

If the Australian Labor Party bothered to read this bill and its amendments, they would know that ACMA has responsibility for diversity. What concerns me is that, despite two days of committee hearings, despite these bills and despite the amendments, I do not think the Australian Labor Party even now understands this matter. Your good self, Mr Acting Deputy President Brandis, quite rightly alerted the other committee members to this fact. It was duly noted by the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Senator Coonan, who I think has done an absolutely magnificent job with these bills. She has had the guts to do what the Australian Labor Party has never had the guts to do. With this government, she has been prepared to accept that, as we know it at the moment, the media in this country in 2006 is not very relevant, in 2007 it most certainly will not be very relevant, in 2010 it will be less relevant and in 2015 it will be totally irrelevant. She has got this policy right. You are a policy-free zone over there. You are destructive, not constructive. (Quorum formed)

The shadow minister was so appalled at the calling of a quorum that he came in to support the government—and quite rightly. Senator Conroy, you are quite rightly appalled that the opposition would pull a stunt like this and I thank you most sincerely for finally doing something constructive in relation to this debate. It is very generous of you.

As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, an attempt was made to collapse this debate and then, again to waste time, there was a ridiculous call by Senator Sterle for a quorum to be formed. I will go back to what I said before. This government has addressed an issue that needed addressing. This government knows, as I said this morning somewhere else, that this nation is on the cusp of a digital revolution. One political party is prepared to make the changes that will take this nation from where we are towards that digital revolution and another political party is not prepared in any way to assist this nation in its drive forwards towards that digital revolution.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 pm to 7.30 pm


Senator RONALDSON —I was making some comments before dinner. It is terrific to see Senator Webber down here. I know that I speak on behalf of all my colleagues when I say how appalled we were at the treatment of Senator Webber over the weekend by the Western Australian division of the Labor Party. Senator Webber is a contributor in this place, and for her to be treated like that is absolutely appalling.

I was speaking before about the government’s intentions in relation to these bills. I thought it would be useful to talk about some of the proposed amendments that came out of the Senate committee inquiry in relation to these bills. I will go through these in some depth in the time that is left available to me.

In relation to the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 there was a recommendation by the majority of the committee—Senator Eggleston, Senator Brandis, Senator Ian Macdonald and me—about the two out of three rule. That has been taken up by the government and I am very pleased about that. This is an additional safeguard against undue media concentration, and the government will amend the bill to include a two out of three rule for media mergers in metropolitan and regional areas. This means that media mergers will still be permitted subject to the floor of four voices in regional areas and five in metropolitan areas, but mergers will only be permitted between two of the three regulated platforms in a licence area—that is, commercial TV, commercial radio and associated newspapers. In other words, this rule will prevent three-way mergers between commercial TV, commercial radio and an associated newspaper in a licence area.

The Senate committee report recommended that this rule be introduced in regional areas. However, the government decided that it was appropriate to extend this additional safeguard to all licence areas. This means, firstly, that industry will still benefit from the increased flexibility that the relaxation of the cross-media ownership laws will bring and, secondly—but equally importantly—consumers can be confident that diversity will continue to be protected through the range of safeguards the government is including in the bill.

I want to turn now to the local content licence conditions for regional radio. In recognition of concerns expressed about the provision of live, locally produced and locally relevant content, the government will amend the bill to require ACMA to have in place for all regional radio licensees, from a specified date, a requirement for at least 4.5 hours of local content each day. This will be similar to the proposed new section 43A in the bill, which requires ACMA to have local content licence conditions in place for regional television.

Prior to the requirement coming into effect, ACMA will be directed by the minister, under section 171 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, to investigate the current levels of local content in regional radio, the impact of the proposed minimum level on licensees and how different types of regional broadcasters—such as licensees in smaller licence areas—would be affected by the requirement. Once the outcome of the review is known, the minister will have the power to adjust the level or apply the requirement differently across different classes of licence if appropriate. The adjustment would be a disallowable instrument that would need to be tabled in parliament. If there is no adjustment the level specified in the act would remain.

There are other protections as well. They revolve around local news and weather requirements. As a further protection for local content in regional areas, regional radio licensees will be required to meet a number of additional content requirements in relation to local news and weather. A minimum of 12.5 minutes per day of local news is to be broadcast on at least five days a week. Repeats of news bulletins will not count towards the minimum number. A minimum of five weather bulletins per week will be required and regional commercial radio licensees that have a local content plan in force will be required to report annually to ACMA on compliance with their LCP—their local content plan.

Regional communities have a legitimate expectation that their local media will cover events and provide content of relevance to their communities. These requirements will establish realistic minimum levels of local content that licensees will be required to provide.

I want to turn now to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill and, particularly, access arrangements for channel B. As honourable senators will know, the government majority Senate report discussed the matter of access arrangements for channel B. I know I speak for my colleagues when I say that we are very pleased that our requests to the government in that regard have been taken up. In that report we recommended that the government consider whether access arrangements for channel B would be appropriate in order to maximise the opportunities for a diverse range of players to provide content on this service. The government considered this recommendation and has decided that access arrangements would be appropriate.

The ACCC will be required to develop criteria relating to access undertakings by licence holders of the channel B licence for access by content service providers. The criteria would be a legislative instrument. A person wishing to bid for the channel B licence will be required to submit an access undertaking to the ACCC which the ACCC will consider against the criteria. They will be eligible to bid if the ACCC accepts the undertaking.

Adherence to the terms of an undertaking will be a condition of the channel B licence. The undertaking will remain in force for the duration of the licence and is transferred if the licence is transferred. However, undertakings may be varied, with the agreement of the ACCC. This arrangement will strike a balance between permitting the holder of the channel B to offer some exclusive services to its customers if it wishes to do so and if it fits their business model, but will also ensure that other content providers will have the ability to seek access to the service on clear terms.

Madam Acting Deputy President, I am sure you are aware, as other honourable senators would be, that some of my colleagues who were participating members of that committee—my National Party colleagues—were very concerned about these local content areas. I am very pleased that Senator Joyce on Steve Price tonight seemed to indicate that the government’s moves and amendments in relation to local content are satisfying his requirements and Senator Nash’s. I have no doubt that Mr Neville, from the other place, is very pleased that the two out of three rule has been put in place as well. This is just another example of a government that listens and acts, which of course is totally different to those opposite, who quite simply do not have a policy in relation to this matter.

It has always been something that caucus has driven and it has always been the Left that has stymied any real reform in relation to this area. Some have tried, but they have failed. The shining light in all this, of course, has been Lindsay Tanner.


Senator Carr —I thought you said Left.


Senator RONALDSON —The Left have a warrior in Lindsay, but even the Left put the Left out of action in relation to this particular matter. The Left did the Left and Lindsay has moved on. He has been replaced by a number of people ever since. Let us have a look at what was said to Jason Koutsoukis in the Age on Wednesday, 9 June 2004: ‘Labor drafts media shake-up’. I want to quote Lindsay Tanner. Senator Carr was laughing, regrettably, at his colleague in the Left, who at least tried. Unfortunately, Mr Tanner has been done by Senator Carr and others in the Left, who are determined to stymie any media reform in this country at all. But I will give Mr Tanner his dues. As he said to Jason Koutsoukis:

I am in favour of less regulation and greater liberalisation in the sector and one thing I am very happy to be put to the test on is that when our final position comes out it will be aiming for a net substantial liberalisation.

He held radio up as the prime example of the benefits liberalisation can achieve:

I think the Australian radio sector is a very good illustration of what competition can do. The statistics on radio are quite impressive. We have 60 per cent more commercial radio stations today than we had in the early ’90s; our population has grown by 11 or 12 per cent, yet revenue in the sector has grown by 80 per cent and profits have more than doubled. I don’t think there is any doubt the sector, commercial, community and public, is substantially better than it was.

He went on to say in relation to foreign ownership:

… it is still my view that foreign ownership restrictions … should be lifted.

In the Australian Financial Review on 9 June, in an article titled ‘Markets need bigger doses of competition’ by Lindsay Tanner, he even went on and attacked the government for ‘dithering about prospective liberalisation of television broadcasting’. He attacked the government, and what did we have in 2005? What have we got in 2006? In 2004 we had Lindsay Tanner, who was prepared to address these matters, and in 2006 we have the Australian Labor Party, which again is back to the early nineties. Why would that be?


Senator Carr —Because we want some diversity!


Senator RONALDSON —I think what it might be is the fact that in the other place the person who dragged their feet the most in the early nineties was none other than Mr Beazley, and Mr Beazley is clearly again driving the inactivity, the policy-free zone, of the Australian Labor Party—I am sure aided and abetted by Senator Carr, who does not share the views of his colleague Lindsay Tanner and who, quite frankly, does not want to change media in this country at all. As Tom Burton in the Sydney Morning Herald wrote on 29 June 1991 about Mr Beazley:

As the rest of the world prepares for a deluge of services, Australia remains saddled with legislation whose philosophical and technological underpinnings remain fairly anchored in the 1950s. Much of the blame for the impasse has to lie at the feet of the communication minister, Mr Beazley.

(Time expired)


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Crossin)—I did not expect my time in the chair this evening to be so entertaining, actually.