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Thursday, 10 May 2007
Page: 37

Senator WORTLEY (11:47 AM) —I rise to speak on the Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2007 and related amendments to the Radio Licence Fees Amendment Bill 2007 and the Trade Practices Act 1974. This is an opportunity to pass legislation that will benefit millions of Australians and will see the introduction of a sound policy framework that will enable innovative digital radio services to be accessible by all Australians. It is an opportunity to establish a framework that includes provisions for appropriate and efficient technology and licensing arrangements. But there are concerns that this is going to be a missed opportunity. The issues surrounding this legislation are complex and the implementation of the legislation is far-reaching, and we have a duty to get it right.

Labor support the introduction of digital radio and the intent of the digital radio bills, but we stress the importance of the legislation having the best possible legislative framework. As it stands, this bill does not meet this requirement. For this reason we will move an amendment so that we make sure we do get it right. It is what the people of Australia expect—that we make sure that all Australians, wherever they live, get access to improvements in technology, and that includes regional, rural and remote areas of Australia.

The Senate inquiry should have provided that opportunity but, instead, it only highlighted the government’s lack of interest in ensuring legislation is adequately scrutinised. Having received the chair’s revised draft report and the final corrected response from the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts only the day before the committee met, members of the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts had to vote on whether to accept the final report, which had just one recommendation: that the bill be passed. Is it any wonder that Labor senators presented a minority report requesting an extension of time so that the issues raised during the drafting of the bill could be adequately addressed? Interested parties, including stakeholders, had to read, absorb and respond to the 137-page bill and its amendments in just eight days. It is not unreasonable to expect proper scrutiny. It is not unreasonable for interested parties to be provided with sufficient time to consider and draft submissions. It is not unreasonable to expect meaningful consultation.

The Broadcasting Legislation Amendment (Digital Radio) Bill 2007 will amend the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, the Radiocommunications Act 1992 and the Trade Practices Act 1974 to enable the licensing, planning and regulation of digital radio services. The legislated framework before us enables the provision of digital radio services by commercial and wide-coverage community radio broadcasting licensees and national broadcasters using the digital audio broadcasting, DAB, platform. The ABC in its submission to the Senate inquiry raised concerns that the DAB would not adequately service regional and remote Australia and recommended:

... that an additional digital radio standard that is appropriate for wide-area coverage of regional and remote Australia be adopted before the provisions of the Bill come into effect.

The coalition senators acknowledged this in the committee report, which stated:

The committee hopes that the government will take an approach that minimises barriers to the adaptation of digital radio in rural and remote areas.

When we look at the legislative framework before us, it is nowhere to be found. One would expect there to be some scope in the legislation to move to an alternative platform should it prove to be a better option and therefore provide manufacturers of radio receivers with the incentive to produce multiformat devices that can be adapted to receive DAB and DRM.

In today’s paper, we have the government acknowledging that consideration would need to be given to whether other technologies such as DRM were more appropriate in regional and rural areas and saying that the new system would be reviewed by 2011 to allow adjustments to the regulatory framework if necessary. Surely the aim should be to get it right from the beginning, get it right for the service providers and the consumers, and provide industry with long-term certainty in relation to technology development.

Our national broadcasters have raised concerns that the requirement to form a company in order to be eligible to access category 3 licences places additional tax obligations and administrative costs on them. Concerns were also raised about the restrictive definition of digital program enhancement content, with the view that to encourage the take-up of digital radio the definition should be broadened to include animation and video clips, which are already available on mobile phones.

The bill’s objective is to pave the way for digital radio in Australia, but there was minimal time for submissions to be written, minimal time for committee members to consider the content of the submissions, minimal time for the committee to consider the responses to its questions provided by the department and minimal time for committee members to adequately consider the full implications of the adoption of the chair’s revised report, with the recommendation to pass the bill. The inquiry process again appears to have been accelerated when there is no apparent time imperative for passing the digital radio bill. So we again see the Howard government’s disinterest in external scrutiny of legislation and again have significant issues raised, but the opportunity for them to be addressed is lost. The time frame was restrictive in that it did not permit the key issues identified as part of the Senate inquiry to be adequately considered—issues including ACMA being able to issue multiplex licences to only digital representative companies and no provision of guaranteed capacity for community radio broadcasting services on all available multiplexes.

Labor senators request that debate on the bill be deferred so that there can be a full assessment of issues raised in the submissions and that issues raised by Commercial Radio Australia, the ABC, SBS and other stakeholders can be adequately assessed. There are complex issues encompassed in this bill that should be addressed now. We should take up the opportunity to improve radio communications legislation and pave the way for digital radio in Australia.

Digital radio is an exciting development. It should be an exciting development for all Australians. It should ensure that rural, remote and regional areas are adequately serviced. It should be a case of access and entitlement issues being well managed. We should take the time necessary to ensure that industry concerns have been addressed in the best way possible; that consumers, wherever they live—city, metropolitan, rural, remote and regional Australia—have access to this exciting development; that the transition to digital radio is as smooth as possible; and that all Australians have access to gaining the maximum benefit from the introduction of digital radio broadcasting.