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Thursday, 10 May 2007
Page: 34

Senator CONROY (11:33 AM) —Before I speak to the substance of the debate, I mention that Senator Ian Macdonald made some unfortunate comments when he stood to speak yesterday. Clearly, he had not been properly briefed. We understand that, once you have been moved from the front bench to the back bench, you are in a situation where you are not kept fully in the loop. The government assured the opposition that the bill would not be debated before 6.50 pm last night, and other arrangements were put in place. It is unfortunate that the government did not keep you informed of that, Senator Macdonald, but I accept your apology for your injudicious comments. I know you are particularly angry that former Senator Vanstone has taken the plum role you were hoping for in Italy. But you just hang in there. I am sure they will find somewhere for you soon—perhaps Iraq.

I rose to speak to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2007, which brings with it amendments to the Trade Practices Act 1974, and to the Radio Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2007. Radio broadcasting is a media platform of pivotal importance. Radio is broadcast into nearly every home, car and office across Australia. It can quickly relay news and current affairs, as well as entertainment, to a diverse range of people across the nation. The digital radio bills are of great importance as they have the potential to affect all Australians. The benefits of digital radio to both broadcasters and listeners are enormous. As with digital television, digital radio frees up spectrum, which allows more stations to be broadcast than can be broadcast under the analog regime. The opportunity to broadcast more radio enables broadcasters to develop new and specialist stations dedicated to genres such as sports, gardening, jazz music or children’s programs.

Digital radio brings with it improved sound. No longer will listeners in digital coverage areas have to suffer poor reception or distorted sound. Reception will be free from interference. Digital radio also brings with it ease of tuning. No longer will listeners have to waste time tuning and retuning their radios. With digital radio, there are no frequencies. Instead, listeners instantly tune their radios with the touch of a button.

Digital radio allows broadcasters to provide information to their listeners by way of text and picture images, for example by displaying on the digital radio screen a daily or weekly program guide, the name of the song and its lyrics, news and traffic updates or weather maps. Some digital radios also allow listeners to pause, rewind and even record live radio or programs in the future. This allows listeners to fit radio into their lifestyles, not their lifestyles into the parameters of their favourite radio broadcasts. Given the vast array of opportunities for broadcasters and the benefits for listeners assured by the introduction of digital radio in Australia, Labor supports the intent of the digital radio bills.

However, given the importance of radio to listeners across Australia, Labor considers that digital radio should only be introduced after careful consideration of the digital radio bills and informed debate as to their effect. Here Labor diverges from the government. Both Labor and the government support the introduction of digital radio in Australia. However the government, while acknowledging that this legislation needs some finetuning, believes that it should be passed. Labor does not consider that near enough is good enough and, while we support the bill, we do not believe that it should be passed without amendment.

Labor is concerned about the substance of the government’s Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill and also about the way the Howard government pushed this bill through parliament. Firstly I would like to speak to the deficiency in the substance of the bill. The bill only specifies the use of digital audio broadcasting, known as DAB and also known as Eureka 147, as the technology platform for digital radio in Australia. This provision appears at odds with the government’s own regulation impact statement in the explanatory memorandum. The explanatory memorandum notes that DAB is unlikely to be a suitable platform to address the extended coverage requirements of some regional and remote services in Australia.

Further, technical trials of digital radio technologies, including Digital Radio Mondiale, or DRM, need to be undertaken to determine which technologies or combination of technologies will best serve people living in regional and remote Australia. If this is the case, why does the bill specify only the use of DAB? Why is the government willing to pass this bill without having undertaken the requisite technical trials? Labor considers that this bill should ensure that the appropriate technologies are in place to enable the rollout of digital coverage to all Australians, including those in remote, rural and regional areas.

Additionally, Labor recognises that the choices to be made today in relation to digital technology will affect the manufacturing sector also. Manufacturers require certainty so they can develop and provide the appropriate technologies to harness digital radio and make them accessible to all Australians.

If it is later decided by the government that an alternate standard, such as DRM, is required so that digital radio will reach regional and remote areas, it will only then be necessary for manufacturers to begin producing multiformat devices with the ability to receive both DAB and DRM signals. Unless a second digital radio standard for regional areas is considered now, manufacturers will have no incentive to produce multiformat devices and the next generation of digital radios will not be DRM compatible. Clearly this is an issue of fundamental importance to Australians living in remote, rural and regional areas, and is pertinent to digital radio manufacturers. Labor considers that it is an issue that should be addressed prior to the passing of the bill.

Secondly, I would like to speak to the way in which the government disregarded the Senate’s role as a house of review and conducted an inadequate and flawed inquiry into the bill. The government referred the bill to the ECITA committee for inquiry on 29 March 2007, with a reporting deadline of 30 April 2007. The committee called for submissions on 4 April, requesting them by 12 April 2007. The objective of the bill is to pave the way for digital radio in Australia. However, the government’s short time frame for submissions saw that parties interested in the future of the Australian radio communications were forced to consider this important legislation in a very short time frame. This has clearly been inadequate. Secondly, the government did allow sufficient time for the submissions to be adequately reviewed and/or considered by the inquiry. Late submissions were accepted by the government and information was provided to the committee just one day prior to the final meeting of the committee. This expedited review process is clearly insufficient. Why is the government so determined to accelerate this bill through the important process of Senate review? Why was the inquiry such a sham? We did not even hold a public hearing. There are some serious and important matters raised in submissions from the public, and yet we could not be bothered, because this government is hell-bent on ramming it through the chamber, to hold a public hearing into some of these important issues.

Labor considers digital radio to be an important technological advancement and one that Australia should adopt. Yet, like all new technologies, it should only be introduced after informed debate and after careful consideration. The government did not allow any such debate or consideration. The majority report, released on 7 May 2007, acknowledges that fact. Furthermore, the report recommends that notwithstanding that there ‘may be some finetuning needed’—a government Senator’s own words—the bills should be passed. It would appear, then, from its own report, that the government takes the attitude that near enough is good enough.

The government is aware this bill is not quite right—that it requires some ‘finetuning’—but says that it will do and should be passed anyway. If this does not smack of political expediency, what does? The way the inquiry was handled demonstrates the government’s belief that the Senate should not do anything more than rubber-stamp its proposed legislation—a fine example, in this one small bill that has profound consequences, of democracy at work under John Howard!

Labor does support this bill, but it does not in any way support the manner in which the government has made a mockery of the legislative process in getting it across the line. It is on this basis that Labor intends to move a second reading amendment to the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill. Labor’s amendment intends to make sure that all Australians are in a position to access digital radio, including those in regional, rural and remote areas, and that there is meaningful consultation to determine how we can achieve such access. The introduction of digital radio in Australia is exciting for all Australians. Digital radio offers a raft of innovations that will change the way we listen and use the radio to receive news, current affairs and music. However, it is important that we get the introduction of digital radio right and that no-one is left without access to this new technology and the benefits it can, and will, deliver.