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Monday, 25 June 2012
Page: 4311

Senator STEPHENS (New South Wales) (11:31): I rise to support the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Improved Access to Television Services) Bill 2012 and I am very pleased to do so in my role as patron of cap that!, an education campaign that encourages teachers around Australia to turn on captions to benefit all students. In the lead-up to National Literacy and Numeracy Week, the campaign is also raising awareness of captions and how they can help not only hearing impaired students but all students, particularly those with English as a second language, those with learning disabilities, those who are visual learners or those who are struggling to read. This is the second year of the cap that! initiative. Teachers and students became very engaged last year with the website, which contains videos, teaching resources and lesson plans to help teachers bring their multimedia teaching resources and electronic whiteboards to life in their classrooms for the benefit of all their students. I encourage all senators to, in turn, encourage principals and teachers in their electorates and communities to become caption champions and join the cap that! campaign.

Using captions has proven benefits for students. Captions improve literacy, comprehension and inclusion in learning processes. For those who may be unsure about what I am referring to, captions are the text version of audio—including speeches, sounds and music—which can be found on TV, DVDs, online videos and at the cinema and theatres. Around 55 per cent of new-release DVDs are captioned. Media Access Australia's Accessible Education Database and the National Library of Australia provide listings of captioned educational titles. Captioned programs have the closed captions symbol. I encourage senators to turn on captions in their offices and at home and to encourage community organisations, clubs, venues and facilities to turn on captions in their public areas. This is easily done through device menus. I also urge senators and members who regularly add content to their own websites using programs such as YouTube or Vimeo to turn on the captions as a matter of course because it will increase their audience, and it may even make their presentations more comprehensible. More widely, the international campaign Don't Leave Me Out! is promoting the need for captioning in everyday life, and the expectations that captions will be available across the range of media used every day is becoming far more commonplace. Senator Ludlam highlighted in his speech the importance of dealing with captioning and assistive technologies for Indigenous children, in view of the hearing losses we reported on last week; but the benefits of using captions are critically important for every learner.

Access to electronic media more broadly is important to all members of our community. The influential nature of television on our society should not be underestimated; it is an important tool for building national identity. We have only to see the reaction to the recent ABC movie Maboto understand that, and I am quite sure we will see that again during the Olympics and Paralympics in the next few months. Increasing media access levels is consistent with Australia's international obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as well as with the government's social inclusion policy. The United Nations convention sets out the obligations on countries to promote, protect and ensure the rights of people with a disability, and in all areas of life it specifically prohibits discrimination against people with a disability. The convention also sets out obligations in relation to participation in cultural life and specifies that countries take all appropriate measures to ensure persons with disabilities can access cultural materials, such as television programs, in accessible formats. Improving access to television is an important component of the Australian government's response to the United Nations convention.

It is expected that by 2020 hearing loss is likely to affect more than five million Australians. That is an indication that now is the time to act in legislating to provide important services for a growing portion of our population. Senator Birmingham expressed his concern about the lack of consultation, but in fact the bill before us implements the government's response to a number of recommendations from the Media Access review and from investigation into access to electronic media for people with hearing and vision impairment. The review involved significant public consultation, and its final report, titled Investigation into access to electronic media for the hearing and vision-impaired, was tabled in the parliament on 3 December 2010. Since that time, the government has been working with the broadcasting industry to address a series of recommendations and provide for greater access to free-to-air and subscription television for the hearing impaired by, where applicable, increasing existing requirements for captioning on commercial, national and subscription television broadcasters.

Captioning is an important tool for people with a hearing impairment, providing the text version of speech and other sounds during television broadcasts. This bill sets out a way to achieve 100 per cent closed captioning between 6 am and midnight for non-exempt programs for free-to-air broadcasters' main channels. As Senator Ludlam said, if the main channel is captioned, then the requirement is there for subsidiary channels; if the main channel is not captioned, then the requirement is not there for them. It also sets out a path to achieve 100 per cent closed captioning of non-exempt programs for subscription broadcasters. Again, the legislation describes how that will come into play. The suggestion by Senator Birmingham that there are not standards for this is a nonsense. These captioning targets are comparable with international best practice. The US, Canada and the UK require 100 per cent of non-exempt television programs to be captioned. We are seeking to reach this target through gradual, incremental increases.

Importantly, the bill will improve access to televised emergency warnings for people with a hearing or vision impairment. The bill requires that emergency warnings broadcast on television be transmitted in the form of text and speech, and captioned where reasonably practicable. Again, this is also in keeping with international best practice.

What can frustrate most of us in using captions is the issue of caption quality. This too is addressed in the bill. I recently had a very bad experience in Canada with a captioned news service that could not quite cope with English in a French accent. It was incomprehensible captioning. But the Australian Communications and Media Authority will determine standards relating to the quality of captioning in terms of readability, comprehensibility and accuracy and ensuring that captioning is legible—because, for those who rely on captions, there is little value in captions that are of such poor quality that they cannot be understood. There are a number of programs that broadcasters are not currently required to caption for practical reasons, and these exemptions will be maintained. These include television programs that are not in English and music-only programs. This makes the increased targets achievable for broadcasters.

The bill will prescribe the new captioning requirements in the Broadcasting Services Act 1992 under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, which will provide both consumers and broadcasters with a level of regulatory certainty through one set of clear future targets, one overarching regulatory system and a clear and cost-effective compliance and complaints mechanism. The Disability Discrimination Commissioner and the Australian Human Rights Commission are supportive of this approach, as having one regulatory system will remove the current need for the commission to negotiate with broadcasters recurring temporary exemptions under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

The bill reflects recent developments. I am very pleased that, on 1 May this year, an agreement on the targets for increased captioning levels across existing subscription television channels and minimum captioning levels for new channels was finalised by the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association, so the agreement was taken into account when developing the new legislative requirements in the bill.

There are ongoing significant technical developments in the area of access technologies, and government initiatives have the potential to transform the media landscape in Australia. We will see that through the introduction of the National Broadband Network—and, as Senator Ludlam said, the switch to digital television is already making that happen. But we need to be very clear about our obligations as a nation and the extent to which the government and the broadcasting industry can be brought to account. For example, the National Association of the Deaf recently won a significant lawsuit against the online movie provider Netflix, with the District Court of Massachusetts holding that the Americans with Disabilities Act applied to website-only businesses. That is just an example of the changing environment that we are in.

As we move to convergence issues in our media, these matters will be more important in the future. I commend the bill today as a meaningful commitment to improving levels of media access for people with hearing and vision impairment and achieving it in a way that is practical for both broadcasters and content producers.