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Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Page: 92

Senator IAN MACDONALD (8:01 PM) —I am pleased to have heard the contribution by Senator Webber on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006 and the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006, because it demonstrates the difference between the parties in this place. One party believes in socialism and regulation and that ‘big brother knows best’, while the other party, the Liberal Party, believes that the market is the best place to determine what is right.

I do not have a disregard for country people. I think country people are clever enough to know what they want from commercial radio, and they will express that by either turning on or off the particular local commercial radio station. If the radio station is not providing the content that the listeners want, the listeners will turn off. If the listeners turn off, the advertisers will turn off. If the advertisers turn off, the radio station will go into liquidation, and it will no longer be. That is why I passionately believe that the Liberal way is the best way; it allows the market to determine—that is, it allows the country listeners to determine—what they want from their radio station. Senator Webber’s address clearly highlights the difference between a socialist, regulated approach and an approach—that is, the Liberal free enterprise approach—that has served this country so well. It gives country people credit for knowing what they want.

I want to start my address by congratulating Senator Coonan, the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, on getting as far as she has with this legislation. For Senator Coonan and the government it has been a long-term goal. Senator Coonan and her department have worked exceedingly hard over many years to get this package to where it is now. By and large, most people in Australia will accept that the package is heading in the right direction and that it is a good package.

The Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts looked at the legislation in a two-day hearing last Thursday and Friday. I have to express my disappointment at the very rushed nature of that inquiry. I attended the inquiry as a full member, on the basis that I would try to understand what the issues were all about, I would listen intently to the very significant number of witnesses who gave evidence and I would try to question them to examine whether we had got this legislation absolutely right. I think it is very important for government members to do that in a situation where the government has control of the Senate. It throws an additional onus on government senators to look carefully at proposed legislation and to make sure that it is going to achieve what is best for Australia and what is in line with the government’s intentions and goals.

The committee had a very intense two days. I will digress by congratulating my colleague Senator Eggleston, who, as chairman of the committee, did an exceptionally good job in quite difficult circumstances. Everybody—that is, witnesses and senators—wanted more time to question people, to question each other and to make comments, but we were on a very restricted time frame. The chairman, as a chairman should do, ensured that we kept going and that all senators had an equal and fair opportunity to put their points. The chairman was very courteous but firm to the witnesses. Senator Eggleston did a very good job in very difficult circumstances. Half of Senator Eggleston’s difficulties in chairmanship came from his own colleagues and not from the Labor Party, who were pretty ordinary all the way through the inquiry.

I do not want to go into the detail of the major package, except to say that cross-media ownership, foreign investment and many of the other proposals contained in it will bring Australia’s broadcasting legislation into the 21st century. It is supported by the majority of the committee. At the hearing, we heard evidence from a great number of witnesses—I do not know how many there were; perhaps Senator Eggleston could help me out here—and most of them had no real opposition to the main thrust of the proposals.

As I say, the legislation will allow for the huge increases in technology that have occurred in recent years. And we should take into account that technology in the communications area is moving so rapidly that what we decide on today will probably be different tomorrow. That is why the legislation had to be broad, had to look forward and had to try to set a framework that will be as relevant in five years time as in five minutes time. By and large the committee has supported the legislation.

However, there were a small number of issues where I had some concern and which I want to address. In addressing these, I do have a little advantage over the Labor Party, because I have some notes on what is proposed. The legislation is still being drafted and it is difficult for me—as it is for all senators—to be precise about what exactly the legislation will look like, but I want to make some comments on my understanding of what is proposed.

First of all, I want to make some comments about the two out of three rule. That is a proposal that many of us in country Australia considered. I again emphasise that the committee consisted of the Labor Party senators, who I think were all from the city; four Liberal Party senators, three of whom are regionally based; and, in addition to that, some participating senators who also participated in the hearings. We were persuaded—fairly easily, I might say, because, as regional senators, we had come to this conclusion. I acknowledge that Mr Paul Neville, a regional member of the House of Representatives, and an acknowledged expert in these matters, had been talking about this and had raised the issue. As a regionally based senator living in a small country town in North Queensland, and as one who regularly travels to remote parts of North Queensland, western Queensland and Central Queensland, I was easily able to urge the government to accept a two out of three rule for regional Australia. I congratulate the committee on the recommendations it made in that regard.

I have to say that the committee’s focus was on country and regional radio. As senators would probably know, the two out of three rule, as I understand it, is now to apply not only to regional and rural media but to all media in Australia. The two out of three rule means that someone can own a newspaper and a radio station but not a newspaper, radio and television station; someone can own a TV and a radio station, but not the print media as well; or they can own print media and TV but not the radio. The two out of three rule will ensure diversity. I think that it is a good approach. That is all within the framework of a minimum of four voices in country areas. And, as I understand it, the five voices in metropolitan areas will remain. I am delighted that the government has accepted the committee’s recommendation in that regard and I thank the minister for doing that.

I will come back to the local content that Senator Webber was talking about and that I have already briefly mentioned, but before I do that I want to refer to the access arrangements for the B channel of the additional spectrum that is being allocated. Again, I am not absolutely certain of the precise arrangements that are going to apply, because the committee did not have legislation before it. The committee had a paper, as I understand it—a set of proposals—but no legislation.

I have been concerned—I have been persuaded by people who are very interested in this issue—that the B channel should not end up in the hands of one proprietor who could have a monopoly on that and exclude others. There was a concern expressed to me—one which I thought made a bit of sense—that, if an existing free-to-air or pay TV owner were to buy the B channel and have the B channel exclusively, they may not develop it because it may compete with their existing interests in free-to-air or pay TV. The B channel, simply explained, as I understand it, would be principally for mobile TV. As I understand that, it is mobile TV addressed to your mobile phone or some other receptacle. I was a bit persuaded that we had to be very careful about that.

In the end, I was not persuaded enough to exclude the free-to-airs and pay TV from bidding for the B channel, but I was impressed with an argument that you could split the B channel spectrum into several bits and then perhaps auction off individual bits. I confess that I am not technically literate in these areas and I was relying on others. Many of the witnesses said that that was simply not possible. The committee’s recommendation, the Senate might recall, was simply that the government have a look at this whole issue to decide what the appropriate access arrangements would be. As a result of the committee’s urgings, the government is having a look at that and has decided that the ACCC will be required to develop criteria relating to access undertakings by licence holders of the B channel licence for access by content service providers.

These criteria are going to be a legislative instrument, which I assume can be set aside by either house of parliament. A person wishing to bid for the B channel 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 the undertaking will be a condition of the B channel licence. The undertaking will remain in force for the duration of the licence.

This arrangement will strike a balance between permitting the holder of the B channel licence to offer some exclusive services to its customers if it wishes to do so and ensuring that the other content providers will have the ability to seek access to the service on clear terms. Reading my notes I see the words ‘and if it fits their business model’; that is, that of the owner of the B channel. It will ensure ‘content providers will have the ability to seek access’. On close reading of that, I am not sure that I am altogether happy with that. It will mean that we will have to very carefully scrutinise in the committee stages of this bill just what exactly turns up in the legislation. The minister’s advisers might give some thought to that and perhaps give me some information that might explain that to me, because I do want to take part in the committee stages of this bill and I want to look at that very carefully. I think it is essential that not one owner can control the B channel.

With my time being limited, I want to return to the point where I started when I accused Senator Webber of talking about the old socialist proposal where Big Brother and governments know better than anyone else, so they are going to regulate that you have got to have 12½ minutes of local news and you have got to have 4½ hours of local production. I am all in favour of localism but it is my understanding that in fact this applies only to radio. I make the point that this sort of precise regulation does not apply to TV—there is already some light-touch regulation of TV—and does not apply to the print media but for some reason we are going to apply it to commercial radio. I am concerned about that.

I wonder what happens if there is a bit of a shortage of news one day and they only give 12¼ minutes of news, rather than 12½ minutes of news. Are they going to lose their licence? Who is actually going to work out that they have only given 12¼ minutes of local news? And what is local news? We will have an army of bureaucrats sitting there determining what I in a country area of Australia can actually listen to—‘It’s got to be precisely this.’ And we are going to have 4½ hours of local content each day. Even though it might be rubbish local content, it is going to be foisted upon those of us in the country because some bureaucrat in Canberra or—heaven forbid, even worse—some politicians have said that you have got to have 4½ hours of local content.

If I am a listener—and I am a listener—of commercial radio in country Australia and I do not like what they are producing and they do not have local news and they do not have the local content that I want, I will not listen to that radio station. If I do not listen to that radio station, the advertisers are going to say, ‘Why am I buying advertising space on this radio station when I know that Ian Macdonald and another 20,000 people like him are not listening so I am not going to be getting value for my advertising dollar?’ I as a listener and every other person in regional Australia—as they are clever enough; in fact I think they are cleverer than city people—will tell the radio station what they want. We have had anecdotal evidence that a lot of country people have rung up and said, ‘Get rid of that useless local stuff in this area as it is not much chop at all. We want to listen to John Laws.’ Why you would want to listen to John Laws I am not quite sure, but many people in country Australia do and I accept that; I accept that his is a very popular program. People should be entitled to do that if that is what they want. Having bureaucrats and politicians sitting in Canberra telling me in a country part of Australia what I should listen to I think is appalling.

These are the arguments that have been made. I have to say at the Senate committee hearing I was appalled to find that no-one in commercial radio had been consulted about these issues, and this is not just the big corporate radio stations—the Macquarie News, the Macquarie Radios, the DMGs and all of them—it went right across the spectrum from those big corporate radio stations with big chains right down to the individual family owned radio stations in country Australia. All were totally opposed to this. They were distraught and insulted that they had been singled out, and nearly all of them said they provided this local stuff.

I live up in North Queensland and I do a lot on commercial radio in Rockhampton, Mackay, Townsville, Cairns, Innisfail, Mareeba, Mount Isa, Longreach and Emerald. I know that all of these places have local content and then switch—many of them do; some of them do not—to other networks for programs from elsewhere. To single them out in the way that is being proposed is, I think, quite wrong.

What the minister has proposed to try and address this is to firstly say, ‘Look, we’ll include these very prescriptive areas, these 4½ hours and these 12.5 minutes and all of these news bulletins.’ I want to interpose here that when there is a calamity around—and I know this personally—such as a cyclone in North Queensland, commercial radio stations stay on air 24 hours a day. They feel obliged to do that and they also know that their listeners and advertisers want that, so they do it. But what is being proposed is that this will be included in the bill, as I understand it, and in the meantime the ACMA will have an inquiry into what is appropriate and whether this is fair or not and will make a recommendation to the minister. The minister can then accept or reject the recommendation and will then be able to alter those hours and minutes of various things, and if the minister does alter them it will become a disallowable instrument. But if the minister decides to do nothing, then the 12½ minutes and the 4½ hours will stay as a default provision. I am quite concerned about that, and I want to investigate and explore that much more closely in the committee stage of this bill. I put these issues because I am from the country— (Time expired)