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Monday, 25 June 2012
Page: 4310

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (11:28): I rise to add a few comments on behalf of the Australian Greens, who will also be supporting the Broadcasting Services (Improved Access to Television Services) Bill 2012. The bill is about equitable access to news, information and entertainment on TV for people with hearing impairments. It updates the Broadcasting Services Act and it implements the equal opportunity and access for people with a disability found in the Disability Discrimination Act.

According to Hearing Loss Australia, one in six Australians suffers from hearing loss. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the figure is about one in eight people who have some form of hearing loss. Ten times more Aboriginal people suffer from ear diseases and hearing loss than non-Aboriginal people. We were reminded just last week about the concrete impacts that hearing loss has for the education of children, when a Western Australian parliamentary committee visited the Kimberley and Pilbara and described the shocking incidence of chronic ear infections in Aboriginal schoolchildren, with the AMA calling for urgent funding for services in Aboriginal communities.

This bill has been in formation and under discussion for at least five years. It is a very long discussion and negotiation period that has brought together people who use, need and provide captioning services with broadcasters. Between 2008 and 2010, the department conducted a review, issued a discussion paper and a final report, with 22 recommendations to improve audio description and captioning levels. To inform those negotiations, research conducted by ACAAN in 2010 revealed that 30 per cent of Australians use closed captions at least some of the time while viewing television. Although I acknowledge the concerns that Senator Birmingham raised about the haste with which this bill is being put through the parliament, it is not as though this bill just dropped out of the sky yesterday. The bill does have quite significant consultation and work behind it.

The bill addresses a real need in our community, ensuring higher quality of closed-captioning services and greater certainty both for the broadcasters and for the viewers who rely on them. The Greens support the bill for these reasons, because it strikes a balance whereby broadcasters can still apply for exemptions to ACMA. Right now, under the Broadcasting Services Act our commercial TV stations and the national broadcasters must provide captioning for TV programs aired between 6 pm and 10.30 pm and for news and current affairs outside those hours. The subscription TV stations indicate where captioning is available in their program guides. This bill will increase the hours from 6 pm till midnight from 1 July 2014 in addition to news and current affairs, except for programs in a language other than English or shows that are wholly music. Programs on the multichannels will not need to be captioned unless they have already been captioned on the primary channel. Under the new bill, subscription TV stations are required to increase by a certain percentage to achieve captioning in nine categories of content; however, the bill does place a cap on the number of programs that require captioning. Again, TV stations are able to apply to ACMA to not caption programs and ACMA will have the discretion to decide on the applications after a degree of public consultation.

This bill is an important piece of legislation. It represents the greatest advances in access since the introduction of digital TV, which brought the first formal caption quotas to free-to-air TV. It is supported by the Australian Human Rights Commission. While the sector obviously hoped for more, such as audio description services for blind people, it is a positive step forward and I commend the bill to the chamber.