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Wednesday, 11 October 2006
Page: 3


Senator PARRY (9:35 AM) —I also wish to speak on the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006, the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Television) Bill 2006, the Communications Legislation Amendment (Enforcement Powers) Bill 2006 and the Television Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2006. The government’s media reforms encapsulated in these bills represent a significant step forward for the Australian media industry and Australian consumers. They address Labor’s media legacy that has artificially restricted the terms upon which media companies can compete and invest to serve the interests, needs and desires of consumers. For the last 20 years, Australia has had a set of media laws that act to significantly restrict how media markets and companies operate. The current laws are based on an outdated view of the world and an obsolete view of the Australian media and Australian consumers. They are based on a world without widespread internet access and use, a world without pay TV, a world with no prospect of digital radio, and a world where TV and video delivery by the internet had not been contemplated. The current media laws did not foresee or take into account the adoption and proliferation of 3G mobile phones, podcasts and vodcasts or the possibility of TV being delivered to mobile phones—otherwise known as DVB-H technology.

Clearly, when it comes to the Australian consumer and the Australian media, the world has moved on. The traditional media are experiencing competitive pressures from all angles. Few have been more passionate advocates for individual consumers and businesses being unshackled from regulation. If Australia truly aspires to maintain a vibrant media marketplace where consumer interests are served, if we truly aspire to ensure the viability and vibrancy of many diverse media players throughout Australia, we must unshackle the Australian media industry from regulation. We must unburden the Australian media to allow the flexibility necessary for them to best serve the Australian consumer.

Without these changes, the traditional media industry will continue to watch emerging platforms encroach on their traditional business. Amending ownership restrictions, as this bill provides, will allow the media market to operate more efficiently. These changes will benefit industry and consumers alike by permitting greater competition and economies of scale and scope. Those benefits will be dynamic and occur across a large sector of the economy. As with other reforms undertaken by this government, the benefits of reforming the media ownership restrictions are real. The removal of foreign ownership restrictions will allow foreign investors to enter the television and daily newspaper markets, thus providing greater opportunities for investment, new players and new services.

We already have the benefit of a clear and strong example of the benefits that foreign ownership can provide. Australia’s radio sector does not have foreign ownership restrictions. What is the result? The result is that Australia’s radio sector is significantly more diverse in its ownership than either television or newspapers, with two major foreign owners in the sector, APN and DMG. Similarly, the removal of cross-media restrictions will allow Australian media companies to enter different media, providing greater competition, opportunities for greater efficiency and new and improved services for consumers.

Clearly, any reform needs to protect diversity of ownership, but this can be done in a way that is much less restrictive than the current arrangements. Diversity is a principle in media ownership that everyone agrees is important and will continue to be protected. The five-four voices requirements and licence and reach limits will ensure appropriate diversity is maintained.

Current media ownership laws specifically regulate commercial radio and television and daily newspapers above other media because of their greater level of influence. This made sense in the context of 1987, when TV, radio and newspapers were virtually the only news media. As I stated earlier, since Australia’s current media laws were designed and enacted, Australian media and Australian consumers have moved on—and moved on at a rapid pace. While TV, radio and daily newspapers remain highly influential, they are no longer the sole source of news and information. Online news and information has emerged as a powerful influence challenging the traditional dominance of the ‘old media’. A regulatory framework that assumes that radio, television and newspapers are the only sources of information will become hopelessly outdated and ineffective, if it is not already, and ultimately this will be to the detriment of services and consumers alike.

In addition to the benefits that media ownership reform will bring, this package also opens up significant opportunities for new services. There will be two channels of currently unallocated spectrum made available for new in-home and other services, such as mobile television. The national broadcasters will be able to provide a broader range of content on their multichannels. The free-to-air broadcasters will be permitted to provide a high-definition multichannel from next year and an SD multichannel from 2009.

Once we reach switchover and a significant amount of additional spectrum is freed up, even more opportunities for more new services will emerge. Contrary to the naysayers, these bills form 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. It is clear to the government and to industry that the media landscape is changing rapidly, and a flexible system is needed to allow media companies to adapt and prosper in a new digital environment. A far-sighted approach is needed to meet the needs of consumers now and to provide for the benefits of new technology into the future.

The government’s media package will open up opportunities for a range of innovative new services for consumers while maintaining the existing services that the community already rely on and enjoy, including quality free-to-air television services. The proposed reforms will enable existing players to make the most of emerging digital technologies and give them the flexibility to structure their businesses to be globally competitive media companies. But, most importantly, consumers will be the biggest winners, with access to a range of new services, potentially including several new digital channels, and with even more to come in the 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. The government recognises the keen interest of many Australians in continuing to have free access to major sporting events that have traditionally been shown on free-to-air television.

Let me deal briefly with the government’s amendments to the bills. As an additional safeguard against undue media concentration, the government will amend the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 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 only be permitted between two of the three regulated platforms in a licence area—commercial TV, commercial radio and associated newspapers. In other words, this rule will prevent three-way mergers between commercial TV and commercial radio and an associated newspaper in a licence area. This amendment adopts a recommendation of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts 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.

Industry will still benefit from the increased flexibility that relaxation of the cross-media ownership laws will bring. Consumers can be confident that diversity will continue to be protected through the range of safeguards the government is including in the bill. 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 licences, from a specified date, a requirement for at least 4.5 hours of local content each day. This will be similar to the 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 licences and how the 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 were no adjustment, the level specified in the act would remain.

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 to be broadcast on at least five days per week—repeats of news bulletins will not count towards the minimum number; a minimum of five weather bulletins per week; and regional commercial radio licensees who have a local content plan, or LCP, in force will be required to report annually to ACMA on their compliance with the LCP. 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.

The Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts report 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 holders of the channel B licence for access by content service providers. The criteria will be a legislative instrument.

A person wishing to bid for the channel B licence will be required to submit an access undertaking 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 will transfer 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 channel B to offer some exclusive services to its customers if it wishes to do so, and if it fits their business model, and ensuring that other content providers will have the ability to seek access to the services on clear terms.

The government’s reforms have been the subject of lengthy and widespread consultation within government, industry, the community at large and other interested stakeholders. The media landscape is changing rapidly and a flexible system is needed to allow media companies to adapt and prosper in the new digital environment. A far-sighted approach is needed to meet the needs of consumers now and to provide the benefits of new technology into the future. At the heart of the package are new services and programming for consumers. These reforms will enable existing players to make the most of emerging digital media technologies and give them the flexibility to structure their businesses to be globally competitive media companies. The package will allow a better competitive environment and encourage new entrants into the media market, offering diversity and choice to consumers, which is a common thrust of the entire package.

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 Australia. The Trade Practices Act 1974 will continue to apply to media transactions, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will play a critical role in assessing competition issues associated with mergers. Separate from the protection of competition, ACMA will oversee the safeguards to ensure diversity and local content, including ensuring that transactions comply with the ‘minimum number of media groups’ requirements and that broadcasters comply with their 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. This includes ABC services, which include two digital TV channels, up to five radio stations—Radio National, News Radio, Local Radio, Classic FM and Triple J—and comprehensive online services; SBS’s comprehensive television, radio and online services; subscription television; community radio and television; out-of-area and national newspapers; and the myriad services available over the internet. This government is committed to ensuring that all Australians, not just those in metropolitan areas, benefit from these reforms.

In contrast to the government’s clear plan, Labor has no real policies on broadcasting and did nothing while in government to prepare for the introduction of digital. The Labor Party clings to outmoded models for the industry which will ultimately damage the Australian media industry and provide absolutely nothing new or innovative for consumers.

The coalition has led the way in continuing to ensure 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 to participate in the broadcasting sector.

In relation to the antisiphoning list, the Labor Party fails to understand its practicalities or the delicate balance which the government strikes to ensure that 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 on pay television a wide range of Socceroos and A-league domestic matches is a case in point. This deal secured the long-term financial stability of the game in Australia and will mean a significant package of matches will be available to Australian supporters 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.

The opposition maintains an outdated and ‘mogul specific’ approach to media ownership laws which would restrict investment and expansion of the Australian media sector and favour foreign investment over diversified investment by Australian investors. The cross-media rules are almost 20 years old, and while the opposition may be nostalgic for the old Labor days of the princes of print and the queens of the screen they have obviously missed a few technological turns of the wheel.

During the election campaign, Labor said its policies would maximise Australian investment and employment in the media sector. But Labor supports retention of the cross-media ownership laws while relaxing 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 home-grown Australian media companies from competing? Clearly, Labor’s idea of preventing excessive concentration of media ownership in Australia is to allow only foreign companies to contribute to diversity. As usual, I find it hard to make sense of Labor’s policies on this issue.

Labor knows our current laws are anachronistic, and for years, almost decades, has been promising with varying degrees of convincingness to make the hard decisions on media reform. But, when it comes to the crunch, Labor folds. When Labor’s laws on cross-media and foreign ownership were first conceived in the late 1980s, there was no digital TV or broadband cable. There was no understanding of the potential for the internet—only a few techno geniuses actually knew what it was and how to use it.

Labor have chopped and changed over the last few years on their position on media reform. They do not deny it is necessary, but they have no plans for how to achieve it. Torn between the left and right factions—the former, who would fully regulate the media, and the latter, who may set it free—Labor are conflicted, without genuine ideas on media reform. The Labor Party have not been able to hold a consistent line on media and communications reform from Lateline to lunch or from breakfast to brunch, to borrow a recently popularised phrase. (Time expired)