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Tuesday, 10 October 2006
Page: 118

Senator NASH (9:59 PM) —I rise tonight to talk about the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 and the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006 in my role as a Nationals senator. My role as a Nationals senator is to ensure that rural and regional Australia is not disadvantaged and that the divide between our rural and regional communities and our urban cities is closed. I want to ensure that we have equality in services right across the board between the urban and rural areas.

There are a whole lot of issues at the moment that are important for those regional areas—issues like telecommunications, health, infrastructure, roads and, particularly at the moment, drought. When I first started considering the proposals put forward by the minister they were not of a top-of-mind order for me. Media reform was not necessarily something that I had closely looked at in the past as something that was important for regional areas, bearing in mind that there were all those other things that are very important for our regional communities. But I looked at them very closely, because the impact of those media reform bills on the regional communities was very important. In my role as a Nationals senator I had to ensure that the impact on those communities was not going to be negative.

At the outset I would like to commend the minister, Senator Coonan, for the degree of consultation that she provided right throughout this process. There is no doubt that these were incredibly complex bills. That complexity led to a great deal of consultation and many hours of members and senators looking through these bills.

Rural and regional communities in this country depend very much on localism. It is that local fabric in those communities that often leads to their success and their sustainability. It does not matter if it is schools, businesses, community groups or indeed media; the importance of that local content and that local flavour is vital for the sustainability of those regional communities. I know this is difficult to understand for people who have not lived and worked in those communities, but I know that senators in this place who do come from a regional area will understand exactly what I mean. Localism is the heart and soul of those communities. That is what makes regional and rural communities different from urban areas. We are different, and that local flavour is so very important in ensuring the sustainability of those communities.

They were a very complex set of bills, but there were a number of issues that I was aware of throughout. Some of those issues were more important to me that others. One thing I considered important was multichannelling for free-to-airs. As we are looking at the take-up of digital in this nation we need to have drivers in place to do that. I certainly saw that encouraging the greater use of multichannelling for free-to-airs, bringing that forward, was one way of doing that. I looked at it in the context of regional areas and looking at those regional areas where often there are a lot of people who cannot afford pay TV. Indeed, an extra channel through multichannelling would have given them greater diversity. I certainly took into account the minister’s views on that but I did state my case very strongly that multichannelling should be looked at in that context.

When we first looked at these bills, one of the components of the bills was that a proprietor should be able to own all three mediums of media in regional areas over four voices. What that meant was that where there was not a floor of four voices a single proprietor could come in and own the television, newspaper and radio stations in that region. Of course, in the metropolitan areas, that was a floor of five voices. My concern at the time, which still remains, is that there should never be too much concentration of media ownership in regional areas. As I said at the outset, I looked at these bills very much from my position as a Nationals senator and in terms of the impact that this was going to have on our regional communities. I strongly believe that too much concentration of media ownership would certainly have a negative impact on those rural and regional communities.

With that in mind I put forward very strongly, as did many of my Nationals colleagues, that the two out of three rule should apply in all regional areas. Many of our regional communities have five, six or even seven voices. It was particularly in these larger regional towns where any movement to one proprietor owning all three mediums in those towns would really have a negative impact on those communities. I did not want to see regional communities become subject to an environment where a proprietor with a particular view or particular bent may well be able to filter through all those three mediums. The people in our regional communities deserve to have a choice and they deserve to have diversity, which was why I pushed very strongly for the two out of three rule to apply in regional areas. I know my colleague in the other place, Paul Neville, was also very strong on this, as were many of our other colleagues. It was the right thing to do and the right thing to push for. I was of course extremely pleased to see the minister recognise that and agree to apply the two out of three rule for regional communities, because I see that as a safeguard for our regional communities so that they will not be subject to any form of greater concentration of ownership in those communities. It was the right thing to do and I commend the minister for the decision she has taken in this regard.

I would also like to talk about news provision in regional communities and how important that is for the people living there. As I said earlier, anybody living in a regional community would know how important local content is. Again, The Nationals were very strongly of the view that there should be a prescribed amount of local news that is run on community radios. We put forward our view that it should be 12½ minutes a day of local news to be broadcast at least five days a week, repeats of news bulletins were not to be counted in that and a minimum of five weather bulletins per week should be included.

I know that was not something the minister initially considered when she put forward her proposal, and again I commend her for the amount of time she spent listening to The Nationals’ concerns. She not only listened to The Nationals’ concerns; she understood what we were saying—and she recognised the importance of that local news to those local communities. I talk to people in regional communities all the time, and one thing I do hear, in spite of what some people may say, is that they want to have that local news. They do not want to hear news constantly coming through from metropolitan areas and hearing what is happening hundreds of kilometres away. They want to know about the people in their local town, their businesses, their events, what is happening to the people that they know, and it is vitally important to them. I am very pleased to see that this local news and weather requirement is in the amendments and that the minister has seen the benefit of what we were putting forward and has agreed to it.

Local content has obviously been an issue that has been discussed a great deal over recent weeks. I know there are some who believe that market forces should prevail and that any business running in a regional area will put forward what the market wants and, therefore, the right outcome will be achieved. I understand the principle of those views, but I do not agree with it. I live in a regional area, and I find that on some occasions there is a necessity for government to intervene to ensure rural and regional communities get the best service they possibly can, that they get the things they need and to make sure we bridge the divide between city and country.

While I take the point of those who would prefer not to see a prescribed amount of local content, of broadcasting live and local on our regional radio, I believe it was the right thing to do to have a prescribed amount in the legislation. To me, it seems sensible to look at it this way. If regional radio operators are already prescribing more than 4½ hours, which has become the agreed amount, then there should be no burden on them at all to comply, because there have been some who are saying it would be too onerous for radio stations to have to comply with a set amount.

I believe those radio stations that are already broadcasting a certain amount of live and local content will not find this a burden. Indeed, I commend those radio stations that are already operating in this manner. However, there are some stations where there are not enough live and local broadcasts, and that might be for a variety of reasons. We often see that in very small towns; very small operators do not have the capacity. We have said all the way along—and I have certainly said this—we are very open to a review. We do not want this to be onerous for operators; we do not want small operators to go out of business as a result of it. We are certainly very open to a review to ensure that that does not happen.

But where an operator can provide that live and local content through broadcast, and they are not doing it just because they choose not to for whatever reason, then that is where this provision will come in to safeguard our local communities. We have already seen enough of that local content disappear out of our regional communities and, quite frankly, I do not want to see any more disappear. And this requirement to me is a very sensible measure to have in place, to ensure that that local content is there for those regional communities. Again, along with many of my colleagues, including Paul Neville, I pushed very strongly for there to be a requirement in the legislation to do this.

There was quite a deal of opposition that this should not be in there, and I do commend the minister for coming up with a position that I believe will be in the best interests of regional Australians. She could very well have walked away from this and not done anything about it and said, ‘I’m not going to have any local content prescription in this,’ but she did not. She understood the concerns of The Nationals, she realises it is important to the people out there in the regions to have safeguards such as this. I look forward to the review, to seeing what that brings forward. But the point is The Nationals are making sure that there are safeguards in place to ensure there is no disadvantage to regional areas. There are those sitting on the other side of the chamber saying, with great glee, that we have sold out and a whole range of other things, but really and truly they should focus on the best interests of regional communities and not try to political point-score. What I am doing in my role is trying to ensure there is no disadvantage to regional communities.

We have seen a range of things looked at despite the complexity of these bills. My concerns were, and remain, that the two out of three rule is applied in regional areas, we have local news requirements of 12½ minutes and we have at least 4½ hours of prescribed local content in the legislation. Those three things that I required are all in the legislation. So for anybody to say that I have sold out on what I wanted, they obviously have not followed very closely what I was asking for in the best interests of regional Australia and to what was given.

To my mind, while they are very complex bills, the outcome that we have seen here with the amendments is in the best interests of rural and regional Australians. I will continue to watch very closely how these media reforms affect regional communities. I will certainly be watching very closely the outcome of the review as it applies to local content for our regional radio operators, but, as I say, at the end of the day my role is to make sure that I make the best decisions that I can in the interests of those rural and regional communities that I represent. I believe I have done that, and in my role here in this place I will continue to do so.