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Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Page: 88

Senator WEBBER (7:43 PM) —Like previous speakers, I rise today to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 and the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006. Before commencing my remarks, I must pause to thank Senator Ronaldson for his kind remarks earlier but also to correct the record a bit—I gather he alluded to my lack of presence in the chamber earlier this evening—to say that the Labor Party, unlike the minister and the National Party, was ready to debate this legislation yesterday, as indeed was I. I had presumed when organising my week that I would have made this contribution already, so I beg your indulgence for having to rearrange the speakers list. But, as we stand, we are finally here. We finally actually have the debate that the committee had to have a hurried hearing into, report in record time and then wait until some internal negotiations took place. So finally being here must mean that the Liberal Party has browbeaten the National Party into a deal that will do little for media diversity, particularly media diversity in the bush.

The contempt in which the coalition holds this Senate has rarely amazed me, so the events of the last couple of days are just another pitiful low for the Howard government, a government which claims professionalism while really being the parliamentary equivalent of ‘Dodgy Dave’s Builders’, a government which will ram any piece of shoddy legislative workmanship it can through this place and never mind the consequences for the country. Dodgy workmanship never lasts long, however, and I am sure that those of us on this side, the Labor Party, will be along soon enough to clean up the disasters that the government is leaving behind.

As I understand it, we are finally here debating this legislation because the National Party have caved in yet again. In caving in, The Nationals have sold out the bush, yet again. Their lack of respect for media diversity is directly correlated with their lack of respect for their own constituents. Significant concerns with the original format of these bills have been raised by a number of my constituents living in rural and regional Western Australia. I sincerely doubt that this new version will appease any of them. We do not need this legislation, because most of us want a diverse and varied Australian media.

As you may know, Madam Acting Deputy President Crossin, there already exists a dearth of media voices in Western Australia, especially in the north-west. I have often taken a stand for the people of the north-west of WA in this chamber and, as such, I will concentrate my remarks on how this legislation will affect them. The simple fact is that the vast majority of WA’s regional centres already have fewer than four media players. Clearly, then, there is a need to expand diversity in these areas, not create a ceiling which currently does not exist for them. Obviously this situation applies to many parts of rural and regional Australia, not just Western Australia.

The Western Australian newspaper market is dominated by West Australian Newspapers; Rural Press, which is owned by Fairfax; and Community News, which is half owned by News Ltd. Most commercial radio stations in country WA are affiliated with the Macquarie Regional Radioworks and owned by Redwave Media. Redwave Media is in turn owned by the West Australian Newspapers group. So, as you can see, massive concentration already exists in the Western Australian media market. Diversity is lacking and many stations rely on eastern states content. There is therefore an evident need to ensure that local content that is relevant to the area is provided and that regional news services have access to programs airing in the state’s capital, Perth.

While some of these concerns may have been addressed in the deal that has been conjured up between the minister and the National Party, as a member of the opposition I am not privy to the detail of that yet and have not had time to read the extensive package of amendments that the minister has tabled, nor the amended explanatory memorandum, so most of my comments will be addressed to the original bill—the original bill that the Senate inquired into and that was actually, as I say, timetabled for debate yesterday rather than today.

As I say, people need access to regional news services that have access to programs airing in our state’s capital, Perth, especially as, particularly in the north-west, the only state-wide daily newspaper arrives around lunchtime at the earliest. Strengthening provisions for local content will probably be welcomed but will be hard to police if implemented in this legislation. Certain stations in Western Australia play the John Laws program, for example. Whilst I have nothing against the John Laws program, and people should feel free to listen to it if that is what they wish, people who live in Newman, Port Hedland or Kununurra, for example, have a choice between their local ABC station and John Laws in the morning—hardly diverse, hardly relevant local content, and hardly giving them the information that they need to work out what is happening in the area around them. I would contend that listeners in those areas may prefer to listen to a locally or a state based program.

The local content conditions in this legislation, in my view, pay little more than lip-service to the notion that local content is an important principle. The original explanatory memorandum states:

These conditions will establish minimum standards for local news and weather bulletins, local community service announcements, emergency warnings and minimum service standards for other types of local content, if specified by the Minister by legislative instrument.

Further, it says:

  • bulletins must be broadcast on different days during the week;
  • bulletins must be broadcast during prime-time hours (between 6am and 10am, unless different times are prescribed by regulation); and
  • bulletins must adequately reflect matters of local significance.

The number of required bulletins is either the local news target, or if the broadcaster provides a greater number of bulletins than the local news target on average, the greater number. The local news target is five bulletins, unless the Minister determines a higher number by legislative instrument ...

And the original explanatory memorandum goes on:

A “local news and weather bulletin” may be a bulletin that incorporates news other than local news. In addition, new section 61CC provides for the ACMA to define the term “local” by legislative instrument.

And further:

New subsection 61CE(3) provides that the “minimum service standards for local community service announcements” are met during a particular week if, during that week, the licensee broadcasts at least the community service target number.

The community service target number is one, unless a greater number is determined by the Minister by legislative instrument (new subsection 61CE(4)).

So that is five bulletins between 6 am and 10 am on different days of the week, and then the news could be from Timbuktu for all this government cares about people in regional Western Australia.

So, unless there is some kind of emergency, this government could not care less whether people know what is going on in regional WA. There is no requirement for local talkback or even that the news needs to be produced by locals for locals, as far as I can see. We are talking about merely minutes a day of local content here, not hours or days a week, because of the lack of diversity in Western Australia—mere minutes.

No wonder people in regional WA are frightened by this bill. A target of one community service announcement does nothing to strengthen those communities. That this announcement and the news could be produced in a state capital or even another state’s capital as long as they address issues in the broadcast licence area shows the depth of this government’s commitment to local content.

This bill in its original form squanders a valuable opportunity for this parliament to show its commitment to local voices in our media. Even with the changes announced after the Nationals caved in on this legislation a mere few hours ago, we now only get 4½ hours of live and local content. I imagine that ACMA’s view of what constitutes ‘local’ and a regional listener’s view of what constitutes ‘local’ may at times be quite different. So I pose these questions. Can ACMA be trusted to ensure that local content is truly local, given the circumstances I have already outlined that occur in regional Western Australia? Will ACMA police the local content provisions in this legislation vigorously, or will they back commercial cost-cutting given the circumstances I have already described that are not part of the package that has been put together with the National Party? Will ACMA seek to weaken the definition of ‘local’ down the track to help commercial stations cut costs? If this legislation passes, only time will tell.

In time the Nationals may come to wish they had not caved on this bill. I feel that Australians, particularly regional Australians, deserve better. It would appear, then, as a licence holder in regional Australia, that outside the hours of 6 am and 10 am my content could come from absolutely anywhere. We already have the situation in the Pilbara and Kimberley that listeners get John Laws speaking about issues that affect his east coast listeners, and I cannot see how this legislation will address the current lack of local content. I appreciate the commercial imperative for station owners to reduce their costs, but the sad fact for listeners in rural and regional markets is that this imperative will continue to lead to managers broadcasting programs from the eastern states, which have the cheapest rights. I also feel that eventually it will lead to regional newsrooms being downgraded or closed.

This legislation does nothing to prevent these things from occurring. I believe that, if we are serious about this issue, encouraging regional radio stations to play programs from their state’s capital is worth looking at. This would overcome the problem I have outlined already whereby Western Australia’s daily newspaper can take half a day to arrive in some centres. This legislation states that local content bulletins must be broadcast between 6 am and 10 am but it does not necessarily include the news from Perth. This is of high importance to regional listeners in Western Australia, including Western Australia’s large number of fly-in fly-out workers.

Commercial radio and country Western Australia present this bill with a conundrum. Most commercial radio stations in Western Australia are part of the Spirit or Hot FM groups. These groups are owned by Redwave Media which, in turn, is owned by the West Australian Newspapers group. It is typical for one company to run the only two commercial licences operating out of a regional centre—one on the AM band and one on the FM band. In turn, most of the commercial stations operating out of regional centres are also affiliated with Macquarie Regional Radioworks. As such, they take some programs straight from the east coast for rebroadcasting. Further, it is my understanding that the bulk of the programming for many radio stations in country Western Australia is actually produced in Perth so, if we are serious about providing local voices on country radio, we do need to mandate a minimum content that is produced by staff working in the licence area. Otherwise we will continue to see a concentration of country media being produced in state capitals.

Clearly there is already a huge concentration of commercial radio in country Western Australia. We need a bill to encourage diversity not further stifle it. This bill offers people in regional Australia absolutely nothing. In country Western Australia people already suffer from a dearth of media voices. The market is already heavily concentrated. It is no wonder that Prime Minister Howard will not explain to Western Australians why he wants to entrench this even further. Nothing in the scant detail that I have received on The Nationals’ deal with Minister Coonan changes any of this. Those of us who truly believe in media diversity for country Western Australians will be voting against this bill.

There is a proposal now for a two out of three rule from the Nationals, but consider this proposal in detail and it still delivers an unhealthy degree of influence to media owners. In many Western Australian towns we already have media owners with controlling interests in two out of three mediums or worse. In Karratha, for example, a three out of four situation exists. Western Australian Newspapers, by extension, runs the local paper, delivers the state daily and runs two commercial radio stations. While this bill would require new players to enter the market before all further mergers could occur in regional Western Australia I am sure that the market dominance currently enjoyed by media owners in Western Australia would make life very difficult for a fledgling media company.

Away from the commercial sphere, national broadcasters have a large role to play in alleviating this lack of media diversity. ABC Radio is highly valued in country Western Australia and must continue to be supported to alleviate the effects of the changes to media ownership proposed in this bill.

The provisions in these bills covering future television broadcasting are also of concern. While it seems clear that increasing the diversity of content on the multicast channels of the national broadcasters will play a large role in the take-up of digital television in regional Australia, it must be kept in mind that the cost of infrastructure to deliver HDTV in particular may require government subsidies to ensure that some country areas are not left in the dark when the proposed analog switch-off occurs in 2011-12.

The widest spread problem of equitable access to this new technology is as relevant to country people, if not more so, as it is to those in our metropolitan areas. The idea that people in Australia’s most remote areas are ready, willing and able to rush off and buy set-top boxes and wide-screen television is laughable at best. If we are serious about switching off the analog signal in 2011, we need to start thinking creatively about how we face these problems; otherwise, HDTV in regional areas is probably dead in the water already.

Given the public’s proven unwillingness to rapidly embrace the technology, and this has been evidenced across the globe, I imagine the likely response of regional broadcasters to the lifting of HDTV quotas will be to abolish transmission of HDTV altogether. A country person’s only access to HDTV in the future might come from internet downloads, legal or otherwise. But, given the Howard government’s commitment to broadband infrastructure, I would not be holding my breath there either.

Some people have run the argument that the internet might make cross-media laws obsolete. I think those people are missing a few essential points. The first is that the most popular websites in Australia, as mentioned previously in this debate, are already owned by the largest media companies. The second is that, in order to access a greater diversity of content than will be available under these new laws, Australians may increasingly find themselves breaking the law to download content which is unavailable on Australian television or radio.

The internet will continue to present great challenges and opportunities for media companies, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that traditional forms of media will continue to be those that most Australians access, particularly in Western Australia. When most of the northern suburbs of Perth are still black spot areas for broadband access—never mind outside the metropolitan area—and one has only to travel 200 kilometres north-east to be out of mobile phone range, access to modern technology is a challenge that this government has not yet met.

These bills talk a lot about the national interest, but they clearly fail the national interest. Even with the scant detail of the shoddy deals that the Nationals have done on this legislation, the Senate should reject this legislation. It is not in Australia’s, particularly regional Western Australia’s, best interests.