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Wednesday, 11 October 2006
Page: 37


Senator BARNETT (12:16 PM) —I am pleased to stand up in support of the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Media Ownership) Bill 2006 and related bills. I do so for a range of reasons. Firstly, I wish to thank those on the Senate committee of inquiry who have spent a good deal of time, in difficult and challenging circumstances, reviewing the legislation. They have prepared a very thoughtful and comprehensive report which is now available on the public record. All of those involved, on all sides of the chamber, have put in a fair and significant effort to prepare such a comprehensive and thoughtful report. It is very pleasing to note also that the recommendations made in the report have been taken into account by the government. At the outset I wish to congratulate the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts and Deputy Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Helen Coonan, on an outstanding performance to date in pulling together all the key arguments and views and on discussing and negotiating with all the relevant members of the Senate, key players in the industry and members of the local community far and wide over many months. It has been a mighty effort on her behalf and she should be congratulated on doing that job for and on behalf of the Australian public.

The Senate committee report has been tabled and the recommendations have been made. The government has now concluded that the legislation will proceed. It is good, forward-thinking legislation. For the last 10 to 20 years in Australia we have been caught up with archaic legislation in need of reform. We should be looking to the future, not the past. We should be preparing a framework in which investment, development and jobs growth can occur into the future, not just in the cities but in rural and regional Australia. New technology—not just the internet but technological innovation in all its forms—is now upon us. Be assured that the rate of change will continue to grow even faster than it has in the last 10 years. We need to prepare a regulatory environment in which the key players in the industry can act upon and implement their decisions free from bureaucratic red tape and the quagmire of government bureaucracy so that the best interests of the public can be served.

In speaking in favour of the bill I will deal with a number of aspects, but before doing so I wish to make a few more introductory remarks. The legislation is consistent with this government’s push for less regulation and more flexible arrangements across the board. Work Choices is a more flexible workplace arrangement in this country which is now delivering more jobs and higher wages to Australian working men and women. The legislation before us on media ownership and media reforms is consistent with the efforts of the Howard government leadership to care for families and to look after the interests of working men and women and their families.

Quite clearly, over the last 20 years Australia has had a set of media control laws and rules that amount to a major restriction on how media markets, companies and businesses operate across the nation. It has been based on a philosophy which can best be described as ‘containment’. The rules have changed, as I have indicated, because we now have the internet, digital radio, digital TV, 3G mobile phones—there was a recent announcement by Telstra in that regard—video iPods and mobile devices with television attached. There have been a whole host of technological changes. Be assured that the rate of change will ever increase. There have been the traditional media platforms—TV, radio and newspapers—but things are changing fast. We need to be ready for the future. Sadly, I believe that the Labor Party take the view that they want to stay in the past, but that is consistent with their views on Work Choices and a range of other government reforms. They oppose just about every single reform that the government puts up which is in the best interests of the Australian people and the working men and women of this country.

Nevertheless, our legislation and this framework for change and reform will protect diversity of ownership. That is now going to be done in a far less restrictive way than it has been done in the past. Twenty years ago the key forms of media were television, radio and newspapers. They were virtually the only news media, the only media where you could access news. But that has changed radically. We are in a new, digital age and we must prepare for that. A framework has been provided under this legislation where we can move into the future. Be assured that, if the legislation is not passed, as a result of that policy paralysis this country will suffer. This is consistent with the opposition parties’ views in this chamber. If we cannot move from the current settings, from the current media ownership and media law arrangements, then this country will be left behind, not only with respect to our Asian neighbours but with respect to the rest of the world. The media landscape has changed. It is still changing, and fast. We need to set the parameters for future investment, development and growth.

I would like to speak to a number of aspects of the legislation. Specifically I commend the government for accepting a number of the recommendations in the Senate report and from the backbenchers who expressed their views to the minister and to the government. The government is willing to listen to and accept the views of its people. It listens to the people out there at the grassroots level. With regard to the importance of content, to ensure that live and local content continues to flourish in rural and regional areas the government will mandate the broadcasting of a minimum of 12.5 minutes of local news on at least five days a week. It will also mandate minimum levels of local content to be broadcast. This will take effect following a review. This change has been made in recognition of concerns expressed about the provision of live, locally produced and locally relevant content. The government will amend the bill accordingly. It will require ACMA, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, to have in place for all regional radio licensees from a specified date a requirement to broadcast at least 4.5 hours of local content each day.

Prior to the requirement coming into effect, ACMA will be directed by the minister, under the powers of the Broadcasting Services Act, to investigate the current levels of local content on regional radio and the impact of the proposed minimum level on licensees and how different types of regional broadcasters will 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. I think that is an excellent amendment. I say that for a number of reasons. I come from the state of Tasmania, where there are a range of commercial radio stations—primarily FM. Just this morning I spoke to and received feedback from Heart FM and from Way-FM, a Christian radio station based in Launceston. Brian Yeoman, the manager of Way-FM, indicated to me that they meet the requirements that are to be set by the government of 4.5 hours of local content each day and a minimum of 12.5 minutes per day of local news to be broadcast on at least five days a week—a further minimum that has been proposed. Not only do they meet them; they exceed them. In terms of the review, that is entirely appropriate. There may be other radio stations in a different position.

I am particularly concerned that some of the smaller regional and rural radio stations that are based in country Australia might find this particular minimum an onerous requirement. My inclination and proclivity is to remove, wherever possible, regulation that might increase costs for these smaller operators, in particular. I have been a long-time supporter of small and micro business, as most are aware, and will continue to be a strong supporter of them well into the future, as they are the jobs generators across the country. The rural and regional radio stations—not only Heart FM, Way-FM and other FM stations in Hobart and Launceston—such as those in Burnie, Devonport and Scottsdale have a very important role to play in terms of keeping close to their local communities. I will be interested in the feedback from those radio stations as a result of this amendment. I sincerely hope the amendment is supported through this chamber because the review process will be important. I will be listening to the proprietors of the radio stations and to those who work in them to find out whether they believe it is an onerous requirement or whether they are entirely satisfied. I congratulate the minister for being willing to listen and for implementing this important variation to the media package and reforms.


Senator Parry —Hear, hear!


Senator BARNETT —I thank Senator Parry. It is an excellent effort on behalf of the minister to do what she has done. I mentioned the importance of local news and weather requirements. Those minimums have been set. That is why I am so pleased about this slight variation to the reforms.

I would like to speak in favour in particular of the two out of three rule that has been effected in this reform package, and in particular congratulate and thank the Treasurer, the Hon Peter Costello, on his view that the two out of three rule should apply to not only rural and regional Australia but also the cities, the major populous areas across the country. Yes, the Senate report and recommendations recommended that the two out of three rule apply to rural and regional Australia, but I support entirely the Treasurer’s view that it should apply across the board. There should be no cherry-picking in this game to just support one particular part of the country. The two out of three rule should apply across the board—there should be consistency—and it should be fair across the country. This is an additional safeguard against undue media concentration.

The government will amend the bill to include the two out of three rule for media mergers in metropolitan and regional areas. What that means is that media mergers will still be permitted, subject to there being four voices in regional areas and five voices in metropolitan areas. It also means that the mergers will only be permitted between two of the three regulated platforms in a licence area. What do I mean by that? For those who may be listening to this broadcast, it means commercial TV, commercial radio and associated newspapers—so two of those three. It will prevent a three-way merger between commercial TV, commercial radio and an associated newspaper in a licence area. In a place like Northern Tasmania, for example, our key newspaper is the Examiner. On the north-west coast it is the Advocate and in southern Tasmania it is the Mercury. You have Southern Cross commercial television and WIN commercial television as well as the ABC free-to-air television stations. I mentioned earlier the importance of protecting the interests of relevant commercial radio stations across Tasmania to ensure their interests are best protected and taken into account.

The industry will still benefit from the flexibility that the relaxation of the cross-media ownership laws will bring. As I said earlier, this is a rule that was brought in 10 to 20 years ago. There have been slight variations to it over that time but basically it has been stuck in the past, and we do not want that to continue in any way, shape or form. I think overall, with respect to the two out of three rule, it is a very sensible approach. I would like to congratulate and thank Mr Howard and the government on going down that track. As I have indicated, the Treasurer has taken a keen interest in this particular area. His views are fully supported by me and, I know, many others in the Senate. In terms of the overall need for reform, that is quite clear. We have a package now where we are protecting the diversity of ownership, and that is being done in a less restrictive way than over the last 20-odd years. We are really moving out of the Dark Ages. We can now look to the future and be prepared for just about anything. The rate of change, as I have indicated, is faster than ever before.

An area of interest that I have is the internet and internet filtering. This is an area that is not touched on directly by the media reforms, but the importance of technological changes means that we also need to stand at the ready to protect the best interests of children—to protect the boys and girls across Australia, and the future children of Australia, from inappropriate and offensive material on the internet. I notice that in the gallery today there are children. Yes, we have privilege in this place and we can say what we wish—but we need to use words that are appropriate for the ears of those children and indeed those who are listening. So filtering is important.

In terms of the government’s objectives there, a $116 million package has just recently been announced by the government—and congratulations again to Senator Helen Coonan, who announced that with the Hon. Chris Ellison and me just a few months ago. By January next year every Australian family will have access to a filter for their home computer to ensure that offensive and inappropriate material is kept out of the family home. That is very important for families and the future of Australian children. In conclusion, it is a mighty job, on behalf of the government, that Senator Helen Coonan has undertaken and, together with the Senate committee, she should be congratulated. I urge all members of the Senate to support this legislation and hope that they will do so.