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Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Page: 108

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (9:17 PM) —I rise to speak in favour of the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006. The bill implements the Howard government’s longstanding commitment to reform Australia’s outdated media ownership laws. The changes to media ownership were announced as part of the federal government’s media reform package in July 2006.

The current foreign and cross-media ownership restrictions under the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 limit competition in the media sector. They also restrict access to capital, expertise and technology. The proposed changes will encourage greater competition. They will also allow media companies to achieve economies of scale and scope, whilst at the same time protecting the diversity of Australia’s media.

For 20 years, Australia has had a set of media control rules that, in effect, largely restrict how media markets and companies operate. This is based on an outdated philosophy based on the concept of ‘containment’. This philosophy of containment does not recognise that today media companies operate very differently to the way they did when the legislation was first introduced. Technology has greatly changed and, indeed, so too has the way we consume media and media services today. When those rules were framed, the internet was available only to a small number of people; pay TV was in its infancy in Australia; there was no framework for digital radio; no-one had heard of IPTV; and 3G mobile phones, video iPods or television over a mobile device, otherwise known as DVB-H, were nowhere on the radar.

Today, our traditional media platforms are being pressured from all angles. To enable them to survive and compete, it is vital that some of the regulation currently restraining them be freed up to enable these platforms to adapt to changing times. Without this change, the traditional media industry will continue to watch other platforms encroach on their traditional businesses. They will be fettered from moving themselves. New media will leave them well behind.

Through these proposed amendments of the ownership rules, the media market will operate with greater efficiency. This in turn will ensure that both industry and consumers will benefit by permitting greater competition and economies of scale and scope. The effect of these benefits will be diffuse, dynamic, and shared across a large sector of our economy. As with other microeconomic reforms undertaken by this government, the benefits of reforming the media ownership restrictions are real. For example, the restrictions on foreign ownership restrictions will enable foreign media companies and investors to enter the television and daily newspaper markets, thereby allowing greater opportunities for investment—in short, new players and new services. It is interesting to note that Australia’s radio sector has no foreign ownership restrictions. Notwithstanding that, it is considerably more diverse in its ownership than either television or newspapers, with two major foreign owners in the sector, namely APN and DMG. Similarly, the removal of cross-media restrictions will allow Australian media companies to enter different media areas. In turn, this will afford greater competition, greater opportunities for more efficiency and, most importantly, new and improved services for consumers.

It is important that any reform must protect diversity of ownership; however, this is able to be achieved in ways that are less restrictive than is currently the case. This diversity of ownership will continue to be protected via the five-four voices requirement and licensing reach limits. The current media ownership laws regulate commercial radio and television and daily newspapers above other media by virtue of their greater level of influence. In 1987 television, radio and newspapers were virtually the only news media but, whilst they remain highly influential, they are no longer the only sources of news and information. Further, while traditional news gathering remains dominated by what one can term ‘old media’, the ability and the capacity of independent online sources to deal with news more quickly, to comment on and to provide analysis of that news and in turn to diffuse that information means that online news and information has emerged as a powerful influence in its own right. Indeed, today, when we want information or news our immediate instinct is to go online.

Consequently a regulatory framework that assumes that radio, television and newspapers would be the only sources of information will soon become hopelessly outdated and ineffective. Ultimately this will work to the detriment of services and to the detriment of consumers. The media reform package that the government announced in July outlines major reforms to Australia’s media ownership laws as part of a broader reform package relating to new digital services and other key broadcasting issues. These reforms have been the subject of lengthy and widespread consultation within government, industry, the community and other interested stakeholders.

The media landscape is an ever-changing one, and we need a flexible system which enables media companies to adapt and prosper in new and dynamic environments. Hence the government’s far-sighted approach will on the one hand meet consumer needs and on the other hand provide new technological benefits into the future—the core of the package, of course, being new services and programming for consumers. These reforms will allow existing players to take full advantage of emerging digital media technologies and will afford them flexibility to structure their businesses to be globally competitive media companies. The package will also allow a more competitive environment, which should encourage new entrants into the media market, hence affording greater diversity and choice to consumers.

While the reforms will allow for some cross-media mergers, they also contain significant safeguards to protect diversity and stop undue concentration, particularly in regional areas. As an additional safeguard against undue media concentration, 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 voices in metropolitan areas, but mergers will be permitted only between two of the three regulated platforms in a licensed area—commercial television, commercial radio and associated newspapers. In short, this rule will prevent three-way mergers between commercial television, commercial radio and an associated newspaper in a licensed area. As a senator based in the regional area of the Illawarra, I am hopeful that these reforms will result in greater choice and more balanced views which better reflect the changing nature of the Illawarra.

The report of the Senate Standing Committee on the Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts recommended that this rule be introduced in regional areas; however, the government has decided that it is more appropriate to extend this additional safeguard to all licensed areas. Industry will still benefit from the increased flexibility that relaxation of the cross-media ownership laws will bring, whilst consumers can be confident that diversity will continue to be protected through the range of safeguards the government is including in the bill.

The Trade Practices Act 1974 will continue to apply to media transactions, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission playing an essential role in assessing competition issues associated with mergers. Separate from the protection of competition, the Australian Communications and Media Authority will oversee the safeguards to ensure diversity and local content. ACMA will make sure that transactions comply with the minimum number of media group requirements and that broadcasters comply with local content obligations. It is important to remember that, in addition to the traditional commercial media, Australians will continue to have access to a variety of other services from the public broadcasters. In relation to the ABC, this includes two digital television channels, up to five radio stations—Radio National, News Radio, Local Radio, Classic FM, and Triple J—and their online services. In relation to SBS, this will include television, radio and online services, subscription television, community radio and television, out of area and national newspapers and other internet services.

The government is committed to ensuring that all Australians, be they in metropolitan or rural and regional areas, benefit from these reforms. The government is committed to reforming Australia’s media ownership laws while protecting the public interest in a diverse and vibrant media sector. So what do we get from our political opponents? During the election, Labor said their policies would maximise Australian investment and employment in the media sector. They want to retain cross-media ownership laws but at the same time relax foreign ownership restrictions. How do you maximise Australian investment in the media sector by lifting foreign ownership restrictions which only allow new overseas investment in our media sector and prevent Australian media companies from competing? Clearly Labor’s idea of preventing excessive concentration of media ownership in Australia is by allowing only foreign companies to contribute to diversity. This simply does not make sense.

I now turn to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006, which I also support. In 2004 and 2005, statutory reviews of the digital television regulatory regime were conducted. Following these reviews, and in the context of broader changes in the media sector, the government issued a discussion paper on a range of media policy reform options in early 2006. The bill also gives effect to the government’s election commitment to transfer the power to allocate commercial television licences from ACMA to the government of the day.

The object of this bill is to give effect to the government’s decision to reform several aspects of the digital television conversion framework and commercial television broadcasting regulatory regime, including the operation of the antisiphoning scheme, following these reviews and the media reform consultation process. I also support the amendments which include measures in relation to the allocation of the two channels of unallocated digital spectrum that exist in each licence area—channels A and B.

Over and above the benefits from media ownership reform, the package will also afford considerable scope and opportunity for new services, including two channels of currently unallocated spectrum made available for new in-home and other services such as mobile TV. ABC and SBS will be able to provide a broader range of content on their multichannels. The FTA broadcasters will be permitted to provide an HD multichannel from next year and an SD multichannel from 2009. Indeed, further and greater opportunities for new services will emerge at the point where switchover is reached and a considerable additional spectrum is freed up.

This bill forms part of an integrated and far-reaching package which will assist Australia’s media sector to move to a new digital environment by encouraging new players and new services for Australian consumers. The government’s media package will afford opportunities for a range of innovative new services for consumers while maintaining the existing services that the community already rely upon and very much enjoy, including quality free-to-air television services. I believe that consumers will be the biggest winners. They can access a new range of services, including several new digital channels, with potentially more to come with full transition to digital television. Whilst this bill introduces some modifications to the antisiphoning scheme, the government is not proposing to abolish the antisiphoning list. Many Australians have a keen interest in continuing to have free access to major sporting events that have traditionally been shown on free-to-air television.

Labor has no credibility and no policies on broadcasting and, indeed, did nothing while in government to prepare for the introduction of digital. The Labor Party clings to outmoded models for the industry. This will not benefit and grow the industry. It will provide absolutely nothing new or innovative for consumers. The coalition has led the way in continuing to ensure that the regulatory framework allows broadcasters to adapt and adjust to technological and other developments. Unlike the Labor Party, the coalition understands how important it is that both small and large commercial operators are supported and continue to be supported in participating in the broadcasting sector.

In relation to the antisiphoning list, Labor fails to understand its practicalities or the delicate balance which the government strikes to ensure important events remain available for Australians to view on free-to-air television. The opposition’s alarm at the seven-year, $150 million deal struck between the FFA and Fox Sports to deliver a wide range of Socceroos and A-League domestic matches on pay TV is a clear example of this. This deal was seen as securing the long-term financial stability of the game and will mean that a significant package of matches will be available on pay television. None of the events covered by the deal are on the antisiphoning list, and in the past the free-to-air coverage of Socceroos games has been inconsistent.

Australia needs to move its media sector into the new digital age. If we do not undertake these reforms, we will pay a heavy price for policy paralysis if we cannot move the current frameworks. The media landscape has changed so much, and we need to afford a more flexible and innovative environment to meet this new media era.